Two-Brain Radio: Getting Through Tough Times Using CrossFit With Carleen Mathews

The Two-Brain Radio logo next to a headshot of smiling athlete Carleen Mathews.

Sean: 00:04 – Hi everybody and welcome to another edition of Two-Brain Radio with Sean Woodland. Today I talk with four-time CrossFit Games athlete, Carleen Mathews. First: “Founder, Farmer, Tinker, Thief” by Chris Cooper is the blueprint you need to start or grow your business. But don’t take our word for it. Reader Mary Boimila says, “If you’re thinking about being an entrepreneur, are an entrepreneur or know an entrepreneur, wait no longer and dive right in.” Get your copy of “Founder, Farmer, Tinker, Thief” on Amazon today. Carleen Mathews has competed at the CrossFit Games three times as an individual and once as a master, and she just finished second overall in the 35-to-39-year-old division at the 2019 Reebok CrossFit Games. We talk about her experience in Madison this year, how CrossFit helped her get through a pretty difficult time in her life and what she is currently doing to help people who are dealing with addiction. Thanks for listening everyone. Carleen, thank you so much for taking the time to do this. How are ya?

Carleen: 01:07 – I’m great, thank you. Thanks for having me.

Sean: 01:10 – So first things first, you just finished second at the CrossFit Games in the 35-to-39-year-old age group. What was that experience like for you?

Carleen: 01:19 – It was a really, really cool experience. I didn’t really have any expectations going into it. So to place second was—I mean my coach and I kinda talked about it. It was like probably one of the greatest athletic accomplishments of my life. So it was really cool.

Sean: 01:43 – How does training for the Games as a master differ from training for the Games as an individual?

Carleen: 01:52 – Well this year I changed a lot of my training. It didn’t require me to do as much volume as you know, training as an individual there’s a lot of times where I felt like, I needed to be doing anything and everything extra. Because if I wasn’t doing it, then somebody else was getting better than me. And this year I really focused just on myself and I didn’t feel like I had like those comparisons. So, you know, I just kinda did what I felt like I wanted to do and what I felt like was best for me and so, you know, personally for me, that was kinda how it differed. The volume for the masters is not even close to as much as the individuals. Which I think is great. I think that’s how it needs to be. So that was a really good change of pace for me.

Sean: 02:56 – We were talking about this right before we came on here, but when you look at that field in which you competed, I mean, there were some pretty impressive names there. What does it mean to you to be able to, you know, not only compete with them but also do better than every one except for Anna Tobias?

Carleen: 03:09 – Yeah, it was really cool. And, you know, for me, I don’t really look at it like that. For me it’s just kind of like they’re just my peers and I’m just as good as everyone else around me. And so it’s interesting to hear it like that, to hear, you know, like even my coach would say like, you know, “You just beat Becca Voigt,” and yeah, you know, going in, I was like, dude, Becca is legit. Like, that’s who, you know, she’s gonna take it. But, you know, it just really came down to like, who was consistent throughout the weekend and, you know, I just kinda did my thing and it ended up being the right thing. So, yeah.

Sean: 04:02 – A lot of individual athletes when they’re competing at the Games as an individual look at the masters as just kind of, I dunno if I want to do that. How at all did your perception change of the masters competition once you got into it?

Carleen: 04:13 – For me, like personally, I never had that. I actually, after Regionals, in 2018 I was like, yep, I’m a master next year, and I can’t wait. I was ready. I was ready for masters. I was ready for that less intensity. Well I did not really less intensity, less volume, a little bit more relaxed feeling. And so, you know, for me, like my mentality around that never changed. I was 100% ready for it. But now after like competing with them, I would say that this is exactly where I need to be at. Like, this is where I want to be. I have no desire to go back to individual. It’s just that it’s a good change of pace for me.

Sean: 05:11 – Some people may not be familiar with your story and how you came to CrossFit and how you came to become the accomplished athlete that you are. What did your life look like before you found CrossFit?

