Amy Mandelbaum: Crossfit’s Favorite Pistol

November 19, 2015

This is the first in what will be an ongoing series of profiles of Jewish athletes who are making an impact around the globe.

Amy Mandelbaum never thought she'd be a competitive athlete.  In fact, the forty-eight year-old mother of two never even played a sport until she tagged along to a class of some strange thing she'd barely heard of called Crossfit.  Now, six years later she's considered to be one of the most respected Master's athletes in a competition to be named the fittest on earth.

“I found Crossfit by accident, with a friend,” said Mandelbaum on a phone call from her home in Connecticut. “I was taking a class that she used to teach — an interval class — and she was going to a Crossfit gym and said 'hey, do you want to go with me?' And I said sure.”

“I was certainly not the type of person to start seeking out alternative athletic outlets, to be honest.  I knew what I knew, I was happy doing that… I wasn't going to go and try kiteboarding or something, it wasn't my speed,” said Mandelbaum.  Much to her surprise though, she loved Crossfit. “I went back, and two months later, entered my first competition.”  She placed second, and knew she might be on to something.

Crossfit, the popular, and sometimes controversial fitness method, combines gymnastics skills with olympic weightlifting, running, rowing, and a host of other disciplines, as a means to create a well-rounded athlete.  Every year a Crossfit “Open” is held in which hundreds of thousands of people worldwide compete against each other to get the highest scores in the Workout of the Day (WOD) with the cream of the crop invited to compete in the Crossfit Regionals, and eventually the Crossfit Games.

“I had no athletic background, in fact my background is all in theater, and voice, and stuff like that,” said Mandelbaum, who worked for many years as a broadcast producer in New York City.  “It was hard to adopt at first, because it required completely changing the way I ate, changing the amount of sleep I got – stop drinking alcohol… but I adopted it.”

To Mandelbaum's family, the change was a little shocking at first.  They watched their wife and mother, a woman who once owned a cake baking business, change almost everything about her lifestyle. “I went pure paleo right away, stopped eating bread, stopped eating sugar….That became sort of a bone of contention for my husband.  He was like, “who are you, and what have you done with my wife?”

As time went on, however, Mandelbaum's family embraced the change, especially when they saw how happy it made her. “It took a little time for the evolution to happen at home, but now that they're older, I think they're all really enjoying it.”

It wasn't long after she started competing that Mandelbaum had her first chance to go to the Crossfit Games, a nationally televised competition that takes place in Carson, California every summer. Athletes around the world would kill for a chance to make the Games, but in the first year Mandelbaum qualified, she actually took a pass.  “The 2010 crossfit games were over (my daughter's) visiting day, and I wasn't going to miss her first visiting day to go to the Crossfit Games,” said Mandelbaum, laughing.

Balancing family commitments and her competitions has been a struggle for Mandelbaum, but one she embraces. As a master's athlete, a competitor over 40, she and most of her peers face responsibilities that many of the younger competitors don't have. “Most of us have families, have careers, are training in our off-hours if we can, or squeezing it in whenever it's possible between things that we have to do for our kids,” said Mandelbaum. “We have responsibilities like mortgages to pay, we have real things that happen that a lot of the younger competitors don't have.”

“The Masters games have always been – we'll call it a side show.  I don't mean it in a negative way, but we're not the main event…” said Mandelbaum, noting that the first year she competed, the Masters athletes were relegated to a parking lot.  They've since moved into a much nicer track and field stadium at the Stub Hub Center complex. “The only reason, honestly,  that Master's athletes compete, the only reason that we continue to go through the open and put our bodies through this at our age is that we love it.  We're not doing this for the sponsorships, and we're not doing it for the money.”

Dealing with the fame that's come from her competing has mostly been fun for Mandelbaum, who now has thousands of followers on Instagram and Facebook, and even has a nickname, “Pistol.”

“Just last year when I was out in the warm-up area, people were walking behind the fence and yelling to me, 'Amy Pistol! I want your autograph! Can I have a picture with you?'”

It's hardest for Mandelbaum's teenage son. “His friends are totally interested in what I'm doing. So they follow me on instagram, and ask him questions about my competitions… and how much I can lift, and he's like 'dude, she's my mom!'”

Mandelbaum's also had good support from the local Jewish community in Westport.  The cantors of the Temples in Westport and neighboring Norwalk are married, and are fans. “It's nice to kind of go into Temple, and they're like, how are your workouts?”  Mark Lipson, the Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Norwalk, also happens to be the father-in-law of Crossfit superstar, Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, who's married to his son, Dave Lipson.

“I actually think it's funny when they're saying all of our names out there… and I come out and it's 'Amy Mandelbaum' – you can't get much more Jewish than that!”

Mandelbaum hopes that she inspires women to get stronger and healthier. While many women in the fitness industry help to market the sexy side of it, Mandelbaum's more about empowerment. “I'm not that woman who's going to put my butt up there on Instagram, that's not who I am.  I'm not selling that sort of stuff.  I'm selling health… and I want other people to follow suit or find some sort of uplifting message in that.”

Mandelbaum took some time off competing this year to focus on growing Crossfit Westport, the gym, or “box,” as Crossfitters call them, which she trains at and just bought.  “It's a lot of work, it's really hard on your body, and the older you get, the harder it is to recover,” says Mandelbaum of competing. “That said, I'm probably one of the fittest 48 year old women you'll ever meet.”

You can follow Amy on Twitter @AmyPistol or Instagram @amypistol and learn more about her gym at crossfitwestport.com — Photographer Irene Penny can be followed on Instagram at @silver_penny

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