Sean: 00:01 – Hi everybody and welcome to another edition of Two-Brain Radio with Sean Woodland. On today’s episode I talk with two-time CrossFit Games athlete Alexis Johnson. Two-Brain Radio with Sean Woodland is brought to you by Two-Brain Business. For free business tips and advice, you can sign up for our mailing list at twobrainbusiness.com. Alexis Johnson is a two-time individual CrossFit Games athlete and she will be competing again in Madison this year as a member of the Misfit team along with Jen Smith, Travis Williams and Roy Gamboa, and Alexis also recently earned a Ph. D. in algebraic geometry from Rice University. Alexis has been very open about her battle with an eating disorder before she found CrossFit. We talk about that, we talk about her journey to be coming a CrossFit Games athlete and why she finds math so intriguing. Thanks for listening everyone. Alexis, thank you so much for joining me. How are you doing today?
Alexis: 01:03 – I’m doing well.
Sean: 01:04 – You have a lot going on I know right now; we’re going to get into all that. But the first thing that I want to ask you is how did you find CrossFit?
Alexis: 01:12 – All right, so it’s a bit of a long story. I was a gymnast growing up and when I finished gymnastics, I guess I had done it for about 10 years. I finished when I was a senior in high school and I told myself I was never stepping foot in a gym again. My body hurt. And I had spent, you know, five days a week, three hours a day in the gym, which isn’t a lot for a gymnast. There are many competitive gymnasts who do more. I also coached gymnastics and I was just done. So first year of college went fairly well. Didn’t party a lot. I never was much of a partier. But second year college came along and I still didn’t really fit in with partying and something started been missing. You know, I wasn’t going to the gym, I didn’t really have a hobby. I got really into school, that was about it, but that can only consume so much time. And I became extremely obsessive about what I ate. And by that I mean I started restricting to only quote unquote “healthy” foods and that took a quick obsessive spiral downward. I got pretty depressed. And as someone who has a very addictive personality, I put this to the extreme and probably restricted myself to about 400 calories a day for the next two or three years. I decided I wanted to go along with this whole healthy track of going to the gym. So clearly I was not eating enough calories to sustain energy, but I would go to the globo gym, do bicep curls, sets of 12 and head out. And then I wasn’t very happy. I was searching for happiness, tried climbing. A friend of mine posted that CrossFit on Facebook and I said that looks fun, maybe I’m missing, you know, that kind of aspect, the community, doing things competitively. So I tried CrossFit, I loved it. But eating 400 calories a day, I didn’t have enough energy to sustain it. Row 500 and be just smoked, to be done for the day. And so I kind of tried it a few times throughout the next two years. It was just the same story every time. And then January of 2013, I moved back in with my parents. I was about 88 pounds—to put it in perspective, I’m 140 now. I’m quite small. And on January 13, I moved in with my parents, decided I would join another CrossFit gym and when I stepped into the gym I looked around and said, you know what? I want to be a normal person. I want to have people stop looking at me like I’m sick. I want to go in there, I want to get strong. I wanted to be able to hang out with these people and have fun and stay after class and still do more working out. That’s what everyone did and they loved it. And so that’s when I committed myself to stop being obsessive about my eating disorder and start being more obsessive about CrossFit. Unfortunately, yes, I traded one obsession for another. I always say it’s a little bit easier for an addict to, you know, switch addictions than it is to actually get rid of one completely and for a while my relationship with CrossFit probably wasn’t very healthy. And my relationship with food probably wasn’t very healthy still for another two years after that. But slowly but surely I used CrossFit and my desire to be strong and desire to go out to eat with people and be normal. And I used that to turn it around.
Sean: 04:59 – You’ve been very open about battling an eating disorder earlier in your life and you mentioned that here. What was it like for you having to go through that at that age?
