When Hurricane Dorian ripped through the Bahamas last August, the damage was catastrophic. More than 70 people died and an estimated US$4.68 billion in damage was inflicted. For Bahamas resident Miriam Johnson, it was damaging on a magnitude she had never seen before.

“Hurricane Dorian hit the northern islands in the Bahamas the hardest, Abaco and Freeport were devastated,” said the 41-year-old. “Those islands play a major role in our economy in terms of revenue for the Bahamas. With those islands being devastated, many of those residents and many on the main island now have housing, employment and other challenges.”

Of course, Johnson and her husband, Charles, who started the country’s first “box”, as CrossFit gyms are known, in 2011, did not sit back. CrossFit Potcake, located on the main island Nassau, leapt into action like multiple other businesses in the area who weren’t directly hit by the storm, the biggest ever to hit the country.

Many local and international businesses have offered help in the recovery efforts. Online accommodation broker Airbnb has offered working sabbaticals for people to visit the country and help with rebuilding efforts, while the Red Cross has spearheaded multiple relief efforts, from food to temporary shelters.

“Although we live on the main island of Nassau, many of our gym members lost families and friends during the hurricane. People lost everything.”

The storm was the first of Category 5 strength to hit the island, breaking wind speed records set in 1851, and while the storm received widespread media coverage, the recovery effort has largely been limited to local outlets and some newspapers in southern Florida.

Miriam said their box created a GoFundMe page as well as a fundraising event, Hope for Bahamas, which featured a WOD (workout of the day). They also got help from CrossFit Inc. She said it would take years for the community to get back to normal, if ever.

“We are just scratching the surface on the road to recovery.”

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The story of CrossFit’s first gym in the Bahamas also runs through the couple. Charles, a former competitive bodybuilder, said CrossFit Potcake now has 160 members, but Miriam said it was a bit rough at the beginning. The two have been married for 15 years and business partners for 11, as she also runs a pet-grooming business.

“He started with one gym member and questioned what had he gotten himself into, and now over 1,200 members have passed through our doors.”

The Bahamas has five boxes in total, hosting multiple events for CrossFitters, but Miriam said there were still hurdles to overcome when it came to overall fitness in the tiny Caribbean nation, which has an estimated 385,000 people spread over 700 islands. The Bahamas has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world among adults.

Miriam Johnson at CrossFit Potcake. Photo: Handout

“This is not a fit town, but Charles constantly tries to spread the word of a healthy nation,” she said, adding there was also a stigma around women working out.” “I think many women in general have the whole idea that lifting will make you look manly or get really big muscles so they tend to stay away, [yet] we have a membership of 80 per cent women.”

Miriam said she also loves being able to educate people as to the results of CrossFit and living a healthy lifestyle. “I think when I tell women I do CrossFit and lift heavy weights and when they look at me they automatically breathe a sign of relief, because now they know that a lot of what they were told was a myth. I like the idea of being feminine and strong at the same time.”

Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas last year. Photo: EPA

The box also has an interesting local name – a “potcake” is a Bahamian term for the thick, leftover food that remains in the bottom of a pot of peas and rice after being reheated several times. It tends to form a cake shape said Miriam and is fed to dogs who populate the islands, who are in turn called “potcakes”.

“Although officially considered mixed-breed dogs, the Royal Bahamian potcake is a recognised breed in the Bahamas. They have distinct characteristics of size and temperament. This is because, until very recently, all island dogs shared the same isolated gene pool. This makes the potcake an extremely unique species of canine. At CrossFit Potcake you get every type of athlete with different personality and abilities, just like the potcake.”

Miriam and Charles Johnson at CrossFit Potcake. Miriam will represent the Bahamas this year at the CrossFit Games. Photo: Handout

Miriam was also able to claim the Bahamas national championship for the first time in the 2020 CrossFit Open and will represent her country at the CrossFit Games in August in Madison, Wisconsin.

“This year I honestly wasn’t going to try for the CrossFit Open, I was the runner-up the year before and at the ninth hour before submitting scores Charles says let’s just do the WOD and see what the outcome is just for fun.

“And after doing 20.1 (there are five workouts over five weeks) he said he was going to put my scores up just for kicks. Before you know it, I’m the national champion.”