Nothing is beyond Ireland's fittest woman

Quad biking brought Emma McQuaid a lot of joy, not least a meeting with her fiancé David. But when he suffered an injury that left him paralysed from the waist down, it inadvertently brought her into the world of CrossFit. She has been Ireland's fittest woman since 2015 and is aiming for a top-ten finish at this year's CrossFit Games. Cahair O'Kane went to meet her…

CrossFit athlete Emma McQuaid pictured in her gym at home in Lisburn. Picture by Mal McCann

Four minutes on, four minutes off
Bike (20 calories)
Burpees over the box x 20
Bike (max calories)
Four sets

THIS is the first of three training sessions today for Emma McQuaid.

As you pull in off the Ravernet Road in Lisburn and down the stony driveway, she is halfway through the third set. The Logical Song is powering out of the speakers as she climbs on to the bike and finds whatever she has left.

It’s 11am on a sunny Wednesday morning. She is in the thick of preparing for the CrossFit Games.

For the uninitiated, it’s a multi-discipline sport that has grown exponentially in the 20 years since it was founded.

From Olympic weightlifting to gymnastics to bodyweight exercises and strongman, it works on muscles you never knew existed before you started.

The sport proclaims her as Ireland’s fittest woman, and when you consider the all-round nature of what's involved, it's difficult to argue.

She has another session planned for after lunch and then one in the early evening.

The previous Sunday, she’d taken her first proper day off in eight weeks.

The gym is literally at her back door. All the bars are outdoor while in the garage, the bike faces inwards and to her right, the blood red graffiti shouts ‘McQuaid’.

Either side of it seems like a shrine to a past life, one that she grew up with and still loves but that has left an inescapable mark.

From she learned at home in Newry to scoot about on an electric quad from two years of age, the quad bikes were her passion.

Two grey-blue quad biking jerseys are painted either side. On the left, ‘Wray 88’ and on the right ‘McQuaid 175’.

Those were the racing numbers she and her fiancé David wore.

They met at a prizegiving event when she was 19, and he was 20.

They were racing in Tandragee in 2012 when the red flag was waved. As the riders all slowed to a halt, Emma soon realised that David was the only one missing.

“He had a bad start and was for passing me on that lap. Then the red flag came up and David wasn’t there,” she recalls.

“We knew straight away it was serious, it takes a lot for him to lie down.

“When he came off, the quad smashed him in the back and dislocated two vertebrae, and that can damage the spinal cord. It damaged his enough that he was paralysed from the waist down.

“We knew while he was on the ground that he’d never walk again. As soon as he said he couldn’t feel his legs, it was starting to sink in.

“The doctors will never say ‘you’ll never walk again’, but we weren’t stupid.”

* * * * * * * * * *

THE day before last, Emma should have been spending 14 hours on a plane to California.

The plan was to get out and quarantine for two weeks, and leave enough time to properly settle in before the CrossFit Games began on September 14.

Covid-19 eventually caught up. Instead of the near-300 competitors that rocked up in Wisconsin last year, it will be an online event limited to the top 30 women and the top 30 men.

Instead of getting to America for the umpteenth time – her and David love it – the best she can hope for initially is to be allowed to compete at her home home, where the two acres around them will ensure social distancing isn’t an issue.

Last year McQuaid missed the cut at the end of day two by one place, finishing 20th overall.

Two months after the games, just before the Open event in early October (a remote event that is open to all, hence the name), it emerged that ninth-placed Anna Fragkou had tested positive for a banned substance during an in-competition test at the Games.

She was one of seven athletes to fail a doping test. Greece’s number one woman, with whom McQuaid had a constant rivalry – “it was always me and her, 6th and 7th, or 7th and 8th” - was banned for four years.

Such headlines do little for the credibility of a fledgling sport that has muscled its way quickly into the mainstream.

Ireland’s number one female and her Greek counterpart had always been the closest of rivals, usually competing for the one sport.

McQuaid insists she is clean and protects her own image by keeping her hand in weightlifting so that she is tested by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rather than just CrossFit.

She is in no doubt that there are drugs in the sport.

“I was pissed,” she says of Fragkou.

“I only got two days when I should have had three. She got me and other athletes put out from their third day.