Carleen: 05:22 – Yeah. Before CrossFit, I was a college athlete. So I did, you know, athletics in college. But, after college I kind of fell into you know, eating disorder, drugs and alcohol. And so, you know, it was like four months. I was sober for four months before I found CrossFit. And you know, for me it was just a lot of like trial and error of what does my life like need to look like and what do I want my life to look like before CrossFit? So yeah, I mean, you know, my history is that I am an addict. I have an addictive personality and I’ve dealt with food, with body image, with drugs and alcohol and I am almost nine years sober now, so that’s really cool.

Sean: 06:33 – That’s awesome. Going back to when you got into that lifestyle, what do you think led you into a world of addiction?

Carleen: 06:41 – My dad is an alcoholic or was an alcoholic and so, you know, it runs in my family. I think that plays a role. I also think that, you know, like I’m a very competitive person and, I was constantly, you know, trying to compete with others, to try and be somebody that I wasn’t. I think it’s also a lot of not knowing who I was as a person. So just trying to desperately find who I was and what that person looked like. And a lot of my, you know, alcohol and food-related stuff came down to what I thought everyone else wanted me to be as opposed to who I actually am.

Sean: 07:39 – What was the turning point for you?

Carleen: 07:43 – For me, it was kind of just a kind of a fluke thing. I was out on a weekend, kind of just a weekend bender and I made some really poor decisions and I like ruined a friendship that I thought was a friendship. And so I like had kind of had enough of it and I went into a therapy session that I had and I was hung over and I just said, I need to stop drinking for 30 days. And you know, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. And 30 days for me, like turned into almost nine years. So, I mean, I guess that was technically the turning point and like the, you know, the day I got sober, but a lot of it was also, I would say a little bit before that with like my eating disorder.

Carleen: 08:53 – So I started dealing with the food stuff and then the drugs and alcohol got stronger. And then I would say I also after I decided to quit for 30 days, it was me realizing that I didn’t like the person that I was when I was drinking and I became a different person and I didn’t want to be that person. So after that, realizing that like I actually liked life a little bit, I liked the person that I was when I wasn’t drinking better than I liked the person that I was when I was drinking.

Sean: 09:33 – Once you hit that turning point, you made the decision, now you’re going to fight your way out of it. What did the process look like? What are the things that you did to help get yourself through this?

Carleen: 09:43 – Yeah, I have like, it’s not a super common a story in terms of how I got sober, I used a lot of accountability from a therapist and so I went to therapy once a week and we did a little like, silly accountability, she would give me like a star for every day I was sober. And so when I went in after a week, and I had not drank for seven days, I got seven star stickers to put in my book. And for me that works. I dabbled in like going to meetings and stuff like that. It wasn’t really, like, that for me wasn’t my big support. My big support was really like that therapy and then finding new friends, finding or going back to friends that had been there for me all along. So like going back to a college friend that I had ki
nd of lost some connection with, but she was doing what I wanted to be doing, so she was, I wanted my life to look like hers. And so I sought that out. And I would say that was like one of the biggest things is that I saw what I wanted in someone else and I put myself around that person to like to be able to do what they’re doing. So that was, yeah, a big thing for me.

Sean: 11:18 – Other than setting a good example for you, what are some of the things that these people did to help you get through this?

Carleen: 11:25 – I think just like being there for me. Cause I didn’t, you know, when I first got sober, I couldn’t go out. I couldn’t, you know, I couldn’t hang out with the people that I had hung out with before. So I did a lot of like, I would stay at home at my apartment by myself and, you know, just be like kind of bored and lonely and those people were there for me to pick up the phone when I called or send me a text message and check in on me and invite me to do new things. So like invite me to church, invite me to, you know, go to like a family barbecue and like stuff that I wouldn’t normally do but they were inviting me to these events that weren’t all centered around drinking. So yeah.

Sean: 12:19 – For people who have maybe dealt with a family member who have an addiction and who have never dealt with it personally themselves directly, what are the things or thing that they don’t understand about addiction?

