While her classmates are asleep at 6 a.m., she’s at her gym, tossing around chalk-covered barbells and wiping sweat from her brow. While classmates drink water, juice or soda, she mixes her chocolate whey protein shakes every morning from her usual spot at the front of the class. While some teenage girls her age worry about skinny jeans and looking thin, Nelson concerns herself with improving her squat and deadlift.
She is proud of her powerful physique and all she has poured into building it.
“I’ve just accepted society’s norms and break them when they come across me,” she said.
Nelson’s lifting makes her unique at her school, one of the biggest in the state. She views it as not just a way to prepare for crew, a sport dependent on cardiovascular endurance and leg and arm strength. It’s also preparing her for the Naval Academy, where she was recruited to row, and a career in the military. While society generally rewards men, not women, for appearing muscular, Nelson embraces looking strong.
“I don’t care about being big because I can do things that most people can’t,” she said. “It’s kind of empowering.”
Nelson is a disciple of a growing licensed fitness routine established in the 1980s called CrossFit. It combines elements of gymnastics, cardiovascular exercises and weight lifting, and features anything from climbing rope, running to flipping tires. A recent workout involved doing as many sets of seven pull-ups and seven 65-pound shoulder presses as possible for 14 minutes without a break. The basic tenet of CrossFit is intensity and little rest, and doing as many repetitions as you can in as little time as possible.
Searching for an exercise to help improve her rowing and ease back spasms that had developed from it, Nelson stumbled into CrossFit the summer before her junior year. Her rowing team did very little weight lifting and a family friend suggested the routine. The first day she tried it, she could manage only half of the jump rope and situps required.
By the third day of CrossFit, Nelson lifted 112 pounds over her head in a split jerk routine, where the barbell is thrust from the shoulders into the air while putting one leg forward. It was scary, because she had never put so much weight over her head, but an addicting feeling. She wanted to get better.
“She’s always amazed me just how she pushed the boundaries,” said Sara Blaschke, her mother. “And even more so now how she has taken to this. It wasn’t at all what I expected. She has always done the unexpected to me.”