Jana Green-Slyder has a message for women of any age: “You can have it all.” She believes that life’s expectations require women to sacrifice too often and that being a wife, mother, friend, and employee forces some women to set their own goals aside. Jana has proved that it is possible to be all those things and achieve a remarkable “God-sized” goal. For her, that goal was to win her division of the World CrossFit Games. In August 2019, at age 50, she did exactly that.
The journey to Jana’s goal began where she grew up in tiny Rogersville, Missouri, just outside of Springfield. Jana’s parents, Judy Hollingsworth and J.D. Green, modeled physical fitness for her. When she was in the fourth grade, J.D. started getting Jana up at 5 a.m. to run around the block. “We lived out in the country. Each street from corner to corner was a mile long, so when we ran around the block, it was a 4-mile run.”
Other kids might balk at getting up so early, but not Jana. “I was raised to do what my parents told me to do, so I got up,” she says. It was precious time spent alone with her father. On the big hill at the end of their route, he had her run hill sprints. Afterward, they raced to their mailbox. “He never let me win. I didn’t beat him until I was in the seventh grade.”
Jana credits J.D. with recognizing and cultivating her athletic gifts. He cleared out the family living room to make a weight room. In school, Jana ran with the boy’s track team and, from seventh through 12th grades, she was a three-sport athlete, participating in basketball, volleyball, and track. She also ran track in college while attending the University of Illinois at Chicago, but her interest in competition waned in favor of the social life she had no time for in high school. During and after college, Jana remained physically fit. One day a friend invited her to her first CrossFit class.
CrossFit is known as the sport of fitness. In her book, Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of CrossFit and the Primal Future of Fitness, former The New York Times columnist, Rolling Stones, Wired writer, and CrossFit fan J.C. Herz chronicles the rise of CrossFit from its infancy in the early 1970s to the worldwide obsession it is today. CrossFit is the brainchild of “gymnast gone feral” Greg Glassman, who grew up in California’s San Fernando Valley, then a hotbed of gymnasts with Olympic aspirations. He loved the rings. Sport rules required that he perform the routines and dismount without collapsing, or worse, getting sick. Greg began experimenting with ways to replicate the level of exhaustion he needed to conquer.
The result was CrossFit’s first workout, later named “the Fran,” consisting of 21 thrusters — holding a barbell at chest level, squatting, and then thrusting it overhead — and 21 pull-ups, followed by 15 more of each exercise, finished with nine more of each. The process birthed one of the foundational principles of CrossFit: “high-intensity, full-body movements that obliterate the distinction between strength training and cardiovascular training.”
Greg’s 10 attributes of fitness are cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, power, flexibility, speed, agility, coordination, accuracy, and balance. To achieve these, CrossFit uses jumping boxes, medicine balls, rowing machines, dumbbells, barbells, and bumper plates. Given the curious assortment of tools, J.C. describes the typical CrossFit gym, known as a “box,” as “a defoliated orangutan habitat.” Unlike traditional gym workouts, CrossFit equips its practitioners to accomplish necessary, everyday tasks. Someone who needs to lift a 5-gallon bottle of spring water should master the deadlift. Others who need to lift a suitcase into an overhead airplane bin will benefit from the clean and jerk.
When Jana first tried CrossFit, she thought it was tough, but it appealed to her competitive nature. “It checked my ego very quickly,” she says. She also liked that a coach was always there to check for errors, make corrections, and push her hard. Fortunately, CrossFit is not just for elite athletes like Jana. “It’s a common misconception that you need to be in shape to do CrossFit. Any movement can be scaled to a person’s ability,” she says.
J.C. would agree. In Learning to Breathe Fire …, she describes Greg’s tendency to coach elite athletes alongside grandmothers. His reasoning makes sense. J.C. quotes Greg as saying, “Elite athletes need fast hips, strong torsos, and good balance to dominate their competitors. Senior citizens need those things as well to maintain their independence. Squats are the prescription for both.”
In 2012, Jana learned about the CrossFit Open, a uniquely accessible international competition. Workouts are posted on the CrossFit website each week for five weeks, and contestants have their workouts judged at a licensed CrossFit box or by submitting a recording online. Top Open athletes progress to online qualifiers, followed by regional competitions called Sanctionals, and then “the CrossFit Games.” When Jana first told her coach she was going to the Games, he said she needed five years to prepare. “I didn’t believe him, but he was right. Still, there was no stopping me. I was compelled.” While living in Augusta, Georgia, Jana worked out with fellow CrossFit athlete Scott Fitzgerald, whom she credits with helping her progress from a good athlete to a great one. “I needed someone to compete against, and he gave me that,” she says.
Through CrossFit, Jana met Matt Slyder, a CrossFit coach and major in the United States Army. To Matt, Jana was the dream package: smart, beautiful, kind, funny, a great mother, and an incredible athlete. “I didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of her because she could smoke me,” he says with a laugh. Because Jana was in training, she stuck to a strict bedtime. “I would literally hang up on him when the clock struck 9 p.m.,” she says. In CrossFit, the term for someone like Jana — someone who is stronger, faster, more fit, and who finishes way before anyone else — is “fire breather.” Because of her strict bedtime and her physical intensity, Matt nicknamed Jana “Cinderella Fire Breather.”