“The day I flew home, my Mum said: ‘She’s on something’. And I was like ‘no chance’. I backed her.

“It came out two months later, Mum was like ‘I told you so!’ I was probably naïve, I would have thought no.

“Probably from being so cross to miss a day’s competition from someone taking drugs, I just believe now that 100 per cent, it’s in the sport.

“Last year, I would have said I don’t think the top level is, but you just can’t trust anyone.

“I would say there are more local level people taking it than high-level people. I do believe the people now going to the Games, the top 30, I’d class most of them as friends and I wouldn’t think many of them would be on it.

“I couldn’t say anyone on the female side of that field is on it. There are a lot of people on it, but potentially not in that top 30 this year.”

This year’s competition came under a very different, but for a while far more significant, threat.

Greg Glassman created CrossFit 20 years ago but was forced to resign in June after an outcry after his controversial tweet in the wake of Floyd George’s death, which sparked months of anti-racism protests across America and the world.

Reebok, the primary backer of the Games, withdrew their support and over the days that followed, McQuaid was among a number of the top athletes to pull out of the competition until Glassman was removed from his position.

“You work for it and then to give up your spot, that was really hard. But it was the right thing to do,” she says.

“All I ever wanted was eventually my niece, my nephew, and if I ever have kids, to be into CrossFit. I wouldn’t want them to be into it with that man that was in charge.

“I just didn’t agree with what he was doing. We felt if we didn’t take a stance now, who are you to tell anyone else not to do it?

“You could have the kids saying ‘Well sure my auntie Emma competed with that man, so obviously it’s ok for that man to treat people like that’.

“It’s not really a good example. It was a hard choice, but also an easy choice.”

The athletes were all reinstated after Glassman’s resignation and were looking forward to a trip to California right up until two weeks ago.

But having held out on the idea of continuing as normal, CrossFit eventually had to give in to the threat of Covid-19 in America and alter its entire format.

The competition will now involve just 60 athletes and will be conducted remotely, with the Ravernet Road unlikely to be basking in any Californian rays.

Its entire structure will change too, with every event now gym-based.

“It’s shite,” she laughs while putting it bluntly.

“I’ve been training from last year’s Games for this year’s Games.

“Obviously we don’t have to go up mountains and swim in lakes now, so the preparation changes because the Games are online and will be gym based.

“It’s 99 per cent gym based now, whereas beforehand we were running up mountains, swimming in lakes, in the ocean, out cycling and preparing for what the competition should have been. Now it all changes.

“I’ve ironed out the things I sucked at last year and now it’s going online, so it’s a shit situation because you can’t actually showcase what you’ve worked on. It is what it is, you have to adapt and move on.”

* * * * * * * * * *

WHEN they returned home from San Diego in the summer of 2013, David was finding ways to adapt and overcome.

Emma’s way of helping was to not help. She figured that the more he learned to do for himself, the better it would be for him in the long run.

“I wouldn’t let it change us. I’d say David would say I was the hardest person on him. He’d have said ‘you wouldn’t get me the remote?’ and I’d go ‘no, get it yourself’.

“He would have said ‘make us a cup of tea’ and I’d have said ‘do it yourself’. But now he can bring two cups of tea over to the sofa, just through making him do it.

“He can do absolutely everything. He’s the exact same person. He can make a steak dinner, he can make a cup of tea.

“I made him do things straight away. I think he hated me at the start but I think now he realises it was the best thing ever.”

There is no sense of injustice, no longing for the way things used to be in her voice.

Sure, it made life harder. It made them alter their ways. But every obstacle has been faced head-on and if it won’t move out of their way, they’ll find a way around it.

That’s exactly what San Diego was. Doctors mightn’t have said the words, “but we weren’t stupid”. They knew that David wouldn’t walk again.

They headed for Project Walk, a specialist rehabilitation centre that deals specifically with people living with paralysis.

He learned to live again, and while he was doing his work in the mornings, Emma went off and found herself a gym. There she stumbled upon a CrossFit class for the first time, and the love affair was born.

Emma McQuaid trains at her gym outside her home in Lisburn. Picture by Mal McCann

When they got home, it took her five weeks to achieve her first pull-up after she got David – who continues to work at his family’s engineering company - to install a pull-up bar in her quad garage at home.

