In the past decade, the landscape of commercial fitness has changed drastically. It has become less dependent on stationary exercise machinery, and instead emphasizes free weights. CrossFit gyms and obstacle course races (OCR) such as Tough Mudder and Spartan Race have become mainstream fitness options. Both CrossFit and OCR have a paramilitary ethos and randomized training. On any given day, a CrossFit workout may demand that you run in a weighted vest or perform Olympic lifts for time. An OCR can require running through tear gas or receiving electric shocks.
With these more challenging fitness practices coming into the mainstream, reports of resulting injuries have come to the fore. Paradoxically, or perhaps not, many of these fitness practices are packaged as ways to heal the body and mind, particularly for injured and traumatized veterans. The narratives of adaptive athletes have become vital for the promotion of these fitness practices. The narratives are packaged as “inspirational stories,” but more often compress the story into that of the “supercrip.” The supercrip, as defined by disability studies, is a disabled person who is lauded for overcoming their disability. This construct is meant to combat the stereotype of disabled people as being doomed to inactivity and having no agency. But as Amanda K. Booher observes, the supercrip narrative forces the disabled body to conform to “normalcy” in order to become acceptable:
While athleticism is inherently a performance of inspiration, disability adds an extra complication to the discourse. In the world of increasingly dangerous fitness, adaptive athletes are often presented as examples to force the able-bodied consumer to conform without question. For example, Spartan Race categorizes a fear of injury as the number one “excuse” for non-participation, and then goes on to name many adaptive athletes who compete in their races. By deftly eliding the reasonable fear of injury with the outstanding achievement of disabled athletes, Spartan also depreciates the value of these adaptive athletes’ efforts. The notion that “if they can complete these courses, so can you” reduces these athletes to their disability. Factoring more complex aspects of personality and circumstances would, potentially, leave room for “excuses.”
To further explore the most recent incarnation of the supercrip, we’ll look at three different vignettes of adaptive athletes negotiating their disability narrative in their respective sports and how the pressure to conform to an “inspirational” narrative can compromise their stories.
In November 2014, Noah Galloway was voted “Ultimate Men’s Health Guy.” Galloway, an Iraq War veteran, is a double amputee who lost his left leg below the knee and left arm below the elbow to an IED explosion. As part of his emotional and physical recovery, Galloway participates in Tough Mudder races. He has completed about fourteen of them, and has subsequently been featured on MTV’s True Life, Ellen, and Dancing with the Stars. He is also a motivational speaker.
At his current level of fitness Galloway resembles a living classical statue; he is missing two limbs and has defined musculature. He is aware of his cachet as a conventionally attractive veteran and father of three children. He often runs Tough Mudder with high-tech prosthetics and a kilt, his body and disability in full view. During the Tough Mudder he ran while filming True Life, other participants would remark on how “inspiring” it was to see him in the race.
While he is canny, he is also an ambivalent figure. In his memoir, Living with No Excuses: The Remarkable Rebirth of an American Hero, he describes capitalizing off of his disability as part of his recovery: “I even started working out at an even bigger gym because it was almost like an ego stroke to have more people see what I could do instead of having them just stare at the two limbs missing from my body. My motivation directly stemmed from, and is still directly connected to, my ability to motivate others with my actions.”2 But in the episode of True Life, he remarks, “I don’t want be an injured veteran that does races. I want people to know me as an athlete that does the Tough Mudders.”
In his memoir, Galloway describes battling with depression while he was giving motivational speeches: “When I started doing these talks I was still battling depression myself. I wasn’t quite practicing what I was preaching yet, but you know what they say: fake it till you make it.”3 In this instance he conforms to what Booher describes and goes out of his way to conceal his need for any accommodations in order to be included. While Galloway has been refreshingly open about his ongoing struggles, he still must brand himself with the flattening motto of “No Excuses.”
Amelia Sullivan and Amanda Boone
The second snapshot comes from Spartan Race. Two racers, Amelia Boone and Amanda Sullivan are working together on a course in Palmerton, CA on crutches. Boone is an elite racer who is recovering from a fractured femur. Sullivan, a former aid worker, is an elite adaptive racer suffering from chronic spinal disabilities and traumatic brain injury from two successive car accidents. While Boone’s injury is temporary, Sullivan will be disabled for the long term.
Amanda Sullivan & Amelia Boone teamed up to show true grit at Palmerton. #SpartanRacec pic.twitter.com/psE9pYEJcM
— Spartan Race (@SpartanRace) July 19, 2016
In NBC’s narrative of their segment of the race, it becomes clear that they have made Sullivan’s storyline a “Ghost of Christmas Future” tale for Boone in order to make Boone grateful for what she has. When discussing the race, Sullivan says, “I’m sure it will be a humbling experience for her.” Boone later exclaims in an interview how working with an adaptive athlete has made her appreciate her abilities and stop being depressed about her injury: “God, Amelia, think of how lucky you are.”