Cinderella Fire Breather first went to the ball (the CrossFit Games) in 2018, ranked 12th in the world. However, one of her daughters became ill and she had to bow out. After mourning that opportunity, Jana turned her sights to the 2019 Games. “I spent the next year visualizing myself winning. I told Matt I wasn’t just going back, I was going back to win.” She chipped away at every deficiency of her own while studying her competitors’ workout videos online to identify their shortcomings. “I perfected myself in the areas where they were weak.”
When Jana and Matt married in 2018, Jana moved to Columbia and joined Cottontown CrossFit, where Matt coaches. There she discovered another talented coach in box owner Marc Sanger. “Marc has an incredible coaching style,” says Jana. “He’s the best coach I’ve ever worked under.” Together, Marc and Matt pushed Jana to her breaking point. “I’ve hated and loved them both at some point or another. They made me into an elite athlete.” Matt disagrees, citing Jana’s humble nature. “Jana was already a rock star when I met her. She just needed tweaking.” Everything became about getting Jana to her goal. “It’s not often that people get to tackle a life goal, something they’ve always wanted to do,” says Matt. “It was an easy decision for me to do everything I could to get her there.”
Jana and Matt have four children: Jana’s 22-year-old son, Josh, a Marine sergeant; her daughters, 14-year-old Isabella and 13-year-old Sofia; and Matt’s 10-year-old son, Owen. They all supported her, but none more so than Matt. “He is the best partner. He thought of everything,” says Jana. Clearly, Matt believed in Jana just as much as she believed in herself. When the time came for them to travel to Madison, Wisconsin, for the 2019 Games, he surprised her with first class plane tickets. “He told me, ‘Winners fly first class.’”
Jana arrived at the Games ranked first in the world in her division. The Games are set up much like the Olympics. Each day of the four-day competition consists of three-to-four exhausting events. Matt says his role was to be Jana’s Sherpa. “This was her Mt. Everest. It was my job to carry her bags and make sure she had everything she needed. I was in Scouts growing up, and now I’m in the Army. I know the importance of having my gear in order for a mission. Our mission was the Games. It was natural for me to plan for everything she might need so she wasn’t distracted from achieving her goal.” Matt’s preparation left Jana free to concentrate on competing. “Whether it was a snack or a hair tie, he had it waiting for me the moment I needed it,” says Jana. She credits Matt with keeping her motivated, especially when things got tough. “The body starts to shut down after several days of intense physical competition,” she says. “It’s about who can survive. Pure grit.”
One event was particularly difficult, physically and mentally. The “ruck run” was a grueling, five-mile run with a weighted rucksack. At each mile another 10-pound weight was added until on the last mile Jana ran with 50 pounds in her sack. Matt turned the event’s theme into a motivator. “In the military, a rucksack typically carries medical supplies,” Jana explains. “Matt told me to imagine that he and Josh were out in the battlefield and my rucksack contained supplies they needed to stay alive. I had to get to them.” It worked. Jana placed first in the event, but afterward her body went into shock. She had to be put into an ice bath and drink lots of liquids. “I had so much pain in my joints, everything hurt. I became a little unhinged mentally.” She still had another event later the same day and another whole day of competition after that. Again, Matt came to her rescue. “He told me, ‘Jana, you’re going to have to ranger up. This is where you have to dig.’ He was so good at motivating me.”
As much as he helped her, Matt was not Jana’s only saving grace. She also credits God. Scheduled for an event that included handstand-walking, the assault bike, and a 140-pound sandbag carry, Jana was anxious. “I told Matt I needed to listen to some music.” She chose Christian musician Zach Williams’ Fear is a Liar. The song’s refrain is “Let Your fire fall and cast out all my fears, Let Your fire fall, Your love is all I feel.” Girded by her faith, Jana won that event as well.
On the last day of the Games, Jana finished strong, and exactly as she envisioned it every single day for the previous 365 days, Jana was pronounced the winner. “I cried. Standing on that podium, it was everything I dreamed it would be.” She texted her father and told him she had won. “He’d wanted me to go to the Olympics. This was like that. It was like it all came full circle. I felt I’d accomplished something that made him really proud.”
True to form, when Jana found Matt after the ceremony, he was waiting for her with a huge doughnut. Matt calls Jana’s win incredible. “It’s just as big when you’re along for the ride, to see someone you love accomplish their dream. It was just as emotional for me because I wanted it for her so badly.”
Today, Jana enjoys doing CrossFit for fun and getting to spend more time with Matt and their kids. Jana is clear on her lessons learned: “Girls should know it’s okay to have God-sized dreams, dreams so large they are destined to fail without divine intervention. They can be enormous, but they’re attainable if you work hard enough. You don’t have to apologize for having dreams.”