She was rehabilitating from surgery of her own, having needed a total knee reconstruction after her foot got caught in the turf when she was taken by a high tackle while playing rugby.

The tackle actually gave her more long-term bother with her neck and shoulders, one of which has also required surgery.

When she took part in her first Open a year earlier, she was barely in the top 3,000 in the world. That came as no surprise given that she was five months post her knee op.

“I couldn’t do double-unders [bringing the skipping rope beneath the feet twice in one jump] because of my knee; I couldn’t jump.

“In 2015, I finished 34th in the world and everyone is going ‘holy shit, who’s this girl?’”

She’s been Ireland’s number one female since then and doesn’t feel that position is threatened by anything in the current field.

The nature of CrossFit has opened doors she never would have expected.

It would be a lie to say standing in the athletes’ village on the Gold Coast, finishing fourth in the Commonwealth Games, was a dream come true. To her, it felt more like happenstance.

She’d always been fit because of the quad biking, which required a core and leg strength far beyond what you’d expect, but this was a different world.

It was a mark of her new-found abilities that she hit the qualifying mark for the Commonwealths in her first lift at both snatch and clean-and-jerk.

The Olympics were briefly considered but she didn’t quite fancy being looked down her nose at, or being asked to run to Cork every turnabout at her own expense, and so quickly abandoned the idea.

“CrossFitters maybe didn’t always lift very well and it wasn’t weightlifting standard.

“Now CrossFitters nearly have to look like a gymnast, and perform like a weightlifter and a triathlete. You have to be very good at each discipline.

“Weightlifters are realising that CrossFitters aren’t the enemy, they’re the next generation for weightlifting as well.”

* * * * * * * * * *

CROSSFIT’S move into the mainstream has facilitated Emma McQuaid’s move into professionalism.

Having raced quad bikes until she was 24, the 30-year-old fears that she’s just too late a starter at this to conceivably reach number one in the world.

“Um… Unfortunately, to be 100 per cent realistic, I don’t think it is [achievable]. I can see myself winning certain competitions but to win the CrossFit games, I’m probably at the wrong side of it now.

“I would have needed to be a wee bit closer about three years ago. Realistic goals for me is to potentially win a workout at the CrossFit Games, smaller goals.

“I think as an overall athlete, I can do quite well and keep progressing. To win would be a completely different level, but I definitely think I’m worthy of top 10 in the world.”

Six of the top 20 women in last year’s Games were older, with Norwegian Kristin Holte achieving a career-best second-place at the age of 33.

Manchester’s Sam Briggs is one of Emma’s training partners and turned 37 in March.

Training differs day-by-day, but one thing that rarely changes is how much she eats.

Sports like CrossFit are slowly breaking down barriers around body image and the remnants of the toxic culture that had women believing the only way to feel good was to eat less.

Emma McQuaid consumes around 3,300 calories a day. She’s taking in 400g of carbohydrate, 150g of which she drinks, just to make it a little easier.

When she started out, she weighed 72kg and her body fat was 23 per cent. Food is fuel and despite eating like a horse each and every day, she’s now in around 63kg and 10 per cent body fat.

Living the lifestyle of a professional athlete has made that attainable but progress is all relative.

Gyms have never been more popular in Ireland, and the market is only going one way.

“I think people see CrossFit as a sport and not just health and fitness. There’s two sides to it. My mum and mother-in-law could go into a gym tomorrow and get an equally good workout, it can be scaled from complete beginner to advanced, and we’ll both get the same workout.

“I don’t think people see that side of CrossFit, they always see the Netflix side [featured in the CrossFit Games documentary]. That’s only 0.1 per cent of the world.

“The other 99.9 per cent go to the gym and train for health and fitness.”

Travelling the world is one hobby, and “pink-and-fluffy” shows on Netflix another. But aside, it’s an unbelievably disciplined life she leads.

The reward of California is harder to see on the horizon, but it is there if she can find a way to push into the top five when the delayed Games begin on September 18.

If Emma McQuaid is allowed to use her home gym, she’ll have her family and friends in the background for support.

Front and centre will be David. They’re still chipping at finishing the house and, after being engaged for seven years, the wedding will fall in whenever they have the money again.

Their attitude is one and the same - get up and get on.

Because of that, nothing is beyond her.

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