Not Seeing Invisible Disabilities: Why Some Athletes Can’t Compete in 2023 Under CrossFit’s New Adaptive Policy

In 2018, Brett Horchar was your typical athlete competing in the Open. It was week 4, and Brett was warming up for deadlifts and handstand walks when he noticed something didn’t feel right. “[handstand walking] was something I was always good at, and it felt like the most imbalanced thing I had ever done in my life. I could barely walk two steps,” Brett shared. This was one of the first times Brett experienced symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Brett reflected on his experience before he had gone to the hospital and received his diagnosis, sharing that he had just cleaned 255-pounds. After leaving the hospital, he was only cleaning a 45-pound barbell. Brett spoke about this period of his life saying, “It was very humbling. But really cool, because I was going to take the biggest step backwards and I didn’t even know how big of a step forward I would be able to take, and that step forward ended up being the CrossFit Games.”

In 2021 Brett went on to finish first across the season for the neuromuscular male division. Upon winning the Open, Brett described himself as “relatively obsessed with winning.” The adaptive division gave Brett a new lifestyle of dialed in nutrition and training. In 2022, Brett defended his title at the Games, and remains the reigning fittest neuromuscular male on Earth.

Flash forward to the 2023 season, and Brett can no longer defend his title. The biggest change to the adaptive CrossFit season is the introduction of a new athlete policy. In this policy, CrossFit states that to be eligible, athletes must now have an impairment that can be “clearly observed” (Appendix A, item 2). So, while athletes may have a diagnosis from a medical professional, their impairment must be visible during workouts and during all assessments provided by CrossFit.

Brett spoke on this change to the policy saying: “To a degree, [the policy] is more fair. But I think it’s more appropriate to say [the policy] is giving different opportunities.” While there will be more chances for people with more visible impairments to compete, the new policy is limiting the ability of athletes with invisible disabilities to compete in the adaptive division. Brett spoke on this sentiment: “I did talk to other athletes in my position, and we all agree that it seems like we don’t belong [in competitive CrossFit] anymore. CrossFit is focusing on a different group of athletes now, and I’m happy they get that. But CrossFit is also taking an opportunity away from other incredible athletes.”

These changes in the policy may be due to conflict on the neuromuscular female side of competition. Brett spoke on the difficulties of this situation, referencing his friend Ebbie Isbill who missed out on qualifying for semifinals by one spot: “She was sitting in limbo, waiting to find out if she would get to compete [at semifinals] or not while CrossFit figured out if Morgan [Johnson] was eligible.” Brett also cited Chris Schmulbach’s situation where an athlete was disqualified for not meeting the minimum eligibility requirements. “In Chris’ situation, [CrossFit] did the right thing and disqualified an athlete for not meeting eligibility standards. [The athlete’s] situation was still unfortunate, but he didn’t meet the neuromuscular diagnosis. They should have done the same exact thing with Morgan Johnson’s situation.”

As more comments on fairness in competitive adaptive CrossFit have risen due to circumstances like Chris and Ebbie’s, the adaptive policy needed to be addressed. CrossFit’s goal was to ensure adaptive athletes who met eligibility requirements were indeed the ones representing their division at the Games. Unfortunately, to remedy the situation, adaptive athletes deserving of eligibility who have invisible impairments now find themselves without an opportunity to compete in adaptive CrossFit.

Shortly after it became clear that Brett and other neuromuscular athletes would no longer be eligible, Chris Stoutenburg (owner of WheelWod) reached out to Brett saying, “you still have a place to compete here.” Brett spoke on his plans of competing in the coming season with his overall focus on Wodapalooza and Wodcelona. He also shared his goal to motivate others with invisible impairments to compete: “I want to help the athletes who feel like they no longer have a place to compete by showing them that they do. Especially with WheelWod and Wodcelona.”

While Brett may no longer meet the eligibility standards for adaptive CrossFit, he still expressed his passion for the sport and lifestyle. Currently, Brett is a CrossFit trainer at CrossFit R.A.W. and still trains at an elite level daily. Brett spoke on how much he enjoys giving back to his CrossFit community as a trainer saying: “I don’t care who you are, there is some battle out there that you’re having to face. When you come in here between these four walls, my hope is that we can empower you, and make you feel better overall to face those battles and make it not so scary when you leave through our doors.”

Brett shared his thoughts on his overall outlook since 2018 observing: “These last couple of years have really been a great journey for me. You really get to discover who you are and what your body is capable of doing, and just the resiliency of the human mind. You didn’t lose by any means by getting this diagnosis. The world isn’t over. You just have to adapt. You have to find the good in every situation. Before you know it, it doesn’t feel like you’re adapting at all, you’re just living life to the best of your ability. Everything since 2018 has been so cool.”

As the adaptive side of CrossFit continues to grow, there will likely be additional changes to the adaptive athlete policy to promote greater inclusion. Brett expressed hope for being able to compete again in the future, and how thankful he was for all the opportunities CrossFit has provided him. “I’m glad other athletes have opportunities under the new [adaptive policy], and I hope that other deserving athletes will get to share in those opportunities again in upcoming seasons.”

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