Carleen: 12:32 – I think that most people don’t really fully understand that it is a disease and that as much as you know, we want to stop, there is a constant like cycle that you get yourself into that it takes you to a place where you feel like you cannot stop. And people don’t—if you haven’t lived it and you haven’t, or you don’t—I guess if you haven’t lived it, you don’t understand. And I think that that’s the cool thing about, you know, being in recovery and being somebody who has, you know, suffered from addiction is that anybody else, I know I can relate to them. Like their story. I can relate to their story and my story relates to anybody else that’s like, the suffering, they know they can trust that I get it. So, yeah.

Sean: 13:40 – How did you find CrossFit?

Carleen: 13:41 – I kinda just fell into it. I actually was doing some online dating and I met someone that had, they were like, yeah, want my perfect date would be to go to a CrossFit with, with somebody, you know. And I was like, oh, CrossFit, I can do that. Like, I can ride the elliptical. I’m like, cross training. Right. You know, like, I can do this. And so actually he invited me to one of his friends’ gyms. And I took a class and you know, the first class I took, I was like, oh, that’s cool. You know, like it’s kind of, it seems like kind of like boot camp cause it was my first class and then this coach had been just kind of starting out and just learning.

Carleen: 14:34 – And so it was very boot-campy and I liked that. I liked, doing boot camp. I like doing athletic stuff. And so, you know, I took that one class and this guy was like, so my friend is expecting you to send him a message, he will give you a deal, you can go, you can train with him for $100 a month. And I was like, whoa, whoa, whoa. Like, I don’t know if I want to do this yet, but, you know, I thought whatever, I’ll give it a try. All right. So I committed to a month and I literally like that was it. Like that’s all I needed, was like that first, you know, week and I started going in more often and you know, it was kind of over for me after that.

Sean: 15:29 – We’ll be back with more from Carleen Mathews after this.

Chris: 15:32 – Hey guys, it’s Chris Cooper. If you’ve ever run out of money, you know that it affects every single corner of your life, all of your relationships, your business, even your self-worth. And so when I found a mentor in 2009, I said, I want to share this gift with everyone. Since then, I’ve been building and refining and improving a mentorship practice that we now call Two-Brain Business. We break our mentorship into several stages. The first stage is the Incubator, which is a 12-week sprint to get your foundation built, to get you started on retention and employee programs and finding the best staff, putting them in the best roles, training them up to be successful, and then recruiting more clients. It’s an amazing program. It is the culmination of over a decade of work. It’s also the sum of best practices from over 800 gyms around the world. These aren’t just my ideas anymore. What we do is track with data what’s working for whom and when, and we test new ideas against that data to say, is this actually better? Then when ideas have proven themselves conclusively, then we put it in our Incubator or Growth or Tinker programs. I just wrote “Founder, Farmer, Tinker, Thief” to define who should be doing what in what stage of entrepreneurship. But no matter where you are, the Incubator is your first 12-week sprint to get as far as possible in your business. We’re a mentorship practice for one reason: Mentorship is what works. We work with gym owners for one reason: Because you have the potential to change the world with us, and I hope you do.

Sean: 17:02 – What role did CrossFit play in helping you get your life back on track?

Carleen: 17:07 – The biggest thing for me has been when I walked into the doors of that CrossFit gym, I didn’t have to be somebody that I wasn’t; it allowed me to just to just be, you know, like I didn’t have to try and put on, you know, like, I didn’t have to try and be someone I wasn’t. I didn’t have to talk about my past. I didn’t have to explain anything that I had done in the past. And so that, like openness was for me, like was huge and taught me lessons that I don’t think I would ever have been able to learn outside of that. Because it started me on the path of being like, oh, OK, like, who am I? And it’s OK for me to be just me. I don’t have to try and be someone I’m not. So that was really cool for me.

Sean: 18:11 – I’ve heard people say, who have dealt with addicts and who have been addicts themselves, that you don’t kick an addiction. You just focus it on something else. How did CrossFit fill that role for you?