Alexis: 05:10 – Yeah, so I was quite older. I was probably in my late teens, early twenties, whereas I think most girls, I feel, start battling an eating disorder closer to middle school or high school. In middle school and high school, I was the ideal child. I never talked back to my parents. I got along with them very well. Like I said, I didn’t drink, I didn’t party. And then when I went to college, that’s when I started being really irritable and I treated everyone, all my friends, all my family, I treated them like crap. And that’s something I regret a ton, but I was always irritable and all that I was ever thinking about was food or restricting food. I was extremely selfish and that’s the sucky part, I think everyone who battles an eating disorder feels selfish and they know that they feel selfish, but it’s something that’s hard to overcome. So yeah, I felt terrible at that point in my life, treating so many people so poorly, that mean a lot to me.
Sean: 06:14 – How did you get, other than CrossFit, but how did you get yourself kind of back into a normal way of life?
Alexis: 06:22 – Yeah, so you know, people always ask me if I went to see a therapist, I didn’t and I regret not doing it. I would never suggest not doing it. But the main thing was that I wanted to feel normal again and I wanted to stop being so selfish. For five years I lived in fear of someone asking me to go out to eat and in fear of someone asking to spend time with me, it’s absolutely terrible. I was definitely afraid that if I went and hung out with someone, they would ask me to go out to eat or something and then I couldn’t control what I ate and that’s ridiculous. And all I did was at the end, I told myself, you know what? I want to be normal again. And as much anxiety as it caused me, I knew how much anxiety I already had, so I had to put myself into this and the anxiety and attempt to become what I call normal again, I guess.
Sean: 07:21 – This is more of a common problem than I think people really know. A lot of people struggle with this. If someone knows a person who is in a similar situation, what is the best way to help that person?
Alexis: 07:33 – Yeah, I get that question often from actually family members who may have someone who they know that’s struggling and they don’t know how to help them. I think the first is, I don’t think it’s good to not acknowledge it at all, because just letting that person feel like what they’re doing is OK—and I know a lot of–I needed to feel a little bit of guilt. And I did, but there’s a fine line because you also don’t want that person to be uncomfortable being around you. You don’t want the person who’s struggling to be so ashamed that they don’t want to be around you. You need to show that you still support them and you still want to hang out with them and that you still think they’re fun. So it’s tough. It depends on the person and you don’t want them to feel uncomfortable, but they know what they’re doing is hurting—they need to know what they’re doing is hurting them and hurting others.
Sean: 08:34 – So CrossFit kind of helped you get back on track. You get really good at it. When did you know that, you know what, I can actually compete?
Alexis: 08:41 – So when I moved to Houston, Texas, for grad school, I showed up to a gym and the owner looked at me after I worked out with the class and said, “Hey, you know, I’d love to have you here but I don’t know if this is the place for you. We don’t have any competitive athletes.” And I looked at him like he was insane. I was like, “What are you talking about?
I’m just here because it’s absolutely a blast. It’s a block from my apartment. I can walk here whenever I want. I’m gonna stay here, I don’t care!” I had no idea that I was somewhat good at CrossFit at the time. I had been doing it for probably eight or nine months, I also gained 40 lb. within the first five months of trying to recover from my eating disorder. And so I got somewhat strong and had some gymnastics movement. And then the following year I signed up for the Open because that’s what everyone had done. I had actually PR’d my snatch at 65 pounds, I think it was 40 times for the burpee snatch workout. And I so signed up again and sure enough, after two weeks I found myself in a qualifying spot for Regionals and I was waiting for that to go away. There was zero expectation on my part. And sure enough, I finished in 12th, and then two people ahead of me were either in masters or dropped out and I ended up in the top 10. So I went out in the last heat of Regionals on Day One, next to like Jen Smith and Cassidy Lance and all these people. And I left the floor and I looked at my coach and the first thing I said was, “Holy crap, they move so fast.” I tried to keep up and I had no business keeping up. I walk in the next day—I limped in the next day—Oh God. I love doing it. So that was when I found out I probably could do OK at this thing if I really did train.
