Marine Corps veteran aims for a strong finish in CrossFit’s first adaptive games
(Tribune News Service) — Twenty years ago, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, Sarah Rudder's dream of a long career in the Marine Corps was crushed.
The Oceanside, Calif., veteran suffered a career-ending ankle injury while recovering bodies from the ruins of the Washington, D.C., building in September 2001, and she was forced to medically retire. Then in 2013, she discovered the fitness regimen of CrossFit and regained the sense of purpose, commitment and community she felt when she'd been an active-duty Marine.
In 2016 and 2017, she won 12 gold medals for Team USA at the global Invictus Games for wounded service members. And beginning Tuesday she'll compete in the first-ever adaptive division at the 2021 CrossFit Games in Madison, Wis.
Rudder, 38, tied for second in the CrossFit open adaptive trials this past spring, which qualified her for this week's NOBULL CrossFit Games 2021, which will include more than 600 able-bodied and adaptive athletes from around the world, Tuesday through Sunday.
Rudder isn't sure how well she'll do against the four other women in her division. Instead, she's excited about doing her personal best and enjoying the camaraderie she'll share with her competitors during her division's three-day contest, which concludes on Thursday.
"I never expect anything. I just push myself as hard as I can and hope for the best outcome," she said. "If I win, that's amazing, but I'll push every single woman that's out there to do the same."
Rudder moved to Oceanside two years ago with her husband, Navy veteran Marcus Rudder, and their 13-year-old son, Xavier. She's permanently disabled, but volunteers as an online coach for the Catch a Lift Fund, a nonprofit that provides fitness grants, equipment and nutrition to combat-wounded veterans. Many years ago, Catch a Lift gave Rudder her first barbell, which started her back on the path to fitness, after more than a decade of chronic pain, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder issues and substance abuse.
Rudder grew up in Orange County. At the age of 12 she moved with her mom and English stepdad to England, where she finished high school and played professional-level soccer. At 16, she moved back to the U.S. with one goal in mind: joining the military.
"I knew since I was 12 years old I wanted to be a Marine," she said. "At 12, I went to an air show and I saw the silent drill platoon. They had me in awe. I decided right there that's what I would do and my mind never changed."
In 2000, at age 17, she headed to boot camp, and on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, she was working at Marine Corps headquarters at Henderson Hall in Arlington, Va., when the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 plane crashed into the Pentagon about a mile away. With her fellow Marines, she ran to the Pentagon and spent the day helping survivors escape the burning building. The next day, she was on a team recovering the dead when she stepped backward into a hole and a chunk of concrete fell into the hole on top of her left leg, crushing her ankle and ending her service career.
"It was really hard times after I got out of the Marines," she said. "It was something I'd planned for my entire life and when I was told I couldn't do it anymore, I felt like I didn't have a purpose."
Over the next 10 years, Rudder said she struggled in all ways. Moving from state to state as her husband changed duty stations with the Navy, she battled chronic regional pain syndrome in her leg, as well as a previously undiagnosed traumatic brain injury from a car accident just 10 days before the 9/11 attacks. To cope, she drank too much, became dependent on pain medication and bounced from one job to another.
Finally, she got sober and went to counseling. She also decided in 2014 to have her leg amputated below the knee so she could trade in her cane and crutches for a prosthetic. Suddenly pain-free and more mobile, she got serious about CrossFit. She said CrossFit incorporates so many body movements that there's plenty she can do, even with one leg.
In 2015, she tried out for the Warrior Games, an annual competition put on by the Department of Defense for wounded active-duty service members and veterans. She did so well at the Warrior Games that when she returned in 2016, she qualified to compete for Team USA at that year's Invictus Games, a global competition for wounded service members that was started in 2014 by Britain's Prince Harry.
During her two years competing for Team USA at Invictus, Rudder won a dozen gold medals in the sports of 100- and 200-meter run, 1-minute sprint row, shotput, discus, swimming, seated volleyball and power lifting. But Rudder was not invited back for the 2018 games. She believes her political views got in the way after she declined to pose for a photo with President Trump at the 2017 Invictus Games.
Although Rudder was familiar with the CrossFit Games, she never tried out in the past because she wouldn't have been competitive against able-bodied athletes. But this year, for the first time, she and other adaptive athletes have a chance to see how they stack up among competitors like themselves.
Justin Bergh, CrossFit vice president of of sport and partnerships, said the company is excited to welcome adaptive athletes for the first time this year.
"These athletes who qualified to compete at the finals are absolute gladiators, and we're proud to give them a stage to compete at the highest level of our sport," Bergh said.
There are 30 adaptive athletes in the games this year across three divisions (upper extremity, lower extremity and neuromuscular). Adaptive athletes across the globe regularly participate in CrossFit. The athletes in the adaptive divisions in the games are from USA, Spain, Ecuador, France, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Brazil, Norway, Chile, Uruguay and South Africa.
CrossFit started the season with 8 adaptive men's and women's adaptive divisions. Based on levels of participation they were able to bring the athletes from the three divisions with the highest numbers of participation to the Games. They plan to increase the number of divisions as participation continues to grow.
At the CrossFit Games, the athletes don't know in advance what skills they'll be asked to perform. Winners will be based on points earned during two to three workouts a day over three days.
Rudder said competing in the Warrior, Invictus and now the CrossFit games has been a great healer, not just for her body but her mind and her PTSD.
"When I'm in a run or a lift, I am only focusing on that one movement and not on the people around me or the noises and other thoughts going through my head," she said. "Focusing on that movement was the first time I realized that it's my purpose to push myself to remain healthy and be in a fit environment. It gets all my negative thoughts out."
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