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Alumni Newsmakers

A Special Kind of Strength

Christy Phillips, BS '07, BS '10, is a nationally ranked CrossFit competitor.

Maili Godwin

Christy Phillips, BS '07, BS '10, doesn't look like a body builder. She's 5-feet-3 inches tall, weighs about 130 pounds, and lacks a Schwarzenegger-like physique. But don't underestimate her strength. "If you look at her on the street, she looks like a fit girl," says friend and coach Melody Feldman, BS '09. "But you have no idea what's behind that. She can do so much more than you'd think."

Ms. Phillips, 25, has become a force in CrossFit, a strength and conditioning program that's a mishmash of different elements, including weightlifting, gymnastics, track and field, and rowing. Competitions are chockablock with grueling events, which often feature combinations of running and lifting, in addition to slightly more offbeat tasks. At one point during the 2009 CrossFit Games, for example, athletes had to pound a massive stake into the ground.

That was not a problem for Ms. Phillips, who finished sixth overall at that competition and at the 2010 CrossFit Games, the sport's annual world championship. Her success helped land a sponsorship deal with Reebok, an impressive accomplishment considering Ms. Phillips wasn't introduced to CrossFit until four years ago.

That's not to say her love of physical fitness is new. As a freshman at GW, she walked on to the women's lacrosse team. For Ms. Phillips, sessions in the weight room were more enjoyable than time spent on the field. "That's the cool, fun part," Ms. Phillips remembers saying. (It was not an opinion her teammates shared.) Although she only played one season of lacrosse, Ms. Phillips decided to major in exercise science.

"But I didn't put that into practice, especially not in my sophomore and junior year," says Ms. Phillips, a nurse at GW Hospital who was among the first students to graduate from GW's full-time bachelor's in nursing program last December. "I would do a couple of runs a week and a couple of days in the gym, but no periodization, or cycles, or anything I was learning about. So that was weird. There was a disconnect."

That changed during her senior year, when she accepted a job at a local Gold's Gym branch. That's where she met personal trainers Ms. Feldman and John Main, who introduced her to CrossFit. Online tutorials and videos helped fill in the blanks. Soon she was hooked.

After graduating in May 2007, Ms. Phillips began working as a physical therapist at Greenspring, a retirement community in Springfield, Va. She continued training and started to compete and to coach at District CrossFit, a downtown gym. Her first major breakthrough came in the spring of 2009, when she placed first at mid-Atlantic regionals. That July, she finished sixth at the CrossFit Games in Aromas, Calif. Still, the level of competition was eye-opening. "It was the hardest physical endeavor I've ever done," she says.

Ms. Phillips spent the summer looking forward to regionals, which she won in both 2009 and 2010, and the CrossFit Games, held in Carson, Calif. Few CrossFit athletes make a living competing, but there is an increase in prize money at this year's CrossFit Games. The men's and women's champions are each taking home $250,000. The top prize was $25,000 in 2010, so this year provides added motivation. Not that the upbeat Ms. Phillips needs it.

"She's very athletic, but more important than her athleticism is her kindness," says Ms. Feldman, who, along with Mr. Main, runs D.C. gym CrossFit MPH. "When she's done with her [workout] she'll cheer everybody else on. She's generally very kind. That is rare."

—Alan Siegel