Sean: 10:49 – That was 2014, correct?
Alexis: 10:51 – Yes, that was 2014.
Sean: 10:51 – So you go back in 2015 and I heard a quote from you, you said that you had hopes that year but not confidence. Why do you think that was the case?
Alexis: 11:02 – Yeah, so a lot of people after—I think I had placed 12th or something in 2014, somewhere around there, I don’t actually know. And some people had taken notice and I had asked people what they were following in terms of programming, because what I was doing at the time, I think I was following like everyone else or something. I needed something structured and I needed a coach. And so I found Misfit Athletics and I found Travis who helps people with confidence and is like, you are so good. He’s awesome. And I also found a coach who was like, “Hey, like I think we can do this.” And the whole time, I’m like what are you talking about, I got lucky last year. You know, I started training and I think people had I guess expectations of me or that’s what I felt and I the whole time was like, I don’t—looking around like I don’t belong here. I’m still struggling with an eating disorder. Like I can barely fuel my body, and these girls are good. They are strong. I can barely snatch 145 so I just, like I said, I feel like people had expectations, but I just didn’t feel like I could do it.
Sean: 12:18 – How did you address that?
Alexis: 12:20 – One was continuing to work out with Travis. Every time a workout comes up, he’s like, “You are going to crush that.” And him being so positive and he about himself, he’s positive about everyone else. It starts to rub off and after a while, even if I read a workout that had a weakness of mine in it, I’d be like, you’re gonna crush that. Look at all the stuff that you’re good at. And then I’m like, “Well I’m bad at this one thing,” he’s like, “It doesn’t matter, you’ll make up time in the rest, you’ll beat me.” Working out with that mindset is so incredibly beneficial.
Sean: 13:02 – You went to the Games for your first time in 2016, what was it like to achieve that milestone and find yourself amongst the best in the world?
Alexis: 13:12 – I was so stoked to make it there that year and it was the most intimidating experience of my life. That was the year that we went out to the Ranch.
Sean: 13:27 – Yeah.
Alexis: 13:28 – And that was also the year that when we were having dinner Dave Castro says this is going to be the hardest CrossFit Games you’ve ever done. If you aren’t looking to win, you should probably go home now. And to be 100% honest with everyone listening, I was not there to win, I was there because I was happy to make it. And I was just about pooping myself when he announced the trail run and then a max deadlift just on Day One. That was the first thing you were going to do in the morning after taking that early morning flight. I don’t work out early in the morning. I just wanted to stay home! I was there to enjoy myself, and so, you know, it was hard for me to, again, I struggle with that confidence. It was hard for me—I know a lot of workouts that I would do differently if I went back. I think that it was a mistake to completely over, I guess overdo myself in workouts that I knew were a huge weakness. And then that left me with not enough confidence and not enough energy to really kill the workouts that are my strengths. SO I learned a lot that year.
Sean: 14:44 – What did you learn about yourself when it was all said and done in 2016?
Alexis: 14:52 – Well I learned that at the Games, or thought I did, but then I again did the same thing in 2017. I actually was battling—it was the first time I had ever over-trained was leading up to 2016 Games and it was the first time I ever really struggled with an injury and I developed pretty bad tendonitis in my patellar tendon and so much of my quad . And so after that I had to take a significant amount of time off and I’ve actually been struggling with my knees ever since. So that was the biggest thing that I took away from the 2016 Games, was that just because it’s written down in your programming, you shouldn’t do it if it’s actually going to hurt you because you can’t perform well, you can’t perform at 100% if you’re injured, even a little bit.
Sean: 15:42 – You’re going back to the Games this year, with the Misfit team, how is competing on a team different for you than competing as an individual?
