“Over the rock! One, two, three, lift!”
That was the motivational cry of a CrossFit team from Bridgewater, Mass., helping Tiffany Gambill, 27, complete a five-mile Spartan Sprint near Boston in June. While other competitors in this obstacle course race had their own barriers to climb over, crawl under, or fight through, Gambill had to deal with an obstacle no one else did: Friedreich’s ataxia.
Back in 2005 when she was 15 years old, Gambill was diagnosed with the degenerative neuromuscular disease that slowly zaps away all of one’s motor abilities. Often, Friedreich’s ataxia leads to a life in a wheelchair.
But Gambill didn’t want that diagnosis to be her only option in life.
Tiffany’s mother, Joan Gambill, 63, joined a CrossFit gym in Bridgewater about five years ago, thinking it might be a new way to help her daughter. When Tiffany started physical therapy but didn’t like it, her mom encouraged to her to try CrossFit.
When Joan Gambill’s coach, Sonia Caldas, first met Tiffany, she was still able to drive and could use a walker to get around the gym. Caldas modified workouts to meet her needs.
“The progress is slowing down the effect and giving her longevity in terms of muscular endurance,” Caldas said. “Tiffany was going in [the CrossFit gym] and asking for challenges, so it was my job to come up with stuff that was hard enough for her. She’s tough!”
But the disease gradually started taking those abilities away, eventually forcing Gambill into a wheelchair at 21 years old. Despite that, Caldas and Gambill adapted, always believing she would reach her goal of completing an endurance event.
While a broken shoulder derailed a planned triathlon that Gambill had trained for, she and Caldas reached out to several obstacle course races to see if anyone would allow members of the CrossFit gym to assist Gambill when she was healthy. Unfortunately, most of the responses early on were one-liners saying, “It would be difficult to do this in a wheelchair.”
“We’re not saying it’s not going to be hard,” Caldas said. “We’re asking if we can do it.”
Spartan was the only race that reached out, congratulating them on their efforts and offering any assistance they needed.
Jason Caldas, Sonia’s husband and part of the Spartan team, admitted that race day was overwhelming. An intense obstacle course with hilly terrain and mud on the Rutland, Massachusetts, course would look a little intimidating to any participant, but especially to a five-member crew who needed to carry a young woman in a wheelchair.
Yet the crew and Gambill toed the starting line for the race. After two hours, the team hadn’t gone two miles, trudging up and down hills and completing as many obstacles as possible along the way. At this point in the race, another three miles looked daunting.
Jason remembers he turned to the others and said, “I think this is good. Should we call it a day, guys?”
They debated their next move for a moment and asked Gambill what she thought. Her response revealed the tenacious spirit that got her to the course in the first place.
“No way! I want my medal!”
Something finally clicked.
“That was the point I really realized that we weren’t doing it for us,” Jason said. “We were just there for Tiffany, and there was nothing that was going to stop us.”
That’s where the chanting comes in. The group found better grips on Gambill’s wheelchair and learned how to communicate better over obstacles. “Over the rock! One, two, three, lift!”
For the big finale, the team had to help Gambill wade under the water pit obstacle and then carry her over the infamous pit of fire. “That was my favorite part!” Gambill told Runner’s World over the phone. They finished in just under five hours.
For most of the race, Jason said it just felt like helping a friend, but still a tough day at the office. But toward the end, the CrossFit crew started to realize how special this was. Before they knew it, local news like The Bridgewater Independent was giving them coverage, then CBS Boston and ABC News.
“We didn’t think we’d get any of this attention at all,” Jason Caldas said.
Jason and Sonia agreed that their goal with starting their CrossFit gym was to prove to their community that the sport could work for anyone, no matter their background or level of fitness.
Gambill is proof of that.
“She has no problem calling people out in the gym when they like to talk about how sore they are or how they busted their shin on a box jump,” Sonia said. “She just looks over and says, ‘Really?’”
Spartan isn’t the end of racing for Gambill. In October, she’ll be doing the rideATAXIA race in Philadelphia, which partners with nonprofit Friedreich's Ataxia Research Alliance (FARA) to help research and find a cure for the disease. She also hasn’t given up on her dream of completing a triathlon, and plans to do one in 2018.
In the meantime, Gambill will keep fighting and living by her tagline, “You only live once; go big or go home.”