Carleen: 18:22 – I mean CrossFit absolutely was, you know, became for me like that new addiction. And you know, for me it was a healthier addiction. It allowed me to find something that I’m passionate about. It allowed me to find a new outlet. So I didn’t, you know, I wasn’t spending all of my time going out to the bars. Now I was, you know, pursuing being fitter or working out and I mean, I think there is like that fine line of when addiction—trading one addiction for the other, but for me it was a good healthy transition.

Sean: 19:18 – When did you figure out that you were really good at it?

Carleen: 19:22 – I mean it probably wasn’t until, I would say it was probably like right before the 2012 Regionals. So I started in 2010, and it was like right during the Open, so it was like the—well it was 2011 Open and I saw like what the women were doing and I was like, oh, this is really cool. And then as I progressed that year, one of the members kind of made the comment like, hey, you know, like you should be on our team like., you should compete and be on our team. And I was like, I don’t really know. And he was like, no, you’re going to be on our team. And it was kind of, I think that point where like somebody else started believing in me that I was able to like be like, oh, OK, maybe I am getting kind of good at this and I would start like, you know—then at that point I started like looking at my scores on the whiteboard and noticing that like, OK, I can like Rx stuff. And so that was really cool for me to see the like, you know, like I could be good at this. And it was maybe like a year in, six months to a year.

Sean: 20:49 – Fast forward five years, 2015 and you make it to the Games for the first time as an individual. What was that experience like for you?

Carleen: 20:56 – That was a really cool ex
perience. I had spent, you know, the past, like, you know, 2014 I barely missed. And so 2013, you know, I was still new, so then that was, you know, two years of a cumulative training that got me there. And that was a really fun year for me because I did a lot of my training with Jessica Core and with Fort Vancouver and she made it that year also. And so it was just a special year to be able to like go and share that with her. Cause we had put in so much time and work and I learned so much from that Fort Vancouver community that yeah, like that for me was like the big year. And especially being so close the previous year to finally like crack that spot, was really cool.

Sean: 21:56 – It’s one thing to watch what goes on at the CrossFit Games. It’s a much different thing to actually go and experience. What did you learn from going through those four days of competition?

Carleen: 22:07 – That it’s hard. And that it’s a whole other world, you know, like it, I went in and you know, that was the first year of Murph and I did well, but I suffered because of it. And you know, I just wasn’t ready for how bad it was going to hurt and how bad I would want it or how bad I would need to want it. And then I didn’t realize that everyone else was just as hurt, just as broken and in just as much pain as me. And so I kind of like that weekend, there was a lot of poor me, like, poor me, I’m so sore. I’m like, this not like for me. Everyone else can handle this and I can’t.

Carleen: 23:05 – And it, you know, it wasn’t until they like released the Games documentary like months afterwards that like I saw like the carnage of everyone else that I finally was like, oh, OK. Everyone felt the same way as me. They were just mentally tougher than me. And so after that I really like realized like, no, this is not just a walk in the park. Like you don’t just make it to the CrossFit Games and then be satisfied, like if you’re going to go to the CrossFit Games, like you have to want it with everything inside you and you have to be willing to go through so much and like, be willing to hurt and be willing to deal with injuries and like, it’s a deep down, like different like want that you have to have in order to get yourself to get through that.

Sean: 24:08 – You go back two more times as an individual after that. So how did that experience change the way that you prepared the next two years?

Carleen: 24:15 – Yeah. So I mean, you know, like I said, seeing that, like, it gave me like some motivation, and that like made me realize that like, OK, I can do this. Everyone else dealt with it. And so in 2016, you know, I went back and I just wanted to kind of like, prove that I belonged and prove that I could do better. And so, you know, and I did, I improved in 2016 and then 2017 the goal was again, to continue to improve. And I felt like I was on kind of a path that like if I kept improving each year, that like I would eventually be at the top. And for me, I felt like as long as I continue to improve, like I wanted to go back.