Alexis: 15:53 – Well, it’s an absolute blast. It is so, so fun. It’s frustrating at times for me because as an individual, you control your own destiny. If you know your reps start falling apart, that’s all you could have done. Your reps are falling apart. On a team, if someone starts falling apart, you wish you would’ve strategized it a little better or you know, you could’ve done something to maybe have your team perform better. There’s a lot more strategy involved. And there’s the volume’s also a lot lower. There’s no way I could have put my body through, I think I competed five times since Mid-Atlantic CrossFit Championships, there’s no way I could have done that as an individual. But on a team, the volume’s quite a bit lower, you can actually compete a lot and have fun. So I’ve really enjoyed it. I will continue to do Sanctionals as an individual, at least, that’s my hope. But I’ll probably continue to go on to the Games on a team. Or try to.
Sean: 16:57 – How has your team managed the changes that have been thrown at everybody this year in the season structure?
Alexis: 17:08 – You know, I feel that as a CrossFitter, you kind of just have to take things as you hear them. It’s the same way when we work out. You get no reps that you don’t agree with in the middle of the workout and you just have to take it and go with it. You argue there, you’re only gonna make it worse. If you allow things to frustrate you, you’re only gonna make it worse. You know, obviously there’s many things that frustrated me from CrossFit, but in the end there’s very little that I can do as an athlete myself unless we form some sort of union as athletes, which I’m 100% for, there really isn’t anything that I could do, I can’t get worked up about it.
Sean: 17:52 – Right. You mentioned before in 2016, you know, you went to the Games and you weren’t there to win. You guys have a team this year that is very talented. What are your goals going to Madison in 2019?
Sean: 18:06 – Yeah, so our team has, in my opinion, done better and better working together as we’ve gone through these Sanctionals. It is a little rough, we wish we could have had team practice, but with Roy and I both being full time and other things, it’s a little tougher to get together on weekends and not
living together, things like that. So I would say, you know, we would love to take top three. That would be what we’re gunning for. It’s—with so many talented teams—you’ve seen the Sanctionals, you’ve seen a team place first, and you’ve seen the same team not place—you know, place outside the top three. It depends on what shows up, strengths and weaknesses. There’s a lot of things where you can hide a teammate that’s bad at something, depending on the programming. So yeah, we’re definitely there to compete, and that’s part of why I went team, I want us to be there to do well.
Sean: 19:11 – You mentioned that you’re full time. What is your full-time job right now?
Alexis: 19:16 – Well, OK. Right now I am between being a student and starting a job. So this summer, although I had a few weeks where I was working, I’m mainly just, I’m still working a bit for Rice, creating some online classes and I tutor and I went and worked in Minnesota and whatnot, so I was picking up some work, but right now I am just training. So this is my last little bit of just training.
Sean: 19:48 – For people who don’t know, you just recently earned your Ph. D. in algebraic geometry from Rice University. Make sure I’m saying that right. What is it about math that appeals to you?
Alexis: 20:02 – You know, I have always liked math since I was young. It’s something that it’s so logical. You do one step and then it leads you to the next step and it leads you to the next seven you’re working towards the answer and you know as you get better at it, the number of steps between when you start and the answer gets longer, it’s always been the same, and I just always enjoy how methodical it is.
Sean: 20:31 – When you talk to people about math in general, they’re very polarized. They either really hate it or they love it. Why do you think that’s the case?
Alexis: 20:41 – And you’re going to hear teacher in me, but I always think that usually people who hate math had a really bad experience with a teacher at one point and once you get behind in math, it is so hard to catch up. If I go one lecture where I don’t listen to what the teacher has to say the rest of the entire semester I’m lost. And so I can only imagine if someone had a year of math where they had a terrible teaching, got a bad taste in their mouth and didn’t learn anything and then from there on out they were lost because it builds so much on itself, so that’s generally why I think people don’t like math.
Sean: 21:17 – I would 100% agree with that. What made you decide that you really wanted to pursue a Ph.D. and then a career in mathematics?
