By: Mary Robertson
Just a glance at Deborah Cordner Carson and there is no doubt that she is an athlete. Athleticism runs deep in Cordner Carson’s blood. Her father came to America from Trinidad and Tobago on a track and field scholarship and in 1942-1944 her grandfather was the heavy weight lifting champion of the British Empire. Cordner Carson did gymnastics from the age of seven until she was eighteen, competing at an elite level in her early teens. At the age of sixteen she realized how fast she was. She joined the track and field team and competed in events all over the United States. Eventually, she decided that she wanted to go to college for track and strived towards that goal. She was accepted to University of Northern Iowa with a full scholarship for track and field. In 2009 she began her Cross Fit journey. She earned national and international rankings and although she is now retired, at the age of 35, Cordner Carson is still one of the most well-known CrossFitters in the country. But she would not have been able to get where she is without a major setback.
In her third year at University of Northern Iowa, Cordner Carson found a lump on her groin. Although doctors said it was nothing to be worried about, she had it removed due to the fact that it was affecting her athletic performance and was extremely painful. After this surgery her left leg swelled up and took a long time to return to normal. As months passed, there were “occasional episodes of swelling but nothing alarming.” Until one day after a workout in fall 2002 when she “watched as [her] leg swelled up right before [her] eyes.” She went to see a doctor immediately, but no doctor could determine the cause of the swelling. It was not until she returned home to Minneapolis where she saw a specialist at the University of Minnesota that she learned the cause of her swelling. Cordner Carson was diagnosed with Lymphedema. Lymphedema is a condition that causes water retention and in turn swelling in arms or legs, in Cordner Carson’s case her left leg. The cause of Lymphedema comes from damage or removal of lymph nodes. While there is currently no cure for it, Lymphedema can be managed with compression clothing and by wrapping the affected limb. When talking to Cordner Carson about her case, she said that “it was a result of a lipoma that formed in my groin from a pulled muscle. I essentially had Lymphedema before it was removed because the lipoma was in a position that blocked and damaged my lymph nodes.” Once the diagnoses came in, Cordner Carson was told she could no longer run track and field because it would be too hard on her leg.
“I was in complete denial. I tend to fight everything off, but I found over the months that this was one thing I could not shake. I went nights without wrapping and days without wearing my compression stocking. During my remaining months on campus, I tried to blend in by wearing shorts and dresses. I felt self-conscious of my leg even in jeans, and I had difficulty finding clothes that would hide it properly.”
She eventually finished up her degree and moved back home to Minnesota. While home she was set up on a date with her now husband Patrick Carson. After months of dating, Cordner Carson had a breakdown about her Lymphedema and asked Patrick why it had to be her. Patrick’s response was
“Why not you? You have shown me that you are the strongest, most resilient person I know, if anyone can fight this in the whole world, you can. I’m not worried about you Deborah Cordner. Never have been, never will be. You are a fighter.”
These words got her through the rough time she was having and gave her the motivation to not let Lymphedema control her. So after about a year of very minimal activity, Cordner Carson began to walk but as a sprinter, walking became boring. She started jogging and after finding that her leg was manageable, she began to run. She started doing 5ks and eventually ran one in under 19 minutes. One cold day in December 2009 she wandered into a Cross Fit gym just to warm up a little. She met the man who became her coach that day and started doing CrossFit but had no intention of competing. By the summer of 2010, she was training 4-5 days a week. She was feeling good about herself and she “quietly decided that [she] would compete and try to qualify for the 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games.”
In 2011, Cordner Carson placed first in her region in The Open, which is what qualifies you for Regionals. She placed third in Regionals and was headed to the games. She was very excited for the games but unfortunately was disqualified during the swim which was the first event. Living in Minnesota, she had trained for the swim in the pool but had never swam in the ocean before and she “had no idea how to jump through waves they kept hitting [her] in the face.” “I couldn’t overcome it” she said “the waves kept hitting me and I kept trying and trying.” While she was disqualified they let her go through the rest of the events, but she would not get a score or any prizes. When thinking back to that day, Cordner Carson said, “I was so angry I remember every single heat I was in I killed and won everything by a mile.” When the games were over and she walked into the stands, people were extremely surprised and would say to her “Why are you not down there? You’re one of the best.” She used these comments as her motivation for next year.
The next year she made the games again but this time she was ready for the swim. The swim was longer but she continued on and told herself to “stop making this a competition, just get through it without dying and then after you get through it you can start competing.” Because of her Lymphedema, Cordner Carson wears a compression sleeve on her left leg. Once the sleeve got wet, the compression began to not work as well, causing pain in her leg. Despite the pain, Cordner Carson found a way to push through. She finished the swim dead last. Years of track paid off when it came to running portion. Because of her speed she caught up to the rest of the group and passed some other competitors, despite the pain in her leg from the loss of compression. She finished the triathlon in 36th place. When she competed in the CrossFit events, she jumped 23 spots and ended up in 13th place overall. Cordner Carson won The Spirit of the Games award that year.
Although she had planned on retiring after the 2012 games, Cordner Carson instead decided to try for the 2013 games. She finished fifth worldwide in The Open, third in Regionals, and 21st in the games. She took the 2014 season off. But after taking 3 months off and having a C-section, she began training again. Just six months after having her daughter, Sydney, she qualified for the 2015 Regionals. At Regionals, she finished in 15th place, not qualifying for the games, but she was not upset because she “did beat 30 girls that hadn’t had a baby six months earlier.” Now in the 2016 season, she is no longer
competing. While she still trains, Cordner Carson says that she prefers to spend time with her daughter over being in the gym training.
Overcoming the swim in the 2012 games was a very inspirational moment for many people. While completing the swim was a big moment for her, Cordner Carson still must work every day just to be able to do CrossFit. Many people with Lymphedema are not active at all and from the moment of their diagnose they let it control their lives. Even after a setback the she could have let control her life, Cordner Carson made the most of her situation. She is now one of eight people featured as one of Lymphnet’s Inspirational Patients as well as an example to many that although life will knock you down and you may fail sometimes, if you work hard enough you can overcome anything.