Powerfully Poised: Whitney Pagnucco

By Chris Cooper on 01.27.12

If you're looking to sum up Whitney Pagnucco in a word, “Grace” might be a good choice.

From Sault Ste. Marie, where she trains at CrossFit Catalyst, Pagnucco is not only quick with the clean and jerk, she's also the first to cheer other athletes, offer congratulations, and add fans to her ever-growing list. Powerfully poised, the former ballerina was first attracted to CrossFit by the videos of athletic women doing gymnastics.

“The first video I ever saw was ‘Nasty Girls’ with Eva and Nicole and Annie,” Pagnucco says. “I didn't think about the weightlifting part at all until later.” 

In that first month, she was fully immersed, doing many of the namesake workouts, in scaled fashion. The 'weightlifting part' would become her focus, though, and one of her many strengths. At a bodyweight of 130 pounds, Pagnucco deadlifts 300 and back squats almost as much. A fantastic coincidence led her to a few days' training with Sage Burgener in California, and she's been pursuing the fast lifts with her usual enthusiasm since. 

Since her first competition in 2009, Pagnucco has made friends while destroying competitors at every event. Despite her disappointing DNF at last year's Regionals, she still describes it as a highlight of her CrossFit career. “I met a lot of people who I'd seen on the Internet, or who had seen me. I didn't know them before, and then you're instantly friends. I find a lot of joy in that.” 

Pagnucco was steadily climbing the ranks last year when she went down with an injury. “I knew something was wrong when I finished the high-rep pull-up workout,” she says. “I had two hours of nausea, my brain was foggy; that never happens, even after long met-cons.” 

Determined to continue, she lined up with the other competitors to do ‘Amanda,’ an event in which she was heavily favoured. 

Two days before, she was linking strict muscle-ups at home. At Regionals, though, she was struggling to get a single one. “I stood there for 15 minutes, trying to stay composed and calm. I didn't want to be remembered as 'the one who quit.' I had nightmares about it for weeks afterward.” Still undiagnosed, Whitney knew that something bigger was happening.

Only after a 7-hour drive home did she seek emergency attention. “It was rhabdo,” she says without emotion. “I was hospitalized.” She was also warned away from exercise – even carrying her purse was too much challenge for her arms. Still, “I learned a lot about myself mentally, going through that.”

Her calm is one of her greatest weapons, and the combination of her dancing and martial arts background has given her a bedrock of composure. “My dance coach used to say, 'Just do what you rehearsed. Nothing is different in front of an audience. Nothing will change five minutes before a performance. Just do what you practiced.'” Now, Pagnucco says, when in the heat of battle, “I can just go blank. It's just a routine. You've practiced being in pain, and then you just do it again.”

The perfect workout for Pagnucco? “High-rep burpees. Muscle-ups. Heavy power cleans. My numbers are higher than last year, even with the 12-week layoff after my rhabdo. Pull-ups, too, I guess.” 

Looking forward to Regionals, Pagnucco is cautious, but confident. “I want to prove to myself that I deserve to be there on the third day; that last year wasn't a fluke.” 

In typical fashion, she adds, “I'm excited to see everyone, and to see the caliber of competition. It's going to be fun. But you can tell everyone that I'm back for vengeance. Tell them I'm thirsty for blood.”