Alexis: 21:25 – If you can’t tell, I’m an all-or-nothing person. If I’m gonna be healthy or if I’m gonna get skinny or something, I’m gonna do it all the way. If I’m gonna work out, I’m going to do it 100% If I’m going to get a degree in math, I’m going to get the best degree I can in math and this is how I am with everything in life. It’s a good and a bad trait, it can come to bite you in the butt, obviously, I was 88 pounds . And I still struggle sometimes even on a day-to-day basis, that mentality, because if I only have an hour in the gym, I look at my training and I’m like, “Oh, I can’t get all my training done.” All or nothing—guess it’s nothing! And that’s the thing that, you know, that’s not a good—that’s when that personality trait kind of hurts, so I fight with that day in and day out.
Sean: 22:23 – What is algebraic geometry?
Alexis: 22:28 – So, OK, it’s essentially, there’s algebra which is an equation that you would write with Y’s and X’s and geometry. For instance, when you were younger, you would write equations and you would draw the graph. So that happens in two variables. You can do that in any number of variables you’d like, so with three variables, you would draw a surface. So like the dining room table or some surface going through 3D space, if you have four variables, OK, now you’re working in four dimensions and things get pretty crazy. So essentially there’s a very strong relationship between the algebra that’s happening and then if you look at certain characteristics of the geometric objects that you study.
Sean: 23:18 – What can one do for a career with that degree? Other than teach.
Alexis: 23:27 – So, if I didn’t want to be a college professor and I wanted to make a lot more money. I could do some consulting work with—so essentially businesses, if they have a math problem, they don’t have a mathematician on staff all the time, but they’ll hire a mathematician that works for one consulting firm and they’ll come and help with whatever you need done for your company just for the time being. So you can do that. You can be an actuary, which deals more with statistics, or you could have even, if you’re strong with stats you can work for baseball team even and tell them who they should draft next year, things like that.
Sean: 24:15 – That is so cool. You were recently in Minneapolis at a math camp, teaching them. What kind of things do you do to get kids excited about math?
Alexis: 24:28 – So we actually did a lot of really cool stuff. So we actually did origami for one of them and most kids love origami. Now, origami has a lot of actual applications. For instance, if we needed to get some sort of large telescope into space, you can’t actually fly with this large telescope. You actually fold it using origami and it expands when you get to space. So we did that. We did something called cryptology, which is code, and for instance, what I study elicit curves, when you see that little lock screen on your computer, that little wax symbol and feel OK putting your credit card information, elicit curves are what encode your credit card information. So we introduced them to some cryptology. Just some cool math that they’ll never see. And I’ll be honest, the kids that we’re working with already really kind of like math. They went to math club after all.
Sean: 25:29 – When you talk to people about this and you’re explaining what you’re explaining to me, what is the reaction that you get when the light bulb goes off and they realize that they’re surrounded by this stuff all the time?
Alexis: 25:40 – I think we still often say, “Well I still hate math.” But they realize that what I do is actually useful, and I think there is a little bit more respect for me dedicating, oh gosh—I was in college for 10 and a half years because I went and there’s a reason that it took 10 and a half years to get to where I’m at and I think they start to realize that.
Sean: 26:07 – Who are your mathematician heroes?
Alexis: 26:10 – My. To be honest, my advisor, his name is Tony Várilly-Alvarado. I couldn’t have done it without him. He was just super supportive and yeah, it’s like having a CrossFit coach, someone to help you along the whole way, you feel like you couldn’t have done it without them.
Sean: 26:35 – There is this perception out there that math is a subject that primarily appeals to men. Why do you think that is?
Alexis: 26:48 – You know I think that is a lot of from when we were younger, you do see an extreme drop off as they gain age. From originally there’s an equal number of boys and girls who are interested in math and then as things go on, there’s less women. Now, there’s a lot of feelings about that. If you think about your math textbooks growing up, whenever you introduced to someone who came up with what you’re studying, it’s always a man. So you know, even subconsciously as a teacher, there’s a lot of things that you do that continue to bring up men that great contributions to math and females in your classroom never heroes, I guess, female heroes, so that’s part of it. Yeah I don’t know.