But for Sullivan, much of her motivation for participating is expressed as being an inspiration for other people rather than herself. She claims that she runs the race for “those who can’t,” including her mother who is undergoing treatment for cancer. In an earlier Spartan race, Sullivan and her fellow adaptive athletes participated in a feature called “The Tractor Pull.” This obstacle entails dragging a heavy stone attached to a chain for a quarter mile. While many of the competitors were having trouble with dragging a single stone, Sullivan and her team proudly dragged two stones at once. “I figure, like, I’m in pain anyways, all the time,” Sullivan said. “So I might as well do something epic with it.”
Obviously, one can imagine that outpacing able-bodied competitors must be satisfying on some level for Sullivan and her team. But as NBC framed the story, it was clearly meant to be a performance of “inspiration” rather than of radical disabled superiority. In the context of these Spartan Race tapings, Sullivan is presented only as an inspirational figure to those who can’t run, or should be more grateful that they can, rather than as an athlete in her own right. But she is much more. As an aid worker for over a decade, Sullivan had worked with orphans and lepers around the world. After the accident, she could no longer continue. If Sullivan is eventually able to have a platform on the scale of Galloway’s, perhaps a more complicated emotional landscape with regards to her disability and the races would emerge.
Where Galloway’s and Boone’s narratives describe healing with twenty-first-century fitness, Kevin Ogar was disabled by it. During a 2014 CrossFit competition, Ogar’s spine was severed by an accident involving a barbell. He lost the use of his legs. The accident was livestreamed and went viral. At the time, CrossFit’s safety was already being questioned, but Ogar’s accident drew even more unwelcome attention. It is also worth noting that at the time of his accident, Kevin Ogar did not have health insurance. The CrossFit community immediately rallied to Ogar’s aid and raised over $400,000 on Fundly, a crowdfunding platform.
Had a little surprise for @zionna and the @barbellsforboobs crew that's done so much for me through this journey. Before every freaks out I'm using KFO braces, I'm still paralyzed, but able to get up and walk around a bit. #forgotwhattallfeelslike @cfunbroken @musclepharm @natebehavior #Repost from @barbellsforboobs with @repostapp — What an amazing surprise! @kevinogar WALKED up to greet this crowd during the Rhinos & Unicorns event this morning at @musclepharm #gingerup
Though Ogar remains active in CrossFit and on social media, he is not nearly as visible in the news media as Galloway. Perhaps due to the circumstances of his injury, Ogar seems the most resistant to the supercrip narrative. Like Sullivan and Galloway, he attracts the label of “inspiration.” Unlike them, he appears more reluctant to label himself as such. For example, in 2014 the blog Burpeezoid had a post with the headline, “Kevin Ogar Walking Again is the Most Inspiring Thing Ever.” It showed a picture of him standing in a walker at a Barbells for Boobs fundraiser. But as Ogar drily commented in an Instagram post: “Before every freaks out I’m using KFO braces, I’m still paralyzed, but able to get up and walk around a bit. #forgotwhattallfeelslike”
The tension between the response to Ogar’s upright appearance and his words is telling. While he is walking in a new way with exoskeleton braces, he certainly is not “walking again.” With the help of prosthetics, he is able to create a picture of normalcy. Yet the public, in thrall to the supercrip narrative, wants to take this illusion as a change of status from disabled to “restored.”
In this current fitness moment of high-intensity workouts flooding the mainstream, it is important to interrogate how narratives of adaptive athletes are used. These athletes are, cannily and rightfully, providing a positive narrative which helps them to make a living. But sticking to this story can erase other factors at play.
As for the general able-bodied public, stories such as these could be dispatched to stifle necessary criticism of these fitness practices. Rather than mining disabled athletes for inspiration, one must take into account the external forces that drive these stories. As one can see from the Spartan Race blog, the stakeholders in twenty-first-century fitness have a vested interest in presenting valid concerns as mere excuses. As more participants become unnecessarily injured through these sports, they may be forced into the narrative contortions and social demands that perversely play into the hands of the supercrip narrative.
- Amanda Booher, “Docile Bodies, Supercrips, and the Plays of Prosthetics,” International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics 3, no. 2 (2010): 72, doi:10.2979/fab.2010.3.2.63. Return to text.
- Noah Galloway, Living with No Excuses: The Remarkable Rebirth of an American Soldier (United States: Center Street, 2016), 162-163. Return to text.
- Ibid, 204. Return to text.