From Pirouettes to Pistols

Brooke Ence left behind a lifetime of dance to discover a new passion in CrossFit.
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It was the ninth event of the 2015 Reebok CrossFit Games, and Brooke Ence couldn't see. Competitors to each side sported sunglasses to block the California sun's piercing gaze; Ence, a rookie, had none.

Athletes had two 20-second windows to establish a max clean-and-jerk. In her first window, Ence put 227 pounds on the board. Feeling lightheaded as she locked out the weight, she was tempted to go for a more modest 235 pounds on her second attempt instead of the 242 pounds her coach, Michael Caza-youx, had prescribed. After all, she’d hit her lifetime PR of 245 pounds just two weeks prior, and that was without two days of CrossFit Games events beforehand.

She shook off her doubt. “I thought, Nope, he gave me that number for a reason,” Ence recounts. She loaded her bar with 242 pounds and asked to borrow her judge’s sunglasses. After a slight bounce to wind up her hamstrings, she pulled the weight and dropped in a squat, popping the barbell to regrip after she rose. Four seconds and one deep breath later, she dipped, drove and locked out the weight. Breaking into a grin before she’d even finished the lift, she slammed the bar to the ground and tore off her weight belt in celebration.

At 2 pounds more than four-time Games competitor Lindsey Valenzuela would lift, Ence’s score was good enough for first place. She went on to earn 14th overall in her debut Games appearance with two event wins and four top-10 finishes.

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“I’ve literally watched that video so many times because the clean is so sexy,” the 27-year-old says, laughing. “It was just gratifying, and it proves that I was at the Games because I was supposed to be there and I earned it. I’m just as good as anybody else.”

Before she belonged under a bar, Ence belonged in the dance studio. As a toddler, she pranced more than she walked, so her mother signed her up for dance class at age 4. The youngest of four siblings, Ence grew up in the dance studio, spending her childhood studying ballet, jazz and musical theater alongside softball, soccer, gymnastics and swimming. “I’ve always wanted to be good at everything,” she says. As she grew older and the extracurriculars demanded more time, Ence chose to focus on dance alone. “Dance was more of my passion,” she says. “Dance was a form of relief and release.” She went on to become a modern-dance major at the University of Utah.

“CrossFit has become something I really care about, and I crave it the same way I crave dance.”

After her second year of college, Ence spent a summer in Los Angeles, taking auditions and dancing for two agencies. It was an eye-opening experience. “What I realized out there is there’s always someone who looks just like you and dances just as well as you, if not better, and there’s always someone younger coming up,” she says. The cutthroat nature of show business took its toll, and though Ence loved her art, she moved back to Utah to finish college at the end of the summer.

Before moving to LA, Ence had briefly joined CrossFit Dixie in St. George, Utah. Invited to audition for the esteemed Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil show Le Rêve, she needed to learn rope climbs and skin-the-cats. A friend said CrossFit Dixie was just the place, and after her first workout, Ence agreed. “My first impression was: I’ve been athletic my entire life, and this is something that would make me a better athlete,” she says.

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Ence made it through the final round of auditions, though it turned out Le Rêve didn’t have a role for her. When she returned to Utah, she decided to keep training, joining Ute CrossFit in August 2009. She made an immediate impression on affiliate owner Tommy Hackenbruck. “We went out and did some 40-yard dashes, just for fun,” he recounts. “I remember just timing people on my stopwatch, and Brooke was faster than everyone at the gym — guys, girls, everyone.”

Six months later, she finished 22nd at the 2010 Sectional in Utah, just two places shy of qualifying for the Northwest Regional. Ence believes that rapid success is all because of dance. “One of the biggest things [dance] has given me is total body awareness,” she says. “That’s what I attribute to my ability with the Olympic lifts and catching onto movements fairly quickly — it’s because of body awareness and being able to watch someone do something and do the exact same thing with my body because I’ve literally done that my whole life.”

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In 2011, Ence helped team Ute CrossFit earn second place and its second trip to the Games at the Southwest Regional, though she did not compete on the team in Carson that summer, subbed out by Hackenbruck for a more experienced athlete. “I’ll admit it was the wrong decision,” Hackenbruck reflects now. “The other girl was the right person to be on the team, but Brooke was the wrong person to take off.”

“Dance was more of my passion. Dance was a form of relief and release.”

Meanwhile, Ence kept working, dancing three times a day and training at Ute CrossFit three days per week. In 2012, she made a decision that altered the course of her life. Her boyfriend (now husband), Marston Sawyers, was offered a position on the media team at CrossFit Headquarters. To take it, he’d have to move to Santa Cruz, California, and he wasn’t going without Ence.

