#GrownWomanStrong: Elite Athlete Elisabeth Akinwale Talks Bodies, Books, And Representation

If you stumble onto Elisabeth Akinwale’s Instagram, the first thing you’ll notice is her stunning physical prowess. This is obviously an elite athlete.

The first time I ever saw Elisabeth Akinwale in action was 2012. She was competing in the Crossfit games. Specifically, I tuned in just in time to see a hellish event involving a sledge hammer called the Double Banger.

That was not her first Crossfit games, though. She qualified for the national competition in 2011, just 6 months after starting Crossfit. She quickly made a name for herself based on her showing there, especially in the Killer Kage event. From my 2012 vantage point, specifically my couch, the image of Akinwale competing in such a powerful way stuck with me. I was a pretty sedentary Black woman and there, on television, in a sea of white faces and bodies, was a woman who I could imagine myself as. When I did start working out in earnest in 2015, I immediately sought her out on social media. I was amazed by the seemingly unending stream of encouragement she posts.  

I wouldn’t have been surprised if her posts had all been of her in her most flattering moments, her best angles, her triumphs, but that’s not what she does. This elite athlete, trainer, and mother uses her digital soapbox to engage with over 85K followers in a way that highlights not only her achievements (working out on a regular basis while parenting her son), but the strides that those around her make, and to be vocal about the world she exists in as a WoC.

Recently, I was able to talk with her briefly (and repeat to myself “Don’t go total fangirl. Don’t go total fangirl. Don’t…”) about nerdiness, blackness, and motherhood.

Black Nerd Problems: What books are currently on your bookshelf?

Elisabeth Akinwale: I’m currently re-reading a favorite, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. On deck, I’m waiting to borrow, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, from a friend, and I also want to get my hands on Luvvie Ajayi’s, I’m Judging You: A Do Better Manual.

BNP: What are your top 5 books of all time and why?

EA: The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison), The Street (Ann Petry), Choosing Simplicity (Linda Breen Pierce), The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angleou, [and] The Mindful Athlete (George Mumford)

Though each of these books vary greatly in purpose and perspective, what they have in common is eloquently conveyed truth. Realizing and accepting truth is healing. Reading others’ truth-discovering and truth-sharing words helps me to find more understanding and context in my own life.

“The Street” Ann Petry, 1946. Currently obsessed with this book.

A photo posted by Elisabeth Funmilayo Akinwale (@eakinwale) on

BNP: What kind of television do you watch? Any guilty pleasures or nerdy indulgences in your rotation?

EA: I don’t have any shows that I’m super into, but you could say I have a few guilty pleasures. I’m currently watching American Horror Story: Hotel. Of course I had to check out Luke Cage.

BNP: What has being an athlete taught you that you’d most like to teach your son?

EA: Discipline, resilience, risk taking…perhaps most, tenacity over time. Being an athlete allows me to teach certain values and character traits to my son by living them, which I believe goes much further than telling him in words.

BNP: Your fans’ response to you on social media is evidence that you continue to be an inspiration to others; who inspires you?

EA: My mother. My son. Every day people making it happen, day to day. People who stand up and use their voice for justice.

BNP: How did you come to Crossfit? And why did you stay?

EA: I learned about CrossFit from my sister who was playing Rugby at the time, and some of her Rugby teammates were using CrossFit-style training to enhance their overall strength and conditioning. At the time I was working out pretty intensely at the gym on my own, doing weight training and conditioning, group fitness classes, a little bit of swimming. I had run in a few half marathons. I was used to using fitness as an outlet and as quality time for myself. When I first heard about CrossFit I was turned off by the expense involved as well as the lack of access to a facility in my community. It took me about 6 months to give it a try. A big catalyst in that decision was that I had recently gone through a major life change- a divorce. Intuition told me it was a good time to try something new, even though I couldn’t comfortably afford it, and it was impractical to drive across town for the class. Nevertheless, I attended a class one Saturday morning and right from the beginning I really enjoyed it. What’s made me stay with it is the skill development and constant learning.

BNP: You’re very honest in your posts about injuries and about what your body has done/continues to do. Simultaneously, you live in a world that policies female bodies, black bodies, and of course, the black female body. How do you navigate that? Have you experienced any body “policing” as an athlete? Is there anything that black woman in particular stands to gain from participating in a sport such as Crossfit?

EA: Most of the negativity or policing I’ve experienced as a Black woman and athlete has occurred on the internet. The culture on the internet genuinely concerns me for society as a whole, because it doesn’t seem like there are any boundaries or expectation of decency at this point. A couple of ways I navigate this: As much as possible I try to steer clear of spaces (web pages, publications) that condone recklessness behavior, in favor of interacting with people who are looking for a more meaningful, authentic interaction. I delete comments and block people freely on social media. I intentionally try to cultivate a space that is respectful, affirmative, and empowering–not only for people who look like me, but most definitely for people who look like me. For women who want to be strong and fit. For Black women, Black people. For mothers. If someone wants to demean those attributes, there are plenty of other places they can go, my platform isn’t one of them.

