Adapting and Thriving: An Interview with CrossFit Games Athlete Amy Bream

Many world-class competitors are die-hard athletes who dreamed about winning championship titles for years. Amy Bream isn’t one of them. A self-admitted “non-athlete” for the majority of her life, Bream spent her younger years studying music rather than playing sports. However, when circumstances unexpectedly aligned, she saw an opportunity to channel her competitive spirit into an outlet she likely never expected.

Bream was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency (PFFD) — a rare congenital disorder that resulted in missing the majority of her right leg. The determined athlete hasn’t let that come anywhere close to stopping her, as she’s been a top contender in the CrossFit Games Lower Extremity Adaptive division since its inception in 2021.

Bream has placed fifth, third, and fourth at the CrossFit Games (2021, 2022, 2023 respectively) and she continues training and competing internationally. Just a few weeks after the 2023 Games, we had an opportunity to get her ideas about CrossFit training, the future of the Adaptive division, and how to surprise yourself with success after first getting yourself uncomfortable.

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Breaking Muscle: You actually started in a boxing gym before getting into weight training. How’d you start there and end up here?

Amy Bream: I didn’t used to workout much. Definitely not in public or anything like that. So I started boxing in 2015. It wasn’t sparring or anything, it was more of a group fitness kind of thing. And then I picked up my first barbell in 2019.

In that gym, they started a weight training class. It was like functional fitness, but I started to do a little bit of strength and conditioning. When I found out CrossFit had Adaptive divisions in 2021, January of 2021 is actually when I started trying out CrossFit training. I didn’t actually step foot into my first box, though, until the Saturday before I left for my first Games.

BM: Do you think you would’ve gotten into CrossFit training if there wasn’t that avenue to compete?

AB: You know, that’s a good question. I don’t know, because I was content with where I was and I was content with the style of training that I had.

An Adaptive athlete on Instagram reached out to me about it and I literally told him at first, “Hey, no offense, but I’ve seen CrossFit people. I respect it, but y’all are nuts. There’s no way.” And he was just like, “I feel like you would respond pretty well to it,” because I had been posting about my fitness journey up to that point.

He said, “You have a couple of months to train. What’s the worst that can happen? You can try it and hate it, and then you just stop.” I realized that was a good point. I have a competitive personality. At that point, I didn’t realize quite the extent of it because I’d never competed in anything physical.

I think I was similar to people who aren’t in CrossFit and just have those stigmas in their mind of what it was or what it looked like. You know, the quote-unquote “haters.” Then I started doing it and I was just like, “Oh.” I understand why those stigmas are there, but this is nothing like that and I actually loved it.

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BM: That does bring up one topic that the “haters,” or the critics, have. They consider ‘CrossFit training’ different from ‘training for CrossFit.’ They’ll say, “The people at the Games don’t train CrossFit.” But, do you? Is there a difference?

AB: I think there’s a difference in that, obviously when you’re fitting it into a CrossFit class, you can only have so much intentionality at certain things. It is very similar. You can be the best athlete in the world and go take a CrossFit class and get your butt kicked. Because you can push to whatever intensity level that you’re personally at.

Obviously if you’re a person that’s just looking to generally get a little bit more fit and you’re taking a CrossFit class, you’re not going to do it with the same approach and intentionality. It’s easy to say, “Oh, they have that movement, but I’m going to scale.” If you don’t have a skill, you really need to put in some extra time outside of the class in order to build it.

You can’t realistically expect to learn all of these new things within an hour class, three to four times a week. That’s just not going to happen. There’s too many things to learn. So I think the content of a CrossFit class is very similar to what competing athletes experience. They just approach it with a different intent and they’ll do more of that.

BM: Earlier this year, you became a full-time athlete. What does that look like? Are you doing two-a-days six days a week, or what?

AB: It depends on the season of training. Leading up to the Games, yes, that’s what I was doing. And my training is still not as intense as you would say for the elite Individual division. Adaptive divisions are a little bit different. And also, what my body can physically handle on my one leg is a little bit different, as well. So I’m pretty conscious of that.

But I was definitely in the gym four to five hours a day, six days a week. It was still pretty intense. I started at that boxing gym for fun, eventually started working there part-time, and then became operations director of their three locations here in Nashville. So I’ve done that full-time for about six years now.

And I stepped back and went to part-time a good bit of this year to make more room for training. As that kept progressing, it became pretty clear. If I want to do other things and try to grow my own things on the side, there’s just no way I can have both. So I made some pretty distinct decisions and I was actually still training classes there, just because I love coaching, throughout the summer alongside my training. I had given them a heads up that I wouldn’t be returning after the Games. So yeah, life is very different now.

