The Scherzo from Felix Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of the most demanding passages in flute repertoire.
It’s fast. Technical. It’s got to be both crisp and feather-light — and there’s nowhere to breathe.
Naturally, Sarah Howard plays it while dragging a 225-lb sled backward across the gym.
It may look like a party trick.
In reality, it’s an exhibition in grit.
“CrossFit both attracts and develops grit,” writes Nicole Carroll, CrossFit’s Chief Brand Officer.
It takes grit to do a workout like Grace — 30 clean and jerks for time. Dan Bailey once did it in 1:01. On Friday morning in the Spectator Workout Area at the 2023 NOBULL CrossFit, Howard did it in 1:18 — only 17 seconds slower than the five-time CrossFit Games veteran.
Howard, 45, is gritty in a lot of ways. You have to be to get into the United States Air Force Band, a premier ensemble whose seats — on the rare occasion there’s a vacancy — attract hundreds of the nation’s top musicians per position.
Howard wanted to be a musician for as long as she can remember. As a child, she pulled the tube off the vacuum cleaner and pretended it was a flute.
“If I had three arms, one would be a flute,” she joked.
Howard taught herself to play as a child — never taking a private lesson until college — and performed with several symphony orchestras across the Eastern United States before joining the Air Force Band in 2006.
But all the grit in the world can’t prepare you to lose the person who means the most to you in the world.
Howard’s mother — one of the first African American flight attendants for Pan Am in the 1970s — was, as Howard says, a “force.”
“She was a way-paver,” Howard said. “She would take in strays, and I don’t mean animals. … She always was giving her heart to people, almost to her own detriment, because it was always everyone else before herself.”
She was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2011, passing six months later. Howard fell into a deep depression.
Antidepressants didn’t work. Therapy wasn’t helping much, either.
“It was almost like I was standing outside myself watching life happen,” she said. “I (was) just like a zombie; I couldn’t function.”
Her marriage became strained — she would eventually divorce — and she felt she was failing at everything she’d been taught to be.
“I was taught to be strong,” Howard said. Black women — especially those raised by mothers of the Civil Rights Movement era, as Howard was — have to be.
“I was taught to present the best face all the time,” she said. “As a little girl, my grandmother would dress me up just to go to the grocery store or to the park, always. I could never come out with my hair looking crazy.”
So Howard hid her struggles, burying her grief and her shame.
Until Murph dredged it back up.
A friend had long urged Howard to try CrossFit. She’d always been active — Howard danced ballet in her youth and ran long distances regularly — and he thought she’d take to CrossFit well.
“It just looked like a bunch of people at a barbecue doing crazy shit, and I was like, ‘Nah, this isn’t for me,’” she said.
But running no longer felt like a release. She needed something more.
So in 2013, she walked into a CrossFit gym in Warner Robins, Georgia, and got her first taste of CrossFit with the renowned Hero workout.
Two miles, 300 squats, 200 push-ups, and 100 pull-ups did what drugs could not. She finished the final run, fell to the floor, and had a revelation.
“I layed on the ground, and I cried,” she recalled. “Everything came up. Everything. … At that moment I was like, ‘This is what I need. Fuck Xanax.’”
It was about a year later. Howard’s first attempt at a three-digit snatch.
Howard set her hands wide. Thumbs around the bar, fingers around the thumbs. Pull.
“I hit the pocket, and I jumped straight up,” she said.
The bar didn’t just go up — it went up, over, and around behind her. It didn’t matter that she didn’t catch it. She’d just tossed 105 lb overhead.
“Yeah, girl, that’s it,” her coach said. “What’re you going to do next?”
In the decade since Howard started CrossFit, she’s added 80 lb to that snatch. She power cleans 235 lb. And the woman who did jumping pull-ups in her first Murph now coaches muscle-ups (and does them, too) as a CrossFit Level 2 Trainer at Trial Built CrossFit in Vacaville, California.
But the bigger gains have been mental.
“Realizing what my body could do physically, I think, was very empowering,” Howard said.
In CrossFit, she found a safe space to be vulnerable — ”I’m able to walk in and be 100% Sarah,” she said — and when it’s safe to be vulnerable, it’s safe to fail.
As Carroll writes:
“We work so hard in front of one another that we lose, and witness others losing, some semblance of the death grip on our tidy, protective layers. In the gym, we work hard in front of others to the point where we’re not sure we can do it — finish the workout or not, pick up the weight again, or jump back up on the bar. In our workouts, there’s the chance of failure, but we do it anyway, and we share that effort and the outcomes of that effort with others who have just experienced the same thing.”
And the outcomes of that effort? Grit.
“Every moment that you make yourself a little uncomfortable is a moment of growth,” Howard said.
The good news: You don’t have to do it alone.
In CrossFit — in the many affiliates Howard has come to call home as she’s toured with the Air Force Band — Howard has found a family. People who do more than just cheer for her PRs or high-five post-workout.
“Those are the people that come over at two o’clock in the morning when my kid is puking,” she said. “The struggling through workouts, that mental space it takes you in … it kind of draws people together and you’re able to share your deepest feelings. It’s not just physical fitness.”
“You are greater than the limits you set for yourself.”
Today, Howard starts every class she coaches at Trial Built CrossFit with a mantra. And if she hears you talking down to yourself? You best bet she’ll have you frame it.
It’s part of an effort to help her athletes build mental resilience along with their fitness.
“I’m not just teaching people fitness, I’m teaching them mental health,” she said. “Practicing in this moment where it’s a physical thing that’s difficult for you is going to help develop mental toughness for when you’re in life and something doesn’t go right.”
It’s no different than learning a muscle-up, she said.
One drill at a time.
“You have to take one drill and drill the fuck out of it. Drill it, drill it, drill it, and become proficient at each one of the drills,” Howard said.
“And by the time you know it, you’re jumping up to the rings and you just go.”
About the Author
Brittney Saline is Senior Writer and Editor for CrossFit, LLC. Previously, she was a writer and editor for the CrossFit Journal. She’s been sharing powerful stories from and for the CrossFit community since 2012, covering topics ranging from problems with healthcare and Big Pharma to CrossFit’s potential for reversing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease to discourses on femininity and musculature. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and her favorite CrossFit workouts feature lots of heavy lifting. Got a story to share? Email Brittney here.