Learning CrossFit in a wheelchair

For more than a decade, Nancy Kawaja has taught children with disabilities to adapt to their skillset. Now, she's learning to do the same after a surgery left her with no feeling in her left leg.

'It made me, as a 45-year-old woman, look at my body differently'

Nancy Kawaja, who does CrossFit, lost all feeling in her left leg from the knee down after a surgery in February, and has since adapted her routine. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC )

Nancy Kawaja taught children with disabilities to adapt in schools for more than a decade, and now she's learning to adapt to being in a wheelchair herself.

After a surgery last winter, she woke without any feeling in her left leg from the knee down.

As an active person, coming to terms with it wasn't easy.

"It was a hard pill to swallow, when I had to look at the beliefs I had for [my students] and take them on for myself," Kawaja said. "It made me, as a 45-year-old woman, look at my body differently, and how I move."

Kawaja has learned to adjust how she performs deadlifts following her surgery. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Wheelchair becomes the answer

Slowly but surely, Kawaja started to accept what had happened to her, and to adapt to it.

Before her surgery she did a lot of CrossFit, a combination of intense workouts that can be adjusted to an individual's age and strength.

She decided she wouldn't let the surgery stop her.

Three days after the operation, she asked her coach to bring in weights so she could keep them with her in the rehab centre.

Andy Stewart, Kawaja's coach, said he and other CrossFit enthusiasts look to her for inspiration. (CBC)

"I literally had a set of dumbbells — they were little, two-and-a-half pounds and five pounds — and a box of Kleenex for all the crying, and a bag of carrots for all the eating," Kawaja said.

"I slept with those weights in my bed."

Support from other CrossFit enthusiasts with disabilities also helped her regain her strength and get back into the gym. 

"Through conversations with other people who are willing to be open about how they access their ability, I was able to see that [wheelchair] as an answer," Kawaja said.

An inspiring athlete 

Andy Stewart, Kawaja's coach, said CrossFit is easy to adapt, making it easier for people with different abilities to join. 

"For Nancy, and people in general, movements change. We have to adapt the movements to suit the same stimulus. So if we're doing a pulling movement that requires for me to stand on the ground, we'll have to slightly adjust the pulling movement for Nancy to do from her chair, potentially, or a seated position," he said.

Despite the adjustments Kawaja has had to make, Stewart said he doesn't see her any differently than before the surgery. But he's inspired by seeing her overcome the challenges she's faced adapting to CrossFit in a wheelchair. 

"Nancy is an athlete through and through, trying to get better, trying to get stronger, trying to get fitter and trying to be part of a community." he said.

"I am constantly motivated by her passion, and her ability to be vulnerable and open about what she's going through." 

Kawaja celebrates a new weight record for a deadlift. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)


  • A previous version of this story stated a car accident in 1992 led to a surgery last winter that left Nancy Kawaja without feeling from the knee down. In fact, the car accident in 1992 was unrelated to Kawaja's surgery.
    May 06, 2019 10:00 AM ET