Carleen: 25:13 – And so then in 2017, I got to the Games and I was the fittest I felt like I had ever been and I was so ready and suffered an injury. Probably I’m guessing the day before I left for the Games. I herniated a disc, a C6C7, so my neck, and it basically like, it wasn’t causing me pain, it just shut off my tricep. So, it caused like nerve issues and so, which I couldn’t use my tricep. So that ended, you know, 2017 for me and I took some time away from, you know, deciding if I wanted to go back or not, but I was pretty hungry still in 2017 because I didn’t feel like I had the opportunity to prove that or to show the world, like how fit I was. And so I got back into like the grind of training pretty shortly after that, like as soon as I was recovered. And it I think burnt me out. Yeah. So going into 2018 I was ready to be done.

Sean: 26:39 – Along those lines, I’ve read a quote from you, you wrote that CrossFit, the CrossFit Games is not health. What did you mean by that?

Carleen: 26:46 – Yes. So I mean, I think that the CrossFit Games is the 1%, and in order to be competing at the CrossFit Games, like you are going to sacrifice some of your health for that. And at this point, I don’t think, not necessarily everyone, but I think that there is, if you’re looking at that like, you know, the sickness, wellness, fitness continuum like once you get to that fit stage, like there is potential to go back over to sickness from training. Like you’re beat up, you’re over-trained, you’re overworked, you’re eating for performance now. And so that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re eating the best. I mean, one can only get 500 carbs a day in, you know, so much like rice and chicken and Veggies, right? Like you’ve gotta be, like you’re not eating for health.

Carleen: 27:47 – You’re eating for performance. And, you know, with that, I think that like we’re overtraining, we’re overstressing our bodies into a place that’s not necessarily healthy. And we look healthy. We look really fit and really healthy. But it doesn’t mean that the insides of us are. And so that’s something that I’ve experienced this past, like past year and a half is that I was really fit and, and the best shape of my life, but my body was not, like my insides were not. So like not having a period for three years is not normal, is not a good thing health-wise.

Sean: 28:33 – What are you most proud of when you look back at your competitive career?

Carleen: 28:39 – I would say, my second-place finish, you know, is probably my highlight and my biggest accomplishment. But with that for me, like being able to share my experiences with others has been like a huge highlight of, you know, being in this, you know, kind of like spotlight position.

Sean: 29:06 – How are you now helping people who are dealing with addiction themselves?

Carleen: 29:11 – We at CrossFit St. Helens, the gym that I own, we are running a free CrossFit class four days a week to anyone with 48 hours of sobriety. So we’re doing this, we started this program like almost two years ago, maybe two years ago. And we’re working with local treatment centers. We’re kind of modeling what the Phoenix has started with the Phoenix multi-sport. So we’re kind of modeling that, just that kind of a lower level. So basically I’m just offering free classes. I coach them and now we’re looking at, you know, trying to bring on more people, like more coaches, more peers who are in recovery to get certified and be able to be a coach and, you know, help them change lives also.

Sean: 30:17 – The people who attend these classes, the first time they come in, what are their reactions?

Carleen: 30:22 – It kinda depends. You know, you know, you have like somebody that is—it’s kind of like just any other class in terms of you can see it in someone’s eyes when they’re hooked on the first, when this is for them, and I can see it and I can pinpoint like, this is going to change your life. And then, you know, we also have some that come in and like just kind of go through the motions and I don’t see them back and it’s not for everyone, but it is you know, an outlet that I found and that I want to be able to share with other people. So, a lot of times, you know, you can see like suffering, and there’s a lot of times in classes where I’ll look at an athlete and I’ll say like, I know that you can suffer more than this. You’ve suffered way more in your life than this. This is just a little discomfort. And like, if you can get through that shit outside of here, you can get through this. And that sometimes is a turning point and it’s really, really cool to see and watch and be a part of.

Sean: 31:33 – That leads me to my next question is that you’ve been down the road that they’ve been down, you know exactly what they’re going through. How do your experiences then, you know, help them perform in the gym?

