Disabled CrossFit whizz does it all, and she’s only begun
‘Don’t pamper the impairment, challenge the ability’
“Just one more time,” the biokineticist says to Michaela “Chaeli” Mycroft.
“That’s a CrossFit line,” says Chaeli, fighting unruly limbs to push her body upright. “And it’s a lie!”
She’s right, but this doesn’t stop Chaeli from getting out of her wheelchair every Wednesday for more of what she calls adapted CrossFit, as gruelling as any group class. The grit she shows would beat anyone in the Cape Town gym.
What makes her stand out among the fighters of this world is not her triumphs – including co-founding the award-winning Chaeli Campaign for children living with disabilities – but her irreverent humour.
She’s a rarity: a crusader who laughs a lot. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 11 months old, Chaeli has “spastic quadriplegia” involving all her limbs.
“Aaaah,” she says, as biokineticist Marco Becker pushes his weight onto them to stretch the spasms out.
It’s an expression of pain, not bliss, but she gets the moment – this blond athlete lying across her – and jokes despite the discomfort. “You better not write that!”
Becker said they had not yet found the limit of what the goodnatured Chaeli could do. “What we’re doing is not orthodox and not predictable,” he said.
In her Instagram posts, she acknowledges Becker as a fellow explorer, shoulder to literal shoulder with her throughout 2018 as they pushed into the unknown territory.
“Working with @marcobeckerbio on this CrossFit journey is epic. Figuring out new neurological pathways with my mostly unco-operative body and realising that some spasms are stronger than humans ...
“Thanks for teaching me how to fall on my face [emoji, thumbs up] and get back up again, trusting that my body will eventually find its way,” she writes.
“I hope you all have a few epic humans in your life. Keep them close.” A magnetic personality herself, Chaeli attracts more than her share – and her parents are exceptional.
Her mother Zelda, who supported the nine-year-old Chaeli, her sister and friends when they founded the Chaeli Campaign and is the CEO, said: “I’m not a great supporter of pampering, which often means pampering the impairment. I prefer to challenge ability.”
“When Chaeli was about two and people invaded her space, she would fall over and cry pitifully. I taught her to make her voice strong and say to them, no.”
Mycroft’s ability to laugh at herself and draw in people to laugh with her is part of her zest for life, said Zelda. Her sense of humour glints through everyday battles, taking the edge off frustrating and embarrassing situations, from restricted access to buildings to airport toilets.
“You need to have a sense of humour to deal with disability. It makes it less scary for people and, if you don’t, you would get grumpy,” said Chaeli, recalling the time she got stuck on the underground in Barcelona with a friend.
The Mycroft family has a three-minute rule, said Zelda. “You have three minutes to freak out and then you must get a grip!”
She said: “Chaeli had to learn that not everything in life is about her. Her sister’s needs were also important, and she had to learn to wait.”
Older by 15 months, her sister Erin said Chaeli did get some breaks growing up.
“My mom would allow her to bite me because that was the only way she could defend herself when I would taunt her. She said to me: ‘If you poke her or smack her, she can’t get up and walk away.’”
Even if she could, Mycroft isn’t the type to walk away. She’s the climb-every-mountain type, and celebrated her 21st birthday on Mount Kilimanjaro in 2015 after reaching the summit with a team led by Carel Verhoef.
She has also completed three Comrades marathons and four Cape Town Cycle tours with her team, and is a double world champion in wheelchair dancing.
“A lot of people don’t think people with disabilities can be fit. Exercise is always seen as rehabilitation,” she said. “We need to look at this differently, to look at potential. I back myself more and more to try things.”
Her goals are not only physical but also cerebral. Chaeli started a PhD at UCT this year, after graduating with a master’s degree in human rights law.
Slotting research into days full of presentations, meetings and training would be beyond most people, but not her.
Erin, 25, said: “She’s an overachiever, like my mom. They will both be up at 3am working on their laptops.”
Chaeli had trained her computer over about seven months to recognise her voice and take dictation, but she said then “the computer ate my voice”, taking her back to scratch – using her knuckles to type.
Her mother said: “I have found Chaeli very brave and, the older she gets, the braver she has to be. Kids are cute, but cuteness wears off with age.”
Chaeli doesn’t look her 24 years, however, weighing a mere 36kg and joking about having had Botox treatment.
“When she was nine, a well-fed cat weighed more than she did,” said Zelda, adding Botox was used to loosen up the stiffness in her fingers and wrists.
Chaeli’s father Russell said her CrossFit experiment had made her stronger in body and mind. “She’s a natural progressor, and I’m very proud of her,” he said, watching her pull on a rowing machine.
Her “guide” dog Eden, who has been with her four years, was also paying attention to every move.
“Eden’s trained to do things like light switches, to retrieve things and to make a noise when I get stuck,” said Chaeli. “But some days, particularly Mondays, she just won’t!”
Fierce about her independence, Chaeli is trying to raise money to buy an adapted car, which uses the same joystick as her motorised wheelchair.
“It’s about having more autonomy but also allowing the people around me to be more independent,” she said.
When Erin and Chaeli were 18 and 19 years old, they went to Paris on their own for Chaeli to deliver a keynote address at the Unesco Policy Forum, after winning the 2011 International Children’s Peace Prize.
“It was quite an adventure. We went to the Eiffel Tower together,” Erin said. “I was reminded then of what a big deal my sister is and about the incredible work she does.”
Among an array of awards and trophies that adorn the walls of the Chaeli Campaign house in Cape Town are medals for social activism and a World of Children youth award.
Erin said the only time she was jealous of her sister was when Chaeli met her hero, Barack Obama, last year.
Chaeli said: “It’s all the little things in between the big things that make me happy. Travel and work are one.”
People with disabilities differ on how to effect change, said Chaeli, who believes self-advocacy is the most powerful.
Her approach is inclusive, allowing her able-bodied friends to get involved. “Only seven percent of the population has a disability, and it cannot be only us.
“People with disabilities deserve space,” she said. “If you get stuck in a lift and people have to carry you seven flights of stairs, they won’t forget about access.” Strangers ask questions of people using wheelchairs, and Chaeli is open to this when done sensitively and with respect. “Other people think it is invading their privacy when people ask them to disclose personal information which is none of their business.”
She said: “If we don’t want to answer we are seen as impolite, and if we are honest, we are militant. We need to be more real. If I haven’t slept for six nights, I don’t want to answer questions about how my body works.”
Chaeli first experienced harsh attitudes during her transition from junior to high school.
“Before, I had been in a space where if you have a disability it’s not a big deal. Then I went to high school. It was a huge deal, and was made into a barrier and a burden.
“When I moved schools, the attitude at my new school was so different, as if: ‘Chaeli is one of us and we help our own’. The pupils would offer to help, and it took a lot of the pressure away.”
This got even better when she enrolled at UCT, and students didn’t ask her why she was in a wheelchair. Instead, they would ask her what course she was doing.
“People learn to be fearful of difference. My sister has babies now and they do not see my wheelchair as a problem,” said Chaeli, who believes it is always possible to change attitudes.