Sean: 27:40 – What was the moment when you were younger that got you hooked on this subject?
Alexis: 27:47 – Oh, well my mom always tells the story that when we were going to get ice cream, I looked at my ice cream cone and said, “Oh, mom, look. It’s a circle getting smaller and smaller until you get to a point.” I always thought about t
hings in terms of math, even ice cream. And when I went to college, I went through seven majors before I was actually a math major. I just kept taking math classes because I enjoyed them. I was convinced I was gonna be an orthopedic surgeon and then a physical therapist and then an engineer and then a chemist. Gosh, I don’t know. And then I just kept going back to math.
Sean: 28:31 – You are done with your Ph.D. but I know you’re not done with your education. That’s always ongoing. What is something in the world of mathematics that you really want to learn more about right now?
Alexis: 28:41 – Yeah, so I don’t—what I did in grad school is a lot of pure math, and so that’s right now, math for the sake of doing that. And it may have an application thousands of years down the road, just like a lot of the math that we used to study is now used in physics. But I would actually like to study, there’s some ties between chemistry and math and my minor was in chem. I would definitely like to study more of the applicable side there.
Sean: 29:13 – What is the biggest misconception people have about mathematicians?
Alexis: 29:20 – I think it goes—whenever I introduce myself to someone and I tell them what I do, they say, “Oh you don’t look like you study math.” And I think you could say that about a lot of people in my department. We don’t look like mathematicians.
Sean: 29:39 – Are you the person on your team, the Misfit team, who’s always responsible for adding up the weights and everything, is Travis like you better figure this out cause I can’t?
Alexis: 29:48 – You know Travis is actually extremely gifted in math. And I tell this to people all the time when I’m—I had to tutor someone from Facetime at the gym because they called me with a math question and Travis is like “I know that!” And he actually explained it all to me like, like I’m just curious if you’re still good. He hasn’t had math in eight years and he’s actually still really good at it and he’s great at bar math. So it’s either me or Travis.
Sean: 30:17 – Do you two have a lot in common? He lost a lot of weight and he struggled with body image. You’ve done the same thing too. What’s the bond like between the two of you on that team?
Alexis: 30:27 – Casually best friends. We are like brother and sister. We’ve screamed at each other from across the gym, having fights to the point where people think that we’re never gonna talk to each other again and then five minutes later we do a workout together and are rolling on the floor like good job. And then there’s also, like I said, both of us came from these, I guess bodies that people would look at and say, there’s no way that’s going to the Games. And we work really hard because we love it. Not because we thought we’d make it to the Games, but because we love working out and we love how it’s changed us and how it’s changed our perspective about our body and what it can do.
Sean: 31:14 – You mentioned earlier that you had a goal of finishing top three at the Games. Regardless if that happens or not, what will need to kind of take place now over the next month for you to be able to look back on the season and say, you know what, that was a success.
Alexis: 31:29 – You know, I would say that minimizing mistakes would be the biggest thing. When you look back at an event and you realize that you could have done something differently and done better, that’s when it sucks. When you gave it your all and you strategized well and someone beats you, well, that is what it is. You’ve got to give it to them, they clearly had better strength or . So my goal is to look back and realize what we could have done better at, but hopefully we gave it our all.
Sean: 32:08 – Well, listen, Alexis, I really appreciate you taking the time to do this. Best of luck in Madison with the Misfit squad. Love watching you guys compete, love being around you. It’s a lot of positive energy there and best of luck with your math career moving forward.
Alexis: 32:20 – Thank you very much.
Sean: 32:22 – I want to thank Alexis Johnson for taking the time to speak with me. If you want to follow her on social media, you can find her on Instagram. She is @Alexis_mathlete. Two-Brain Radio with Sean Woodland is brought to you by Two-Brain Business. For free advice and tips from best-selling author Chris Cooper, visit twobrainbusiness.com/blog. Thank you so much for joining us everybody. I’ll see you next time.