Carleen: 31:42 – Yeah. You know, I’ve had to look at like, you know, we’ll get females in and they’ll say things like, man, I wish, like, oh, you know, like I want
your body or I want to be able to do that someday and stuff. And like, I just had to look at them and be like, I’ve been in your shoes, you know, like I have been there and you can, and that’s the cool thing about it is that they’re seeing me do it and they’re seeing others do it. And it’s just like what I was talking about like when I first got sober and I saw what I wanted in someone else and I went and I just did what they did. And so I’m like, I tell the women, like if you just do—just come in and just do this, then you can get there. But it’s not gonna be easy, you know, but like this is something that I’ve worked hard for and if I can do it, you can do it. Cause I’ve been right there where you’re at.

Sean: 32:47 – I’m sure you’ve had plenty of moments while coaching that make you extremely proud. What does one that really stands out to you though?

Carleen: 32:56 – We have an athlete right now that I talk about a lot and she’s been with us since we first started. And, you know, she now has her kid back. She’s out of the system. She’s got a job, you know, she’s becoming a peer mentor, like just seeing and she’s latched onto CrossFit so much that like, literally she’s in five days a week, doesn’t miss a class. And to see her do the Open this past year, doing—I think she did almost every single workout Rx was the coolest thing—I mean, it would’ve been cool to see her, like, you know, do it scaled, whatever, but she didn’t know that she could do it Rx. And I challenged her to do it and she accepted the challenge. And so for me to see like that growth and her to be with us for so long has been amazing. And so now I just look to her to bring in more people and be that like that, you know, role model for everyone else. And so that is, you know, one of my like really cool success stories.

Sean: 34:24 – What do your competitive plans in the sport of CrossFit look like moving forward now?

Carleen: 34:30 – I don’t know. You know, last year said that I was done and didn’t plan on competing and I ended up at the Games. So, you know, right now I would really like to be able to use my experience as an athlete to help others get to a competitive level. I feel like I have had an amazing opportunity in my coach and he’s really like paved the way for me to become a great coach and kind of do it on my own. So I would love to be able to like give that back to someone. And so that’s for me where I would see my competitiveness going. But, you know, I don’t really know, like we’re trying to start a family, and so it’s kind of all just like this waiting game. You know, last year it was the same thing, we’re still trying to start a family, but it just so happened that I qualified and it worked out, you know? So, the ultimate goal this year is to start a family, but, you know, I can’t say what is going to happen.

Sean: 35:57 – When you look back at the journey that you’ve had from, you know, going from addiction to now Games athlete, what have you learned about yourself going through all this?

Carleen: 36:07 – I think I’ve learned that, you know, I’m just so much stronger than I think I am. I’ve also learned that it’s OK to be uncomfortable and, you know, in my addiction and when I drank, I drank because I was uncomfortable, because I was uncomfortable with who I was, because I was maybe uncomfortable with the situation and I would drink to kind of ease that. And, you know, through CrossFit and through being sober now I’ve learned that it’s OK to be uncomfortable and I’m going to get through it no matter what. So yeah, I mean, it’s the quote that I love, like get uncomfortable being uncomfortable, but it’s so true. You know, in my life, like I never used to deal with it. I never used to—I would just hide that uncomfortableness. And now I’m 100% OK saying like, you know what? I’m really uncomfortable going to this social outing, because I feel socially awkward and that’s OK. And that’s just how it is. It’s OK.

Sean: 37:29 – Well Carleen, thank you so much for sharing your story. Thanks for taking the time for doing this and best of luck to you and starting the family and everything you’re doing up there with your athletes, it’s fantastic. We really appreciate it.

Carleen: 37:40 – Absolutely. Thank you so much.

Sean: 37:40 – Want to thank Carleen Mathews one final time for taking time out of her day to talk with me. If you want to follow her on social media, she is on Instagram and you can find her at @teamcarleen. Are you a stressed business owner who’s working too much and still struggling to make a profit? Do you want to grow your venture and reach the next level? Two-Brain Business is here to help with a free 60-minute call. It is not a sales pitch; it’s just an opportunity for you to get real, actionable advice from an expert who’s built a successful business. For one-on-one guidance on how to take your business to the next level, book your Free Help call today at Thanks so much for joining us today, everybody. We’ll see you next time.

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