A CrossFit Athlete’s Bumpy Road to Recovery After a Life Threatening Illness

September 23, 2016

A CrossFit Athlete’s Bumpy Road to Recovery After a Life Threatening Illness

2016 Atlantic Regionals in Atlanta, Georgia

Erika Theisen competing at the 2016 Atlantic Regionals


The Athletes Dilemma:  What now?

Erika with Team KTB Erika Theisen at the 2016 Atlantic Regionals

Erika with Team KTB Erika Theisen at the 2016 Atlantic Regionals

Though my particular sport now is CrossFit, I have been an athlete my entire life. Starting at the age of four up until high school I was a year-round competitive swimmer and soccer player. At that point, I chose to pursue my dream of playing college soccer and went on to play for the University of Maryland Women’s Soccer team for four years. After graduating college I reached the “what now?” question that most college athletes likely face. I quickly realized how much I took for granted having 20 some workout partners around my entire life. Going to the globo gym by myself after work every day was extremely boring and I lost motivation every other week. Luckily, my best friend finally convinced me try a LivingSocial deal for a CrossFit gym in my area and I was hooked immediately.

I have now been doing CrossFit for 3 ½ years. I have competed in more CrossFit competitions then I can remember, I received my Level 1 certification and started coaching at Old Line CrossFit, and I finally achieved my goal of going to 2016 CrossFit Atlantic Regionals on a team (Team KTB) . After a long and bumpy journey, I was hands down in the best shape of my life at this point


My Health Scare and Setback

A month after Regionals though I started experiencing chest pain and extreme fatigue and dizziness after my workouts. I blew it off for a week, figuring it might be a cold, and continued pushing through the daily competitive programming. It wasn’t until I was doing a track workout later that week that I realized I couldn’t even run. I felt like I was suffocating, my chest was collapsing, and I was extremely dizzy. It was definitely time to see the doctor.


Erika during her 3 day stay in the hospital with KTB teammate and boyfriend, Robbie Copeland

The doctors told me this was potentially life-threatening and I was extremely lucky that I received medical attention
when I did.


After a long night in the ER I found out I had a bilateral pulmonary embolism (blood clots in my lungs), which resulted from a deep vein thrombosis (blood clot in a
deep vein) in my knee that broke off. The doctors told me this was potentially life-threatening and I was extremely lucky that I received medical attention when I did. Nonetheless, I was extremely happy I went to the hospital and I also finally had an explanation for the knee pain I had been experiencing for the past few months. I stayed in the hospital for the next three days until I was put on blood thinners and released.

Despite this health scare, I was eager to work out, be active, or do something other than sit around. The chest pain started to subside after two weeks and I started going on long walks every other day to monitor how I was feeling. Going into my third week post-hospital I was determined to start being a little more active, until I started experiencing excruciating stomach pain. After researching the side effects of my blood thinners, I convinced myself this could be another life-threatening issue and eventually went back to the ER. It turned out I had appendicitis and it was totally unrelated to the blood clots. I felt pretty unlucky at this point. I couldn’t stop asking myself “why me?”. I felt like I took care of body and health so well, I just couldn’t understand why I found myself back in the hospital.

Once the blood thinners were out of my system long enough, I had surgery to remove my appendix and it was back to square one with recovery. Up until this point I was already inactive and eating less then I normally would. In order to prepare for surgery, I couldn’t eat at all for a day as we waited for my blood thinners to wear off and following the procedure I was put on a liquid diet for two more days. A week later I stepped on the scale and realized I lost around 15 pounds. I know most people wouldn’t mind losing that much weight, but I was pretty shocked. I was at six-weeks of complete inactivity at that point and it felt like all of my hard work for the past few years was gone.

