Coaching Irene: From the depths of morbid obesity to competition-hungry CrossFit athlete

Irene Mejia hard at work on the main floor at CrossFit Elysium. In addition to being a huge health-and-fitness success story, Irene has also visited (and trained at) more than 50 different CrossFit affiliates.

Whenever someone is asking me questions about the nature of value of CrossFit, sometimes the questioner starts biting his or her nails and offers that it just sounds like they’re not in-shape enough to start the program. Perhaps they’ve seen a video like Nasty Girls and it just seems to out of reach. I usually respond by telling them about Irene Mejia–who I’ve declared as the most inspiring CrossFitter I know.

Irene started CrossFit at the weight of 415 pounds. She has told me in interviews that she had “tried everything,” including a Weightwatchers-type program, all to little avail. I first met Irene in the month of July 2011—my first weeks as a member of CrossFit Elysium. Elysium co-owner Paul Estrada was coaching almost every workout at the gym in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego–often from 6:00am to 8:00pm or later. One of the first things that impressed me about Estrada was the depth and detail of analysis and memory for each member of the gym. At the beginning of a WOD he would typically advise each athlete on the weight he or she should be using–something recalling workouts from a month or two ago—accurately–or personal records. It was astonishing.

Estrada and Mejia worked closely for two years as she gradually worked through the program and not only achieved primary goals like losing the first 100 pounds, but Mejia grew into a leader within the CrossFit Elysium community. It speaks to the true charter of what CrossFit is meant to be about: That yes, each WOD is a competition of sorts, but the most important thing is not where you finish but who puts out the best effort. This was precisely how Greg Amundson described the early days of the first CrossFit gym–in Santa Cruz, Calif., with CrossFit’s founding coach, Greg Glassman. This was one of the most appealing things I saw in Elysium.

Coach Paul Estrada giving Irene a hug after a competition workout held at CrossFit Elysium in late 2011.

I recently asked Coach Estrada a few questions about what it’s been like to coach Irene.

When you first met Irene, how did you approach the situation? As I understand it she was at 415 pounds. I assume that scaling things was a challenge considering her mobility issues.

Paul Estrada: When I first met Irene the scaling for me wasn’t all that much of an issue. I had been lucky enough to help a few other people in my training history that were very overweight, dealing with similar issues as Irene. So I had a few ideas for modifications of the different moves that we use. The range of motion for her squat was limited do to her lack of leg strength and high body weight. So I had her using a jump box with foam pads as a target to sit on and stand up from. At first it may have seemed silly to her to be sitting down and standing on something but I explained that with time we would make the box lower and lower until she could do full squats with her own strength. Even with weight squats I had her use external weights and just tapping the high box for a target.

For her upper body strength I had her use rings that were hung from the ceiling to help her do push ups and pull ups. This way she could control the tension and difficulty. When she first started she couldn’t get onto or off the floor by herself so I had her do sit ups and other floor moves from a bench. As time passed, her weight dropped and strength went up and the modifications changed and her ability to do more moves has drastically increased. She can do burpees now; she does everything on the floor like everyone else. She runs instead of subbing rowing. She can jump rope like everyone else. As well of a host of other movements that she couldn’t do even a year ago.

Irene competing in the final WOD at the Elysium “Rumble In Paradise” competition held in San Diego last November with CrossFit 858 and CrossFit Mission Gorge. Local competitions like the Rumble typically offer categories for both the beginner and more advanced CrossFitter.

I know your policy is to not push diet at first with a new CrossFit member, but I’m wondering if you made an exception in Irene’s case.

My approach with Irene with diet was only slightly more aggressive than most. She already had a plan that she had been using to lose 45 pounds before I got my hands on her. So with introducing so much more exercise I didn’t want to mess with something that was already working okay. I worked with her to start getting more fat and protein and less grains and sugary things out of her daily meal plan. As Irene would hit plateaus with her weight loss, she would come to me and we would do food journals were I looked at a few average days and tried to pin point what we could change to improve the weight loss.

