It takes a certain mindset, an enviable mental tenacity that most can only strive for, to push oneself beyond his or her limits. With her shoulders burning, her forearms on fire, her glutes, core and back clenched, Lakelands resident Liz Ellie Vassaux’s body was screaming at her to put down the kettlebells. But her mind had other ideas. She’d been in this position before; she knew she wasn’t going to hurt herself. The discomfort would be temporary but the glory, empowering.
On Oct. 26, in her first major international competition since she began training for kettlebell sport only seven months ago, Vassaux won her division (50-54 kilogram weight class for women doing biathlon two kettlebells) at the International Kettlebell and Fitness Federation World Kettlebell Sport Championships held in Novi, Michigan. Vassaux’s combined score of 185.5 included 102 jerks—leg strength and power is used to lift the kettlebells from the rack position on the chest, overhead—with two 12-kilogram (26.5 pounds) bells within 10 minutes and 167 snatched—hip and core strength is used to swing the weight from the ground to an overhead position in one movement while keeping the arm straight—using one 12-kilogram bell, in 10 minutes.
Vassaux saw fellow competitors buckle and drop their kettlebells to the ground before the 10-minute periods were up, but she knew that if she gave in, even five seconds before time was called, she’d never hear the end of it from her coach, seven-time world champion and world-record holder Denis Vasilev. And she would have disappointed herself.
“It gets to your head sometimes,” Vassaux said. “You have to breathe a lot in this sport, and I’m a yoga teacher and use yoga breathing and that has gotten me through a lot of the hard times.”
The physical and mental strength needed to persevere in kettlebell sport is something that is built up over time, Vassaux said. Her diligence and commitment to training has been vital to her rapid rise in the kettlebell sport world. Vassaux’s regimen includes kettlebell workouts three days a week for a minimum of one hour and her “no excuses” policy won’t allow her to veer from putting the work in, even when she’s having a bad day, she said.
“My husband and I moved in together on the hottest day of the year and we were supposed to train that day but kept putting it off,” Vassaux said. “We had nothing to drink in the house but (seltzer water) but we went outside into our garage and if it wasn’t 100 degrees it was (darn) close to it. It was as close as I’d ever been to throwing up during a workout; I’ve never had to get the puke bucket out before. But I finished my objective. Now I know that if I could make it through that day, I can do anything on a good day.”
Aside from the obvious physical benefits, perhaps what drives Vassaux most in kettlebell sport, she said, is that there’s no ceiling for what she can accomplish—and she has her sights set on breaking barriers and setting records. Competition kettlebell is both a sport and a skill and it can be for anyone, of any age, as long as “they’re all in,” Vassaux said, as she approaches her 50th birthday.
For Vassaux, a National Academy of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer, CrossFit Level 2 trainer, registered yoga teacher 200 hours, holistic life coach and Road Runners Club of America certified running coach, delving into the fitness world and leading—and promoting—a healthy lifestyle is more of a recent venture. Up until four years ago, when she opened Twin Flame Fitness in Gaithersburg with her husband Kyle Whelan, another kettlebell sport athlete training under Vasilev, Vassaux was amid a 16-year career in fundraising.
“I just hit a place where I was not happy in life and had to make some serious changes,” Vassaux said. “One of them was to change my career. When I was looking for excuses to get out of meetings so I could go work out—I got really excited about CrossFit—I knew that’s where I wanted my life to go.”
When Vassaux started transforming her body, at first through running, everything became easier for the former self-proclaimed “out of shape mom,” she said. But what began as a broad interest in physical wellbeing evolved into something much more. Now, Vassaux thrives on using her business and her platform to empower people. The physical part, she said, is just the wakeup call.
“At first I was worried about everyone’s physical wellbeing but then I saw them change emotionally, and feel empowered,” Vassaux said. “They realized they don’t have to live in the status quo, they can change something. When I’m coaching people these days, I’m looking to empower them to go out and find what they want so they can live in a better way and be happier.”
It was a trip earlier this year to visit a fitness studio out of town that catapulted Vassaux into kettlebell sport. She had dabbled in working with competition kettlebells before, but it had been painful and she couldn’t understand why. In her pursuit for an explanation on how to properly use them, she found her gateway into the sport. And now, having recently started a kettlebell sport club at Twin Flame Fitness, Vassaux and Whelan are passionate about sharing their experience—and the positive impact kettlebell sport can have on physical and emotional wellbeing—with the community.
“It’s hard but fun,” Vassaux said. “Anyone can do it, but you want the right mindset. If you’re willing to dedicate your time and energy to it, and really commit to something, this is something that everyone is capable of doing.”