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A Publication about Visual Impairments and Deafblindness for Families and Professionals

Blog article published with permission 

Abstract: The journey of how a woman with a visual impairment becomes a CrossFit trainer.

Keywords:  blind, visually impaired, health, CrossFit trainer

A few weeks ago at a CrossFit competition at CrossFit Cleburne, I had one of “those” moments. It was a moment that left me in awe.  It was an experience that brought up questions.  Who, how, when? I just knew I shouldn’t and couldn’t pass up an opportunity to search out the answers.  And if this moment was important and motivating and inspirational to me, chances are there were others that would feel the same way.  If it isn’t inspirational to you, then you’re broken or dead.

This week’s Face of Fitness is Bettina Dolinsek. She is a 37 year old Health and Wellness Specialist at the Lighthouse for the Blind of Fort Worth. She has been married 17 years to her wonderfully supportive husband Cody. She is also CrossFit Level I certified and is a competitive machine.  And she is blind. She has become a force (I’m guessing she was a force before as well.)  She has pit bull resolve and doesn’t let the unknown slow her down.  In fact I watched her run headlong right into the unknown. Not once, but over and over.  Like most of us, Bettina had weight issues and tried different exercise methods until someone invited her to CrossFit. Fast forward a few years and she’s competing.

I asked Bettina about a million questions and could ask a million more, but here are a few.

  1. How did you get started in CrossFit?  Three years ago I was the head of a wellness committee, but I was overweight.  I thought, how could I expect people to listen to me telling them how to become healthy when I was not.  A fellow committee member said he was doing CrossFit in the gym over the lunch hour and invited me to join him.  I accepted.  For the first couple of weeks I wasn’t sure, and thought I could probably get fit on my own walking on the treadmill, or riding the stationary bike.  I had tried these methods in the past, but never stuck to them.  Perhaps for a few weeks, but not for long.  I decided to continue doing CrossFit because I didn’t want to quit, or be known as a quitter when the going got rough.  I also figured because I was blind perhaps I would not have to do certain things like box jumps, running, etc. Boy was I mistaken, and I am so glad no exceptions were made.  I was expected to do everything everyone else was expected to do.  After about a month, I was hooked.  I started to see me being able to do things I never thought possible, and I was excited to see what was to come.  I figured the sky was the limit if I worked hard.
  2. How do you feel about the CrossFit community?  The CrossFit community has been exceptional.  Everyone seeks to treat me the same way they would anyone else.  I have never been more accepted by a group of people in my life.  It is simply amazing.
  3. How do you go about learning a new movement or lift?  When I learn a new movement, or lift, I have to feel my coach perform it.  Jim Bob Steen, my coach, will get into position, and I check out everything I need to know regarding form.  We will go through the movement in slow motion, so I can feel every stage of it, and then I try the movement.  Because of my inability to see my coach perform the movement it takes me a bit longer to understand how it should go, but we keep trying and eventually I get it.  Jim Bob is very patient.

Bettina and Jim Bob have formed a very close and trusting relationship. They first met at CrossFit Iron Horse last year where JB was a coach. When Jim Bob left to open his own sister Box, CrossFit Chisholm Trail, Bettina followed him. To watch them work is very interesting. JB will perform a segment of a movement and Bettina will feel around as she translates his movement to her body. Their playful relationship has a rhythm to it where Bettina feels comfortable to move around the Box and Jim Bob knows when to call out direction and when it’s not necessary.

During a lifting session, Bettina told me how JB likes to play with the weight amounts he adds to her bar. They tease back and forth but he knows what she is capable of and works to pull it out of her like any good coach would do to any other athlete.  I asked JB if he had any special training to prepare himself for coaching disabled/adaptive athletes. He said no, that his training has been on the job with Bettina. She has trained him as he trains her and the result has been phenomenal for both of them.

  1. Ok, box jumps? How did you learn to do those and what was it like the first time?  Box jumps were a challenge.  I know from speaking to people who can see the box, they are scared as well.  I started off by using gym mats.  I began by stepping on one that was about two inches off the ground, and then jumping on it, and after getting used to that one, I then increased the height.  After my confidence was built on the mats it was time to introduce the box.  Just like everyone else I have the scars to prove I have missed my box.  I can guarantee that won’t happen twice. My highest jump so far has been 32 and a half inches.
  2. Currently, what is your biggest fitness challenge?  Right now running is my biggest challenge.  I feel uncomfortable doing it, because I haven’t really ever run.  I continue to run with Jim Bob, but don’t trust anyone else to run with me in the CrossFit community.  I should though, and should get over my fear.
  3. How do we get more adaptive/disabled people involved in fitness?   I have been trying to get blind people to get involved in a fitness program of some sort, and it has proven to be very difficult.  I believe this stems back to everyone telling blind people, "You can’t”. After a while you begin to believe that, and not want to try anything that brings you out of your comfort zone.  I think right now it is trying to reach the younger people and get them started early.
  4. What advice would you give Box/Gym owners regarding attracting adaptive athletes to their facilities?  I would tell them when they advertise to emphasize that CrossFit is for everyone regardless of a disability.  I would also offer to come out and teach the owners to teach someone with a visual impairment.  I can tell you this: you have to be ready to work up close and personal with the blind clients.  If you have someone who you are unsure of how to teach them, reach out to someone like myself with any questions.  My mission is not to be the only blind person in CrossFit, but to attract many.
  5. What fitness goals do you currently have?   I want to continue to compete, become stronger, jump higher, run faster, and be leaner.  I would love to compete in the CrossFit games one day.  That goal is certainly a big one, but I figure why not shoot for the stars.
  6. What motivational or fitness advice do you have to share? Don’t let anything stand in your way.  We are always too eager to come up with an excuse why we can’t exercise, and I believe if you already say, “I can’t”, you’re right, you can’t.  Keep an open mind and be willing to try new things.  Anything worth doing is worth working hard for.  Remember nutrition and exercise go hand in hand.  You can’t have one without the other.  If you eat right you will perform better in the gym.  I also believe it is good for your mental health.
  7. Is there anything else you would like to add or express?  I have been so lucky to have had the coaches I did.  When I began, Randy Landgrebe took the time to help me understand the concept.  He also went with me to California as my sighted guide so I could participate in the Level 1 Training course.  I passed!  After coming to Fort Worth, Jim Bob Steen continued to help me train.  I am very grateful to both coaches helping me along in my CrossFit journey.  Without these special people, I don’t know if I would have ever made it this far.  I plan on continuing to train and hopefully receive more certifications.  I would love to get my next certification in Olympic Lifting.  I also plan on doing more competitions.  I hope to never quit.  One day I will have my own gym.

Have no doubt that whatever Bettina puts her mind to will come to pass.  She has the drive and devotion to work for her goals.

You know when I saw Bettina box jump, the phrase “Blind Faith” came to mind. But I wasn’t thinking in the typical negative sense that phrase has come to mean. I wasn’t thinking about just leaping without discernment. Rather I was thinking about how Bettina has learned that her body can perform amazing feats of strength through practice and patience. I was thinking how she has developed a trusting relationship with coaches like Randy Landgrebe and Jim Bob Steen. I saw how she investigated her surroundings and equipment by touching and questioning. And then I witnessed how she put all that evidence and training and intelligence and trust together and leapt without hesitation and landed, beautifully, securely and confidently.  If faith can move mountains, then I have a feeling that the landscape will be altered wherever Bettina goes.

Bettina lifts weights during competition
Preparing for box jumps