"Doctors said I would never be an athlete again, and most definitely never be able to have full recovery."
Twelve years ago, Aly Willier was a young, professional snowboarder. She was at the peak of her career as she prepared to speed down the slope and hit the 60-foot jump at the 2000 Vans Triple Crown Big Air Event.
The clock counted down and buzzed when it was her time to go. Without hesitation, she started down the hill. She cut a tight line, building speed until suddenly she was at the jump. In auto-pilot, she started her rotation as she crested the jump, but it was a split second too early. The tip of her board clipped the lip, sending her spinning through the air before crashing down on her back.
Medics raced her to the hospital, where she was treated for 14 broken bones, including both hips, her left leg, pelvis, sacrum, coccyx and L4 and L5 vertebrae. “Doctors said I would never be an athlete again, and most definitely never be able to have full recovery,” Willier says.
Despite what the doctors were telling her, Willier made up her mind. “The moment they told me all the things I couldn't do, I decided in my mind I would prove them wrong. I wanted to know what I could do,” she remembers. “It was that moment that made me realize the power of mindset, mental commitment and determination.”
Given a life sentence of pain medication and physical therapy, Willier committed herself to recovery. After two months, she was able to walk again with external fixators still in her hips. After four months, she got back on her snowboard.
“I knew that if I believed in myself, had an amazing support system and focused on the controllable, I would come out of this whole experience as a stronger and better individual,” she says.
It seemed she beat the odds. Then, arthritis set in five years later. The metal plates, bolts and pins in her hips and back worsened the pain. She was told she needed a full hip replacement. Willier started looking into alternatives to surgery. “I couldn’t imagine being in a wheelchair again,” she says.
As a longtime athlete, she knew the benefits of fitness. She walked out of the doctor’s office and signed up for Pilates. But as fate would have it, she ended up at CrossFit South County instead.
“I went to the [Pilates] class, and the instructor was sick and so the class was canceled,” Willier says. “I was leaving the building wearing a bandana on my head and sweats when four military guys came sprinting through the parking lot, including Jimi Letchford and Lance Cantu. I kept walking to my car thinking that they looked like they were in great shape. Letchford, the owner of CrossFit South County at the time, yelled at me, ‘Hey where are going? You want to try this? You look like you could do it!’
“Without hesitation, I said, ‘Sure, what is it?’
“‘Helen.’ Thirty minutes later, I was addicted. I loved it and decided I would go do CrossFit every day of the week.”
After 10 months of CrossFit, Willier noticed her body changing. She felt stronger and the chronic pain in her hips subsided. When she returned to her doctor’s office, her new x-rays still showed arthritis, but due to all of the muscle she developed around her hips, pelvis and lower back, her bones had enough musculature support to save her from surgery.
“The doctor said, ‘The only way to prevent you from getting a hip replacement is to continue doing what you’re doing,’” Willier says.
“CrossFit … doctor’s orders,” she says.
Two years later, she competed at the highest level in CrossFit, joining CrossFit South County’s team in the 2009 CrossFit Games Affiliate Cup where they took 71st place. Through her CrossFit rehabilitation, she was able to compete with the Fittest on Earth.
But in the gym, she plays the fine line between pushing the limits of what’s possible and acknowledging where it’s smart to stop or slow down.
“I can’t ignore the fact that I have metal bolts and pins in my hips and back, and even though I want to say that I am pain free, heavy, heavy lifts or too much impact can cause some serious inflammation, which makes the pain more frequent,” she says. “So I am realistic in my goals.”
With an intelligent, balanced approach to training, she has been able to realize her own limits. “When someone puts limits on me that are based solely on their own opinion, I get fired up. The words ‘can’t’ and ‘won't be able to,’ are hard for me to accept.”