BM: So now, do you have an offseason? There’s the Games and the Open, but are there other competitions you take part in? I know WheelWod is one. What does your year look like?

AB: Technically speaking, the offseason is now [September]. I will say, it’s a little bit different. There are always other competitions you can experience. With the non-adaptive divisions, a lot of them are doing the Rogue Invitational at the end of October. And there will be ones here and there, like Wodapalooza and things.

But those competitions, you care about competing and you’re going to be in shape for it, but it’s not quite as intense as the CrossFit Games. I would say, the season of what people see is starting with the CrossFit Open, usually in February, and you just keep progressing through qualifiers to try to make it to the Games. So if you’re in that loop, it just gets more and more intense. And then lockdown season is the end of May up until the Games in August.

One thing that I do kind of wish is that there was a little bit more cohesiveness with Adaptive divisions. It’s been my experience that Adaptive competitions are growing, which is great. But it’s not exactly on the same schedule as the Games. So I actually leave to compete in Australia in just under three weeks. And I’m taking a different mentality. My body is still recovering right now. I took it because I really want the experience and I would love to be in Australia and do all of those things.

But also, a lot of the adaptive competitions are towards the end of the year and the technical non-adaptive division starts up in the beginning of the year. So I don’t feel like I have much breathing room because I compete about every three months regardless. But, again, for this season it’s working.

BM: In your mind, or in your ear, is there a difference between being referred to as an “Adaptive athlete” versus “an athlete?”

AB: In theory, I think there shouldn’t be. I think, in reality there is, if I’m being honest. And I think that goes to both sides because, if I’m being perfectly blunt, obviously if you’re looking at competitions like the Games, most of the emphasis will be put on the elite divisions and the divisions that bring the most attention, which I completely understand.

At the same time, I’d like to see that shift and grow a little bit more because I think the other divisions could get more air time and things. I think the athletes deserve that, because I think that there are athletes that are just straight-up incredible athletes, Adaptive or not, and they should have a little bit more, I don’t know if the word is “respect,” but just recognition for it.

I don’t think people even realize just how good a lot of adaptive athletes are. And I’m not even being like, “Oh, I’m so good.” I’m just talking the sport in general. I’ve seen adaptive athletes kick non-adaptive athletes’ ass. It’s for real.

BM: I believe it. Casey Acree flew through, undefeated, and it’s crickets. But if an Individual competitor did that — first place, first place, first place straight through in every event — for sure, it’s noticeable.

[Editor’s Note: Casey Acree is a three-time CrossFit Games champion in the Men’s Upper Extremity Adaptive division (2021, 2022, 2023). In both 2022 and 2023, Acree maintained an undefeated winning streak for a total of 25 events, placing first in every workout from the CrossFit Open through to the Games.]

AB: Yes, exactly. And I think, again, when you hear “adaptive athlete,” if you haven’t experienced it and seen it firsthand before, it’s easy to think in your head what the competition looks like. But they’re not realizing.

It’s funny, I’m sure you saw everything with Roman [Khrennikov]* this year. Incredible. I don’t want to take away from that. All of that was incredible. Him doing [jump rope] double-unders. I can’t imagine the emotional state that he was in. Being in first place and having to go and show up, and all of those things.

But the crowd was like, “That’s incredible!” Which it was. It was. I was watching it online and I remember at one point, when Roman finished the double-unders and then went to the sled pull, he put his leg down and was pushing off that one leg to pull. The announcer said, “Man, he’s really got to be careful about doing all these movements on one leg.”

And I remember just stopping and thinking, people actually don’t know. He is doing this workout and, if I was doing this workout, it is exactly how I would be doing it. Double-unders on one leg, they asked me to do that in 2021. We had sled pulls this year but they didn’t let us sit down, so I was just pulling standing up on one leg. People actually don’t know that athletes are competing at a high level and doing all of these things just as he is. So that’s the kind of thing I just wish people saw more, honestly.

And again, if you’re not exposed to it, you’re not exposed to it. So I do understand. But my point is, if you say that you want to provide a space for adaptive athletes, make people exposed to it. You know? Let’s go all the way with it. I’m hoping it just takes some time, but that it will get to that point.

*[Editor’s Note: Roman Khrennikov was the points leader during the first three days of the 2023 CrossFit Games and appeared on track to win the Individual Men title. However, he suffered a fractured foot during the first event of the competition’s final day and completed the remaining two events primarily on one leg, eventually earning third place.]

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BM: For 2024, CrossFit did say they’re going to have all eight Adaptive divisions compete at the Games — Vision, Short Stature, Seated with Hip Function, Seated without Hip Function, and Intellectual, in addition to Upper Extremity, Lower Extremity, and Multi Extremity.

