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Jen Wagner: How CrossFit Saved Her Life

Jen Wagner has been on a wild ride during her athletic career. She's wrestled as a boy, broke multiple records as a college softball player, and battled a rare condition that nearly killed her. Jen's condition led her to find CrossFit, which played a huge part in getting her back to her normal self. 

Read our interview with Jen to learn more about her story!

KC: You were the lone girl on a guys wrestling team in your youth. How did that situation come about and how was that experience?

JW: We are a wrestling family, my uncle wrestled and I grew up going to his matches and watching him. I grew up in a really rural area and there weren’t many sports for girls to do so I always just played sports that were available and it was all boy sports. Wrestling was a great experience for me, I loved my team and the competition. When I was young it wasn’t that big of a deal that I was the only girl, but in middle school, the other teams started to forfeit the matches and wouldn’t wrestle me. The boys on my team always stood up for me, I was just like one of the guys. However, when the championships came at the end of the year, the boys could no longer forfeit because it wouldn’t allow them to move on into playoffs. That was great because I was finally able to compete, I won the district championship. I lost my first match in the next round of playoffs and decided that would be my last match. My parents and I decided that the boys were becoming stronger and I didn’t want to jeopardize my softball career. I did miss it and continue to follow wrestling today, I did try and get my two daughters to do it but they wanted nothing to do with wrestling. 

KC: You moved on from wrestling and decided to dominate in softball, where in high school you threw 13 no-hitters and 1 perfect game. Did something feel different on the days you completed those incredible feats? Could you tell you were in the zone?

JW: I was very fortunate to have my dad as one of my coaches and he made sure I was always in the zone. He was one of my biggest fans, best motivators, and hardest critics. My dad was able to instill the love of the game and the will to win at a very young age. I love competing and making people around me better. I had a great team behind me and we accomplished a lot of impressive feats for such a small school. During those games that I threw the no-hitters, I just wanted our team to win and the no-hitter was an added bonus. I do have to say that I remember my dad always yelling at me in the last inning of a no-hit game “Jen, bear down!!!” that put me back into that zone of giving 100% on every pitch. 

KC: You went on to be a 3x All American at the California University of Pennsylvania, breaking multiple records as a first baseman. Once you became an All-American for the first time, did you feel the pressure to repeat that success?

JW: I always had goals set for myself at the beginning of each year and being an All American was definitely one of them. I wanted to help my team and play 100% in every game. I loved being on a softball field and competing, it was my sanctuary. I would always tell people “there’s no better place to be than on a ball field” and I truly believe that. My playing days were some of the best days of my life, I loved my teammates on and off the field, we were one big family and support system for each other. I think I always put pressure on myself to be the best I could because I never wanted to let my teammates down. Pressure to me was not a bad emotion, it made me play better. I loved being that batter up in the last inning needing to get a hit to score the winning run, that’s what makes the game so much fun the challenges that come along with it. I will say something though, my senior year I was a first team All American and our team was one of the favorites to win the College World Series in 1996 and we fell short. I said it that day and I will continue to say it, “I would give up all of my All American honors and other awards to have that National Championship.” When we lost that last game of my college softball career that was a very hard day for me, it was like I lost a piece of myself. It took me a good two hours to take my spikes off. I just loved the game that much!!

KC: You chose to forgo a professional softball opportunity to coach at the University of Pittsburgh. How hard was it to give up playing?

JW: That may have been one of my life’s decisions that I do regret, but I would not change the life I have today for any professional career. I was given the opportunity to play professional softball in New Zealand after I finished up my college career. I was a couple of days from making the final plans to play overseas and the University of Pittsburgh announced that they were starting a softball program. I applied for the job just because I thought I wanted to continue with a career in coaching collegiate softball. I did not think I would get the job, and then the phone call came and I had to decide on coaching or playing. As I said, that was one of the hardest decisions of my life. My rationale for picking a coaching career was that would be a better decision for a career path. It all worked out because I met my wife at Pitt and went on to change my career path to teaching children with special needs and adopting our two daughters. 

KC: After your playing days, you were diagnosed with Ictal Bradycardia Partial Epileptic Seizures, a very rare condition that occurs when seizures happen in the Vagus nerve that slows and stops the heart. What was the process like of discovering you had this rare condition?

JW: This is a crazy story…..so in 1999 I kept having episodes of passing out. It happened a couple of times and then it happen when I was driving and I ended up going to the hospital after the accident. It was found that I had epilepsy. They put me on epilepsy medication to help with the seizures, the meds were not working and I continued to pass out. In the month of May 1999, I was put into the hospital for a sleep study to determine what type of seizures I was having and how they could better prevent them. During my second day in the hospital, I started having multiple seizures. While having the seizures it was found through an EKG that my heart stopped. I flatlined for 12 seconds and by the time they were able to get the crash cart over to me I just happened to wake up. I guess it wasn’t my time to go yet! I was immediately wheeled to the cardiatric floor of the hospital and a pacemaker was implanted the next morning. Since May of 1999 I have not lost consciousness due to my seizures, however, I continued to have seizures. My seizures were not being controlled by the medication and I became an anxious mess. I was diagnosed with anxiety along with my epilepsy. My seizures would trigger my anxiety and my anxiety would trigger my seizures, it was a vicious cycle. This went on for years, at one point I was taking 22 pills a day. I was on high doses of medication for my epilepsy and anxiety. My life was out of control, I was losing weight and I could barely function. I knew something had to change because it was affecting my entire life and family. That is when I found CrossFit. 

KC: You discovered CrossFit shortly after your diagnosis. How much did that discovery help you get back to your normal self?

JW: I can not thank CrossFit enough for getting me back to being “human”. I found CrossFit 8 years ago and have been seizure free ever since. I know that sounds almost unbelievable but it is so true. I look back at some journals that I kept during my really rough years and I was having 5-10 seizures a day. I am down from four different medications (22 pills) to two different medications (5 pills). I tried so many different exercise programs after collegiate softball and none of them felt like the “right” fit. My sister in law who served in the Army told me about a military-style workout that I would really like. Our conversation led me to sign up for my first CrossFit class. Crossfit became my new softball, the challenge and most of all the community. Our Crossfit City of Bridges community is the best, we are one big dysfunctional family and I love it. My closest friends are whom I CrossFit with and whom I get to spend a good hour or more with each day. I try to work out at 5:30 am with the crazy morning crew each day and then I coach the CrossFit kids Bridge Crew class in the evenings. My daughters both participate in the cf kids program at CFCB and I love spending the time with them along with showing them the benefits of living a healthy life. I tell people that CrossFit saved both my life and my family. 

KC: What does Kill the Quit mean to you?

JW: Kill the Quit to me is a way to help others be better than they think they are. I believe that everyone can just do a little more than they think they can and it is my job as a coach and educator to help these individuals become better students, athletes or just be a better person. Everyone is good at something and I make it my passion in life to help people find that in themselves.

Connor Deneau