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Alumni Spotlight: Biology ‘nerd’ makes CrossFit Games fnals
by Chuck Gordon

Stephanie Simmons ’13 is used to pushing her body to the limit – just to the edge of the “red line” she never wants to cross. But at the 2021 NoBull CrossFit Games, the pinnacle of the sport of CrossFit, she found herself repeatedly getting a little too close to the danger zone.

The CrossFit Games is four days of competitive muscle and endurance challenges that test some of the fittest athletes on the planet. Competitors do “muscle-ups” and pull-ups, run and swim, and push or pull the nearly-700-pound “Big Bob” sled across a football field.

In an elimination competition leading up to the Games, Simmons endured the ominously named “chaos workout,” in which she had to do a series of maneuvers – pull-ups, box jumps, etc. – without knowing ahead of time how many she needed to complete. She simply had to keep going until the judge yelled, “Good!” In one event at the Games themselves, she and her teammates had to run a total of a mile and a half, finishing it off with a handstand walk the length of a football field. Three minutes later, they were seeing how much weight they could do in three reps of back squats.

“CrossFit’s motto has always been ‘train for the unexpected,’” she says. “It definitely keeps you on your toes.”

Stephanie Simmons walking on her hands

Whether on their hands or on their toes, Team CrossFit Reignited Wilmington stood out in a field inherently stocked with overachievers. After sneaking into the 2021 finals by the skin of their teeth (they got in after another semifinalist was DQ’d), they made the most of their trip to Madison, Wisconsin, finishing a more-than-respectable 18th out of 40 teams from around the world. Just getting to the finals meant they were among the top 0.1 percent of athletes who started the competition earlier in the year. But as the Games week wore on and the field was gradually whittled down, Simmons and her team kept surviving.

“We were ranked last going into the Games,” she says. “Our goal was just to make it to Saturday, and we got all the way to Sunday. So that was cool.”

Simmons refers to the pain-inducing lifts, gymnastics maneuvers and cardio events that constitute CrossFit with a “been there, done that” nonchalance. But make no mistake: Getting to the CrossFit Games is a major achievement. Especially for someone with asthma.

Because they were held in late summer, the No Bull CrossFit Games didn’t present as big a problem for Simmons from a breathing standpoint as competitions in the spring and fall do. But Matt Grange, Reignited’s coach and now Stephanie’s husband, kept an inhaler on him anyway – for emergency use only.

“Inhalers are actually banned substances,” Simmons says. “Every year I have to fill out a Therapeutic-Use Exemption form and get approved to use that. I’m thinking, ‘Don’t use that inhaler unless you absolutely have to.’”

Her asthma used to be a bigger problem, back when she was just getting into CrossFit. As a biology major and softball player at Wingate, Simmons was introduced to the sport by biology professor Dr. Erika Niland, with whom she was working on a Summer Research Grant project. She quickly got hooked, and after graduation Simmons started going to CrossFit regularly in Hickory, her hometown, and then really dove into it at CrossFit Wilmington after she moved to the coast to pursue her master’s in marine biology at UNCW in 2014.

“The atmosphere was a bit different, and definitely a lot more competitive at CF Wilmington,” she says. “Instantly, as a collegiate athlete I was like, ‘Oh, I like this intensity. Let’s compete!’”

In the intervening years, Simmons has gone whole-hog on the sport, becoming a CrossFit personal trainer, in addition to teaching biology labs at UNCW (“I like the nerd side and the athlete side,” she says). After starting CrossFit as a burpee queen, Simmons has become stronger and stronger, and she is now her team’s gymnastics lynchpin, excelling at ring muscle-ups, bar muscle-ups, handstand pushups and handstand walking.

She has tamed her asthma, too. Early on, she would often hyperventilate if her heart rate rose too high. “At that point it feels like an elephant sitting on your chest, and you just can’t take in oxygen,” Simmons says. “Over time I’ve gotten to know what my limits are and how to push those limits without having asthma issues.”

Next up: Another run at the NoBull CrossFit Games. Simmons knows it won’t be easy, but she and her team have been putting in as many hours as ever.

“We’ve definitely found holes in our performances,” she says. “We’re not quite as physically strong as other teams in our division. We’re very aerobic and have strong gymnastic skills, but the brute strength isn’t there. But we have been working really, really hard in the offseason to develop our strength and power output.

“Because of recent changes to the CrossFit season format and how teams qualify for the Games, this year it seems like there are more teams being formed throughout the world. So it might be a little more difficult to get back there, but we’re sure going to try hard.”