AB: Yeah, and I have a lot more confidence that it will change for the better given that they’ve made some changes, staff-wise. Not to say anything bad on what it was, but I personally know the person that is stepping into the role from a programming standpoint.

I’ve been to other competitions where he’s been over the adaptive parts and it was beautifully done. Not perfect, because adaptive divisions are always learning and adjusting, and it can be so messy. But so well done. And so the fact that he now has a little bit more control in that gives me confidence.

I will say, too, that some of it is on the adaptive divisions, because it’s very easy for adaptive athletes to be like, “We want this, we what this, and we want this.” For one, I get it, but patience. And two, be proactive. If you’re complaining about not having representation, then you should be paying to show up at these competitions and be in the crowd.

You can’t complain and not do anything. If you want to see change, be a part of the change while it’s messy.

BM: So, is Adaptive Teen division going to be a thing in 10 or 15 years?

AB: I would love to see that. I didn’t ever see adaptive athletes when I was a teen. This wasn’t a thing. I will say, as messy as it’s been, there’s so many opportunities for adaptive athletes that weren’t a thing when I was a teenager. I think, let’s just keep it going. Let’s do it while it’s messy, even it out, and make room for that in the future.

BM: There’s so much possibility on that end. Right now, you’re training with the East Nashville PRVN team. Are you rubbing elbows with Tia and Shane or is it just whoever’s around?

AB: Yeah, pretty much. I mean right now it’s the offseason so obviously Tia and Shane are in Australia. But yeah, that was a big hurdle for me just because I was really intimidated. My first session with them, I thought I was going to be with one person that I had met and it was just going to be this quiet little “are you in shape or not” thing.

I show up and their whole crew is there. And I was like, “Ho-ly crap.” I was doing clean & jerks next to Tia just trying to be as quiet as possible. But yeah, that’s been great.

BM: How does that work, is it just sharing a gym or sharing programming? What’s the day-to-day like in a team atmosphere?

AB: That was actually really different than I was used to. But yeah, it’s group and team programming. For me, obviously it was a little bit different because I don’t have the same things as the other teams.

When I joined the team, both sides, myself and them, were pretty honest. They were like, “Hey, we haven’t had an adaptive athlete on the team before. So you’re going to have to tell us, as we go, how you adapt certain movements.” They’d program for the team and I would approach them and say, “We’re not going to get this movement in a competition” or “I need to develop this strength first” or whatever it was, and they would change it for me from there.

As a team, you walk in and obviously everyone’s doing certain movements. They’ll do certain pieces together or everyone’s lifting in their part of the gym. They have a team of athletes, coaches Shane and Dwight, Nick, and a few others. Everyone’s just walking around.

It’s not quite one-on-one necessarily all the time and it’s not like a fishbowl effect. But you’re doing your workout and the coaches will approach you to watch certain pieces. And obviously whatever questions we have, we go to them and they’ll help adjust from there.

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BM: I saw that you recently enjoyed reading “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. Did that click with you as an athlete or as a musician?

AB: Oh, that’s a good question. Yeah, I would say maybe it clicked with me more as a musician, but I think it’s coming from that creative space. It’s very applicable to anything. I’m a very logical human being. If you tell me to do something, OK, but if you tell me why I’m doing it and how it will directly apply to the bigger picture, then I’m in.

So, as a musician, I didn’t like practicing scales for hours, but I would do it because I felt the technique difference in the beautiful, lyrical music I was doing that had technical aspects of it. It was very easy for me to make that connection.

But when it comes to something that feels bigger picture and scary, and relies more on a quote-unquote creative sense, I will distract myself with, “I’ll go back to practicing scales, thank you very much.” It’s harder to have that discipline with something that’s scary.

For me, that book just clicked because, when I read it, I had plans and I knew that I wanted to make changes in my job. Simply because I wanted to make room for training. But also, I’m doing a lot more speaking engagements and just things for myself as, for lack of another way of saying it, myself as a brand. Just doing things that I was looking forward to, but also were really scary.

And it’s easy to talk about, but to sit down at a computer and make those things happen was a struggle for me for a long time, because oftentimes I’d feel overwhelmed and I’d avoid doing those things. Reading that book was just such a practical sense for me of applying something that felt kind of mystical and making it, “No, sit down. Every day. And do it.” I was like, oh, OK, it’s like anything else. It’s like practicing scales, but in a different way.

BM: Speaking of your mindset, one of video on the CrossFit Games YouTube channel is your “Fight for One More Rep.” It’s got 360,000 views so far. 20 seconds to go, still grinding away, you get one last rep.