Ence and Sawyers met in 2007 at a Del Taco. It was 2 a.m., and he was refueling with his football team while she was celebrating her birthday with friends. “He makes me laugh,” Ence says. Ence had dreamed of moving to New York or Chicago, cities entrenched in the arts where she could take auditions. “A lot of that changed when I decided to follow a boy,” she says. The couple moved to Santa Cruz in 2012, and Ence worked in a local coffee shop before passing the Level-1 certificate course and taking a coaching position at CrossFit West Santa Cruz. Still, it wasn’t until the fall of 2013 that she decided to commit to training as a CrossFit athlete. “I had been doing CrossFit just because I wanted to stay in shape, and I was good at it,” she says. “But after watching the [2013] Games, I decided I want to try to do this.”

She called Hackenbruck, and together they hatched a training plan. At the time, she could clean-and-jerk 205 pounds and back squat 295 pounds, but workouts testing endurance left her gassed. “I was a strong athlete and an explosive athlete, so short workouts that were heavy were my jam, but I needed to build an engine,” Ence says. Hackenbruck took away the barbell, and for three months, Ence biked, rowed and ran. “It’s not just about running,” Hackenbruck says, “but if you can make yourself a good runner, that will trickle down to everything else you can do.”

Her efforts paid off with a sixth-place finish at the 2014 Northern California Regional, where, despite a focus on endurance, she matched her snatch PR with 180 pounds from the hang to win Event 1. The victory helped Ence see herself as something she never had before: a legitimate CrossFit athlete. “I was like, Holy shit, I can compete with these girls,” Ence remembers. “I also realized that there were things I needed to keep working on, and that one year of full-time training wasn’t going to be enough,” she adds.

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To prepare for the 2015 season, Ence turned to Cazayoux, who had taken over Ute CrossFit’s competitive programming, for her own training plan, along with a team of specialists for weightlifting (Matt Bruce), gymnastics (Nick Sorrel) and endurance (Chris Henshaw). Across a six-day training week, her work was divided into two Olympic-lifting days with a metcon and/or running workout afterward, two squat days with metcons after, one active-recovery day focused on gymnastics skill work, and one day of interval weight training, usually composed of three rounds of three different couplets with minimal rest between.

Ence also parceled out the CrossFit classes she had coached to the other coaches at CrossFit West Santa Cruz. “My volume was really high, and I was so tired by the end of my sessions that I didn’t have the energy to give to clients anymore,” Ence says. “I didn’t want to coach a class and not be able to be on while I was there and really focus on what I was doing. At that point, it wouldn’t make me a good coach anymore.”

Her sacrifice was rewarded with a first-place finish at the California Regional, where she won with four top-five finishes and a 24-point lead over Valenzuela, who took second. “I spent so many years being a part of CrossFit and hearing names and seeing people compete, so I always kept everybody on this different level or pedestal from me,” she says. “I never realized the Games really actually were within my reach.”

Unfortunately, a bout of plantar fasciitis prevented her from running in the months leading to the 2015 CrossFit Games, and the pain continues to this day. As a result, her 30th-place “Murph” finish put her in 26th place after Event 3. She made her comeback on the next event, winning the Snatch Speed Ladder (in which athletes lifted progressively heavier barbells in rapid succession, beginning with 110 pounds for women and ending with 180 pounds) with flawless technique. “I honestly had no idea how it was going to go because of how I felt after Murph,” she says. “I didn’t have any expectations, but I knew I couldn’t hold back and there were no second chances, so I put my head down and hoped for the best.”

The weekend wore on with highs and lows, opportunities for celebration and learning alike. Ence showed her explosive power with sixth- and seventh-place finishes on Sprint Course 1 and Sprint Course 2 and followed a 19th-place finish in the Soccer Chipper with her win in Clean-and-Jerk. She finished the weekend in 14th overall, higher than Games veterans Michele Letendre, Elisabeth Akinwale and Rebecca Voigt.

“Top 15 is amazing for a rookie,” Ence says. “I’ve only been training for the CrossFit Games for two years; give me another year and I’ll be a force to be reckoned with.”

To make that threat a reality, Ence is already focused on training for the 2016 season. The goal, she says, is to continue to work on her engine while ensuring she’s as well-rounded as possible. Meanwhile, CrossFit has wedged itself into her heart. “It has become something I really care about, and I crave it the same way I crave dance,” she says. “It’s like a restart button. You could feel really crappy and do a workout where you fully exert yourself and you’re a sweaty gross mess on the floor, and by the end of the workout, you feel refreshed, like you’re starting over, and I appreciate that.”

More important, CrossFit has given her a future. “I want to be a professional athlete, but I also want to use CrossFit as a way of inspiring people and touching people in ways that make them feel better about themselves or motivate them to be better or healthier or change their lives,” she says. “I want to win the CrossFit Games, but I’m definitely going to help and inspire as many people as I can and work to build something for myself that’s going to last so much longer than my abilities as an athlete.”