Bumpy and Slow Road to Recovery


Erika, enjoying some of her favorite supporters

After the appendectomy I received some good and bad news. Good news was that the blood clots in my lungs were gone! Bad news was the doctor told me I was not allowed to lift more than 15lbs for 4-6 weeks. I most definitely laughed at that, there was no way I was listening (no disrespect to her or any other doctor, but come on I like to lift). I did get a reality check right away though. I tried to workout the second week post-surgery and realized quickly that I couldn’t even hang from a pull up bar. I settled for 10 rounds of 10 air squats, 10 pushups with my knees on the ground, and 5 tiny hollow rocks. The next day, I was sore beyond belief, but decided I needed to use weights. I used 20lb dumbbells and did weighted step ups and single leg RDL’s. The next day, I was still extremely sore, so I went to the Crossfit gym. I did empty barbell squats and shoulder presses, and then got on the Assault bike for a 15 min EMOM of 6 calories. I was smoked. The following day, I did pistol progressions from the box, seated dumbbell presses and curls with 20lbs, and some dumbbell fly’s with 10lbs. After that I was out of town for the next three days, so I gave my body a break.


Progress Journal

erika-5Third-week post-surgery and seventh-week post blood clots, I did 5×5 back squats at 48% of my max, which felt like 300lbs, then did the warm up for the day as my met-con, and went home. The next day, I worked up to 60% of my max deadlift and 55% of my power position snatch, then scaled the conditioning to 5 rounds of 200m row and 20 double unders, resting :90 seconds between. The next day, I did 4×4 back squats at 60% of my max, dumbbell strict press with 20lbs, and finished with 5 rounds of 2k on the Assault bike. This particular workout actually ended with extreme anxiety and flashbacks to how I felt while I was working out with blood clots in my lungs. Though I knew those were gone, so I kept going. The next day, I did bench press with 40lb dumbbells and then 8 rounds of 400m on the Ski Erg. The next day, I worked up to 3 back squats at 68% of my max, did some strict muscle ups (I was still really light at this point), and finished with plank holds. The final day that week, I did 5×5 bench press at 65% of my max, power position cleans up to 65% of my max, and then called it a day.

Fourth-week post-surgery and eighth-week post blood clots, I did my first full day of Crossfit programming. I did 5×5 back squats at 63% of my max and 4×4 strict press at 75% of my max. The met-con that day was 15-12-9-6-3 reps of strict hand stand pushups, GHD sit ups, and front squats at 125lbs. I could not do any of that. I scaled to kipping hand stand pushups, no sit ups at all, and front squats at 105lbs. I wanted to cry. It was at that moment I realized I wasn’t satisfied anymore with just being able to workout again, I was devastated at all the muscle and skill I had lost. Each day from this point on was a mental battle.

I was surrounded by family and friends who saw how hard I was being on myself and kept reminding me about how much my body had been through over the last couple months. I heard daily that my strength and fitness would come back, but that just felt like such a long stretch to me. I was nowhere near the level of fitness I worked so hard to get to just a few months ago and I knew how long it took me to reach that point. I just wanted to feel “normal” again.

Sixth-week post-surgery and tenth-week post blood clots, I was able to hit 5×5 back squats at 73% of my max, hit a low hang clean and jerk at 87% of my max, and recognized the first smile on my face during a lifting session in a long time. I was also finally able to attempt kipping muscle ups again, which resulted in many failed attempts. At this point, I finally started to get comfortable with failing weights and movements that I used to be able to hit regularly. It’s still never fun to fail, but my body was finally healed enough to at least start attempting all Crossfit movements again, and that was something to be happy about.

I am currently in my eighth-week post-surgery and twelfth-week post blood clots as I write this and am happy to say that I have gained back majority of my weight. My family and friends were right that the strength and fitness would come back. I have learned that scaling workouts to what your body is capable of doing is absolutely necessary and still 100% effective for getting you to your fitness and health goals. I have learned to be realistic with the goals and expectations I set for myself, especially as I continue to recover. Injuries and setbacks really stink, but they happen to everyone and I am extremely thankful for my health all together. Like anything else in life, it’s how you react to your circumstance that will define your outcome. I have had plenty of down days in and out of the gym, but recognizing each day how much better I am now then I was a day or week ago keeps me focused on the progress and bigger picture. Plus, I have a really awesome tribe on my side always feeding those words into my ear for when I want to think otherwise.

I know I have a different background then majority of people who do Crossfit, but the journey is still the same. We all start somewhere and results never happen overnight. If you stay committed and trust the process and your coaches, you will get to where you want to be.

A huge thank you to my family, friends, Old Line Crossfit, and Top Tier Columbia for the endless love and support, especially over the last few months! 

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