When you’re approaching the time cap in an event and, to be frank, if it’s clear you’re not going to win the event, how do you not just think, “Meh, extra rest. I’ll wait.” How do you focus for that one more rep?

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AB: That is hard and it depends on what situation I’m in. But I think if I go into it with the mindset of, it’s about winning the event, then it’s very easy to give up.

And I have gone into events before and I see pretty quickly that I’m not going to win it, and I just want to shut down. Then the workout becomes way worse than it needed to be because I’m all in my head. But I try very hard not make that the majority of the time. Especially now, having more competitions and seasoning.

For that particular event, I’ll never forget, some of the video shows exchanges between me and my coach at the time. And his whole thing that week was “No matter what happens, you will give everything. You’ve earned your right to be here. You will give everything that you have to prove to yourself that you belong. And you’re not going to crap out now.”

Even before that event, I was in the back almost throwing up. I was so nervous because I knew the weight was a PR for me. I had never gotten that over my head at that point before. I literally told him “I can’t do this. I do not want to go out in public and struggle, because I know it’s going to be a struggle.” He said, “You will fight for every second. You will not quit.” And I was like, “OK.”

I think that’s what resonated with people, because a lot of people did respond to that video. I mean, I was last. It wasn’t about winning the event. It was just about pushing through. And I think, too, not to pull this card because sometimes I think it can be overused, but I am very grateful for having something that makes me very aware of what I have.

Missing a leg has made me more aware that I have three full-functioning limbs that I can use to the fullest. And going to other adaptive competitions and seeing people with different challenges, and arguably much greater challenges than what I experience, has made me so grateful for what I have.

And I think, to show up with an attitude like, “Well if I’m not gonna win, I’m not gonna do it at all,” is just a slap in the face to everyone that would give so much to have the movement that I have. So, yeah, out of respect for myself, but out of respect for those people, I will always make sure to work my hardest.

BM: What do you think non-CrossFitters — let’s assume not the “haters,” but the ones that are actually interested in finding something useful — what could they get from CrossFit training as a whole?

AB: I would say seeing the importance of staying consistent with small things, how it contributes to the big picture. Because it’s very easy to look at people doing muscle-ups, if you’re a first-timer, and say “Well, I’m never going to do that.”

But you start with tiny things. “Well, I learned a kip. And then I learned a kipping pull-up. And then I learned a kipping chest-to-bar.” And then a couple months later… Rather than just shutting it down. Just do a tiny bit at a time. And that is so applicable to things outside in life.

I think also, people can love or hate this phrase, but “entering the pain cave.” It is one of the hardest things in the world to feel physical pain, when you’re just so tired and want to give up. And the adrenaline you feel, even if you’re not winning, but finishing something.

In 75% of my workouts, I will have at least one point in the workout thinking “I can’t finish this.” But I make myself finish, and that adrenaline rush of “I just did that. I did something that I didn’t think that I could do” has given me so much confidence and mental stamina to not give up in other areas of my life.

So when I approach my job, it’s like, “This is tiring or this is hard, but I will finish it. I will accomplish this task.” And that is so helpful in life.

BM: It sounds almost “meatheady” to say, but there’s so much carryover from the gym to outside the gym.

AB: Very much, yeah. Meathead or not, it’s true.

BM: Is there anything else about your background or your experiences that you want people to know about?

AB: Not necessarily. I love CrossFit, I love competing. I think a lot of what I want to continue to do and I’m kind of growing into is, when I talk to people, I always want to be relatable. So having people understand I didn’t grow up athletic, that I didn’t grow up having confidence, just a lot of things.

I think a lot of people can relate to that when they hear “CrossFit,” or even a gym setting in general. It’s just very intimidating. Realize you don’t have to look X, Y, Z in order to walk into a gym space. You don’t have to want to compete. You don’t have to want any of those things.

But it truly can be a life-changing experience to just do something that you’re a little bit scared of, and keep growing in that, and see where it takes you. In and out of the gym. I do speaking engagements, there are things that are coming up I’m really excited about, but it all comes from that. Me wanting to communicate that thought.

You don’t need prerequisites in order to start CrossFit or any other sport, or to do things that scare you. You just need to be willing to be a little bit uncomfortable and to keep going after you fail.

BM: Perfect. So what’s the best place for people to find your stuff?

AB: My website’s just amybream.com. They can also go to onelegtostandon.com, if that’s how they know me. It will be both. And of course my socials, Instagram and TikTok, mainly. Onelegtostandon.

Featured Image: @onelegtostandon / Instagram

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