South Carolina

Meet this CrossFit world champion. She’s a 50-year-old mom of 4 from Columbia

Columbia resident Jana Slyder wins first place at the World Crossfit Games 2019

Jana Slyder, a Columbia resident, was named the world’s number one female crossfit athlete at the World Crossfit Games on August 5, 2019.
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Jana Slyder, a Columbia resident, was named the world’s number one female crossfit athlete at the World Crossfit Games on August 5, 2019.

Jana Slyder, 50, stood atop a podium in Wisconsin on a Sunday in August, wearing a heavy medal and carrying the United States flag. And the Columbia native cried. Winning first place at the World CrossFit Games was a dream almost 7 years in the making.

“Everyday, I said, ‘I’m not going to compete. I’m going to win,’” Slyder said.

Slyder competed against 10 other elite athletes in her age bracket to take home the gold. The women endured days of grueling exercise challenges that incorporated Olympic lifting, gymnastics, swimming, biking, paddleboarding and more. But Slyder knew what to expect — she had trained for a year straight in order to win.

Her daily schedule rarely changed. Slyder woke up between 5 and 6 a.m., drank two to three cups of black coffee while doing “visualizations,” read a motivational book or her Bible, and ate breakfast of three egg whites, one full egg, whole grain toast with avocado and vegetables. Then, it was straight to her gym, Cottontown Crossfit, usually before 8 a.m., and did specialty training in high-skill gymnastics and jump rope doubles before taking a 9:30 a.m. group exercise class. After class, she would sometimes work out for another hour to become used to the grind.

“You want to be able to perform at a high level [when] fatigued, tired, hungry,” she said.

She even went back to the “box,” as CrossFit aficionados call their gyms, in the evenings for additional workouts.

To keep her going, Slyder’s lunches and dinners were all-fuel, no-frills and catered by Primal Gourmet, a local company that specializes in making organic and healthful ready-to-eat meals. And when she wasn’t training, caring for her four children — three of them school-aged — Slyder was doing her job as director of business development for Carolina Mattress and Furniture.

She did all of that while sticking to a strict 9 p.m. bedtime that caused her husband, Matt, to nickname her “Cinderella Firebreather.” She could never go to the ball because she needed at least 8 hours of rest to recuperate from training.

“Sleep is absolutely the best performance enhancer,” said Slyder, who sleeps on a mattress with an adjustable base, in a cold, dark room filled with white noise.

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In order to achieve her mission of being the best CrossFit athlete of her age in the world, Slyder had to prioritize herself.

“Anytime you set a goal at this level, it’s a very selfish goal,” she said.

She had to be okay with missing vacations or extra time with family. She had to rein in guilt and fight against lessons she learned as a girl, about her value being her ability to care for others.

“People should be allowed to have something for themselves and not feel guilty about it,” she said.

Slyder trained hard and became mentally tough, but her athleticism far preceded her desire to be a world champion.

When she was in fourth grade in her small town of Rogersville, Missouri, Slyder’s father noticed she had skill. Every morning, J.D. Green woke Slyder up at 4 a.m. and took her on a run around their “country block,” which was four miles. When they got back to the hill near their home, they would do 10 hill sprints and then a 200-yard dash home. By seventh grade, Slyder could beat her father in the dash.

Green wanted Slyder to be an Olympian someday, and so he trained her in three sports. Slyder still holds multiple track records at her high school, she said. Her athletic career continued through college but then life happened.

Slyder, who was living in Chicago after graduating, got married and had children. She still ran marathons and competed in various races, but she wasn’t at the same level she used to be. Then, her friend introduced her to CrossFit.

“The first day I went there, I was completely hooked,” Slyder said.

As a naturally competitive person, she loved the layers of competition — against herself, against others and against the clock. Early on, one of her coaches told her about the CrossFit Games. Slyder wanted in. It would take five years of training in order to even qualify for the games, her coach said.

“When you decide that you’re going to become an elite athlete, your family should be a little bit worried about you,” she said, because training becomes an “obsession.”

Slyder, then in her forties, started her journey toward the games. As children grew and home states changed and years passed, she kept training.

Scott Fitzgerald, 48, met Slyder in 2016 when she lived in Augusta, Georgia. They started training together, as the only two people in the area who qualified for the world games. Fitzgerald said he saw Slyder’s commitment.

“I just know what kind of athlete she is and her mental toughness is unbelievable, and her resolve,” he said.

By 2018, Slyder qualified for the games as 12th in the world in her age bracket. But her first chance at winning ended shortly after arrival, when Slyder received a call from family saying that her youngest daughter had fallen very ill and could have a serious illness. She returned home, scared for her daughter but also personally demoralized.

Her daughter fully recovered, and once life calmed down, Slyder said she had to move on.

“I had to mourn the death of that dream,” she said.

Then, Slyder learned about “God-sized goals” in “Chasing the Lion,” a book about setting goals that are “destined to fail without divine intervention.” She set her goal and resumed her strict lifestyle.

And life threw yet another curveball at Slyder when her father, the person who first planted a dream inside of girl Jana, suffered a massive heart attack. She went back to Missouri to be with him, still trying to continue her training regimen. When he recovered from surgery for multiple blockages in his heart, Slyder said her father told her he saw her winning.

The day she became a world champion, she sent her father a text message with a picture of her on the podium and a message: “I accomplished my dream this weekend, dad.” Green texted back, saying he was crying and that he was proud of his “Jon” — the male version of the name Jana and what he called her since middle school because she always trained with boys.

After her big win, Slyder first devoured a donut and then burgers and fries, cheesecake, ice cream, pizza and pancakes. She plans to go on vacation with her family to Utah and then, maybe she’ll try to break a world record for Olympic lifting, she says. Or maybe she’ll accept invitations she’s received to do motivational speaking. That’s all to be determined, according to Slyder.

Isabella Cueto is a bilingual multimedia journalist covering Lexington County, one of the fastest-growing areas of South Carolina. She previously worked as a reporter for the Medill Justice Project and WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station. She is a graduate of the University of Miami, where she studied journalism and theatre arts.