Superstar CrossFit athlete Brooke Ence had a rocky start to 2017. After undergoing major spinal surgery — a bone graft infusion in her neck — at the end of March, her training came to a halt and she was forced to go from competitive athlete to patient in recovery. Brooke sat down with Life & Style to not only talk about her recuperation, but also her conviction to make it to the 2018 CrossFit Games — a goal she missed in 2017.

“I had quite a bit of nerve damage in my spinal chord and I went from training every day twice a day or more [to not training],” she said. “I feel like people who come from a very physical background, whether it’s sports or gymnastics or dance, it becomes almost like an outlet. I couldn’t drive for five weeks, I couldn’t move my head for six weeks, my training was very limited and it was even harder because I was dealing with all of this emotional stuff with what I had just gone through and I couldn’t really release it. I couldn’t exert myself enough to feel better. So I go from doing tons and tons of activity to doing nothing.”

The 28-year-old — who took 14th place overall at the 2015 Games — didn’t let her inability to train get her discouraged. “I just accepted it,” she said. “What I told myself at the time was true, but also at the time I just had to remind myself that this is what it is. At least now, I am going to get better…I kind of looked at it on the positive flip side, like now I can finally be the strongest I ever could have been, that I ever could be. Whereas before, there was never going to be enough time to fix the little imbalances… I never had the time to do that because our sport is year round. We don’t take time off.”

brooke ence
Riker Brothers

Brooke used the situation as motivation for the the next training season. “I really just turned it around, you know, now I can be stronger, now I will be stronger, and now I get to have this long break that no one really gets to take, and now I just get to recover and enjoy it, because in seven weeks, my coaches are now going to have a new agenda for me and the volume will only go up from there, so I started to look at it like almost a gift versus a curse, and it was, it totally was,” she said. “And people for one, love a comeback story, and two, now I’m just more relatable. More people can relate to me and for me to get through this emotional roller coaster and to get through the sadness and to get through the injury and to come back and to work hard, it can only inspire more people…it’s broadening my ability to help people.”

And she’s definitely taking steps to connect with fans following her injury. Besides messages on social media, she’s working with the app Trifecta, which helps people stay on track with their dietary and nutrition needs and also gives users a chance to train alongside her.

And she’s ready to conquer this new season. “It’s a no-brainer to me,” she said. “I’m definitely doing the Open, hopefully going to Regionals, and then hopefully going to the Games. I’m training for that.” Though she realizes that her spine is still recovering, she’s ready for any obstacles that may come her way. “That doesn’t mean that I’m not dealing with certain things like my nerves are taking a really long time to heal,” she continued. “It’s at least a year until they’re close to being healed which would be March. So I just need to get through the Open.”

But, at the end of the day, Brooke is ready to face the 2018 training season and all the pain that comes along with that. “I’ve felt all the different pains physically, I’ve also felt it all mentally, I’m in all senses of the word strong, I am a much stronger person going into 2018 than I have been in any year before,” she said.