Did you work with her to establish the sort of goals she chased? Did you have to counsel patience?

Goals were never something I really had to work with her on per se. She has been great about having a goal in mind and working towards it. In terms of teaching patience—that probably happened a few times when she hit plateaus for a few weeks and I would have to let her know that sometimes the body gets stubborn and you have to just sit back and re-think your plan of attack and reformat what you are doing. Typically after altering her diet and exercise schedule a little we have been able to get past those halting points.

I recall you telling me that she had some periods where she lost focus and gained back some weight….do you keep check on her progress through weigh-ins and such?

Back slides: In the 2 years of working with Irene, there has only been one real period of this happening. I think it was last summer? I think she had just achieved the goal of losing more than 100 pounds and I think hitting that goal made her relax on her diet. I mean losing 100 pounds is no small feat—it can be easy to think you have done enough at that point. However, Irene still had another 150 to 200 pounds to go.

I can’t remember if anyone said anything to her or if I did… I do remember saying to her at some point, “What happened to my weekly weigh in picture on monday mornings?” This was something that she had been doing for a while: Every monday morning she would send me a photo of the reading on the scale at work she would weigh in on. I think the reply was something like, ‘I haven’t been doing very good with my eating and I think my weight is actually up a bit.’ I am sure my response was some thing along the lines of, “Well, let’s fix that.” The thing about Irene that I love the most is that she doesn’t need someone to hold her hand and drag her along to finish a goal. She needs someone behind her to tell her to keep moving.

From left-to-right, Elysium co-owner/coach, Dr. Leon Chang, coach Stacie Beal, Irene Mejia and co-owner/coach Paul Estrada.

How rewarding has it been to see Irene accomplish what she’s accomplished…what have you learned in coaching her?

When I first started training people eight years ago my guiding philosophy was, “I just want to help everyday people who want to help themselves get better.” I didn’t want to be some athletic coach that trains athletes; I didn’t want to work with celebrities; I didn’t want to train the next Mr. Olympia. I just want to help a father or a mother live longer and better so they can enjoy their life to the fullest. Irene is probably tied for my all-time favorite “success stories”—tied only with my mom. I helped my mom lose around 70 pounds when I first started training people.

Watching the transformation that Irene has undergone has been nothing short of amazing. I am continually floored by the progress she has made in here. When she first started she couldn’t even get off the floor by herself. If she fell in her apartment she had to get her roommate to help her up. Now she can do burpees with out even thinking about it. And hearing about how many meds she has stopped taking since being here. There were a few moments recently were she grabbed a jump rope and started skipping rope like it was no big thing as well. Recently she started running out of the door for a WOD and my jaw literally dropped. She actually runs now. It isn’t some slow shuffle power-walk movement. It is actually running.

Or watching her rep out an RX’d “Grace”? [“Grace” is a workout where you perform 30 clean and jerks for time]. Her first workout ever was Grace with 43 pounds. She now has a faster time with 95 pounds! As well she swings the 54-pound kettlebell in met-cons now, she can probably out swing most men that drop in for our sunday class. Yesterday we filmed a snatch balance WOD demo video for mainsite and I had Irene there for it. She got up to 90 pounds and set a PR! With pretty awesome technique if I do say so myself.

I would be willing to say that working with Irene is probably one of the most rewarding experiences I will ever have in my coaching career. Irene can tell you herself that I give her a pretty hard time in the classes. Which I definitely do. I give her a harder time than most and push her pretty hard. I do this because I know she can take it and because I know how much she has accomplished but at the same time I remember how far she has to go.

In Inside the Box, veteran journalist and marathoner T.J. Murphy goes all in to expose the gritty, high-intensity sport of CrossFit®. From staggering newcomer to evangelist, Murphy finds out how it feels, why it’s so popular, and whether CrossFit can fix his broken body.