I delete comments and block people freely on social media.

I think there is a great deal for Black women in particular to gain from participation in CrossFit for fitness, CrossFit for sport, or other methods of functional fitness under any name. CrossFit is a platform that has brought meaningful fitness and improved health and wellness into many people’s lives. There’s nothing I want more for Black women than to have access to substantive fitness methods, high level expertise in coaches/trainers, and quality fitness facilities to empower themselves to improve their quality of life. Our community is disproportionately impacted by many health issues and diseases that could be improved with lifestyle choices around activity and nutrition. We don’t need flat tummy teas, “waist trainers,” and butt implants. We need real, honest, relatable fitness access and education.


BNP: On a personal note, you were the first black woman I ever saw competing in the Crossfit games and it planted the seed in me that I could, on an amateur level do Crossfit. Years later when I decided to act on that seed, I looked for you online. What are your thoughts on representation? In sports? In the media? You have a son; is representation a factor in the media he consumes?

EA: I think many people underestimate how meaningful representation can be in people’s lives and choices. I can tell you unquestionably from my experiences, the story you described of seeing someone you could relate to and having the seed planted is not unique. A single week has not gone by in the past 5-6 years that I don’t get a message from someone expressing that sentiment, saying “thank you for what you do for the community of color within CrossFit,” or, “my daughter looks like you and it means something to us to see you.” My life experience growing up as a young Black gymnast, I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to see gymnasts like Dominique Dawes and Betty Okino competing at the highest level.

I can’t tell you how much it meant to me so see gymnasts like Dominique Dawes and Betty Okino competing at the highest level.

Without a doubt, representation is a factor in the media my son consumes. Mass media, television, is a tool of indoctrination into the system from which it grows. That system is oppressive, white supremacy promoting, misogynistic. As I wouldn’t want to surround him with toxic toys or bathe him in contaminated water, I want to protect him from this poison where possible and make him abundantly aware of it in all cases. When he was little it meant essentially no screen time, very intentional selection of books. Now that he’s getting older the unavoidable exposure has become a teaching tool.


BNP: Do you think that Crossfit is an inclusive sport? Why or why not? If it is, why do you think that’s the widely-held perception? If it’s not, what could be or should be done to change that reality?

EA: It’s very difficult for me to give a straight yes or no response to that question! From what I gather from many people of color who have connections to CrossFit, as well as people who have considered the prospect of trying it, it really is not all that inclusive. That’s not to say that any given CrossFit affiliate won’t welcome anyone into it’s doors. I think it’s much more subtle than that, and maybe a question of, is an environment fostered that makes everyone feel embraced and affirmed? One of the aspects of the CrossFit model that is most revered is the community. Generally speaking in the United States, segregation is still a very real thing. People can send their child to a school with 98% or even 100% of the children looking the same and not bat an eye. Church is said to be the most segregated hour (or 4 hours) of the week. When it comes to communities of choice, segregation is still very real and I believe CrossFit reflects that. I have visited a number of Black and brown owned affiliates in different parts of the world, and in each case those communities include lots of people of color.

I think it’s much more subtle than that, and maybe a question of, is an environment fostered that makes everyone feel embraced and affirmed?

What could be done to make CrossFit more inclusive? More affiliate owners of color, more reflection of people of color in CrossFit related publications and companies. More awareness within communities-consider what it might be like to be the only person of color in the room, for example. At the end of the day, I believe it comes down to where people feel comfortable socially.

BNP: We are witnessing a growing number of athletes, such as Colin Kaepernick, speaking out on racial injustice in America. You have made public posts about the state of race relations in America on social media. What responsibility do you think the athlete/public figure has to the public at large in terms of the soap box that their status gives them?

EA: I think it’s essential that public figures use their voice. I know for myself, and I believe for much of my following, issues of social justice aren’t distant political matters. It’s very personal, very emotional, very close to home. I cannot consider myself an advocate of health and well-being and not address things that are so impactful to so many, including myself.

BNP: You are a lot of things: a black Crossfitter, a championship level Crossfitter, a parent, a woman, and many more. Through what lens do you want your legacy viewed? How do you see yourself?

EA: Honestly, I view myself as a regular person. I see myself the way my son sees me. I struggle, and fight to thrive, like anyone else. I’m learning everyday, and try to live based on the knowledge I have and my values. I haven’t yet created the legacy that I foresee, the foundation is being laid and I believe each phase is important.

BNP: What would you tell you 10 year-old self?

EA: Embrace your uniqueness, it’s your greatest gift.

It’s hard not to be encouraged by an athlete as dominant and honest as Elisabeth Akinwale. When you add to that equation her statements that affirm the Black experience in America, her frankness about the dedication that athleticism requires, and her obvious devotion to her son, it’s hard to resist becoming a fan, so don’t.

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