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Amy Spears—Inspired by the "dark place"

Amy proved how tough she is on the CMT channel’s grueling Broken Skull Challenge. But in everyday life, she’s driven to help those around her achieve their fitness goals. 

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I’m a mother, but I am also still Amy. I have big goals and dreams and it is so important for me to work towards those while I am raising my kids and, in turn, I think I am a better mom for it.”

Inspired by the "dark place"

On a 100-degree July day in the desert outside Los Angeles, Laboratory paralegal Amy Spears leaps through the air and tackles her opponent to the ground with a bone-jarring thud. The women wrestle in the fine gravel, raising a cloud of dust as they fight for possession of a 15-pound sandbag. Amy and her adversary, Brenna Calvert, are paired in a duel called the snatch, the first event for eight elite women athletes competing in Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Challenge on the CMT cable channel. (Amy’s episode aired January 11, 2016.)

The rules of engagement are simple in this reality-show grudge match: grab the bag, fight past the opponent, dash to the other woman’s end of this shallow pit, and ring a bell dangling from a pole. It’s like capture the flag, with wrestling.

A few minutes earlier, Amy made a tactical error, letting Brenna flip the sandbag toward Amy’s bell. A powerful, nationally ranked wrestler during her high school days in Los Alamos, Amy tries one hold, then another, but the lankier Brenna somehow twists, surges to her feet, and swats the bell—match over! Amy is out of the competition. Time to go home. During the next several months, she will replay her mid-match mistake a hundred times: what if…?

Amy tackles Brenna Calvert in a bone-jarring takedown during Steve Austen’s Broken Skull Challenge, which aired on January 11, 2016.

“Most of your limitations, when it comes to pushing yourself, live in your head. Understanding and overcoming mental defeat is the first and biggest step towards success in all areas of life. The power of a positive attitude is everything.”

After the match, “Stone Cold” Austin pulled Amy aside. “You are exactly the kind of competitor I like to have on my show,” he said. “You don’t have an ounce of quit in you and I have nothing but respect for that.”

Amy and her husband, Dusty Spears

Finding Amy

So how did Amy—a Los Alamos paralegal with a disarming smile, two toddler girls that she adores, a husband fresh out of the Coast Guard, and a deep passion to help others—find herself competing against seven fire-breathing, muscle-bound women on national TV?

Don’t be fooled by Amy’s naturally engaging manner—an elite athlete, she burns with competitive fire. Her sports résumé includes two entries labeled “All American.” That distinction first came in 2002, when, as a high school sophomore, she placed ninth nationally in women’s wrestling. The next year she moved up to fourth nationally. Going into her senior year, she was ranked number two in the nation by USA Wrestling. Then a torn shoulder sidelined her, ending her wrestling career and blowing her chance at a college wrestling scholarship, which hinged on Amy ranking nationally again.

“That was a massive disappointment,” Amy says. “I really lost my grip on what my next move was supposed to be. Wrestling had turned into such a defining lifestyle for me, and without that guiding my decisions, I felt a little lost. But it was also exciting at the same time. Giving up the sport offered me the chance to go to college and just be a college kid. Wrestling shaped who I was growing up and it gave me so much discipline, but it was time to go find Amy without wrestling attached.”

Wrestling had been attached for a long time. Amy started wrestling on the boy’s team in sixth grade and became captain for her junior and senior years. She wrestled against men but also traveled to compete in women’s tournaments out of state.

“I quickly found I had a knack for it,” she says. “I have always had a lot of brute strength and I’m really flexible, both of which are really important in the world of wrestling. In high school, during practice, I would constantly be pushed into that very dark place—work outs that were so intense you felt like you were either seriously dying or you needed to puke. Sometimes—often times—both. As weird as it sounds, I craved that. It pushes you to your limits. You have to be disciplined to put yourself in that environment. It’s not fun, but for some reason it keeps bringing you back.”

Amy also enjoyed the challenge of pushing her body to new levels of strength and fitness without worrying about what others thought. “I was always considered to be just like one of the guys. The guys I wrestled with were like my brothers. They were so accepting and encouraging of my abilities, not just as “the girl wrestler” but as their teammate, and that was huge. I worked really, really hard and, in turn, that earned their respect.

After Amy graduated from Los Alamos High School in May 2004, she attended New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, where she found herself submerged in “the whole sorority, pink, glittery culture, and I just didn’t fit that mold.” So she became a self-confessed “gym rat,” lifting weights, rising at 5:30 a.m. for a military physical fitness class, and playing volleyball.

During one break from classes, Amy visited her brother, Michael Volz, who was serving in the US Coast Guard in Oregon as a search-and-rescue specialist. There she met Michael’s best friend and search-and-rescue teammate, Dusty Spears. The two hit it off—so much so that they married shortly after Amy graduated in 2008. She earned two bachelor’s degrees, one in political science and one in communications, plus a supplemental major in law and society, and settled in Oregon with Dusty. 


Full Steam Ahead

Diploma in hand, Amy took a job as a paralegal in a law firm. Work crowded out serious sports and fitness. Meanwhile, her family grew. In 2012, Amy and Dusty had their first daughter, Paislee; Lilah followed in 2013. A few months later, out of shape, feeling lost and completely consumed by motherhood, Amy was looking for a physical focus. Then she tried a workout program called CrossFit.

“It was instant. I loved it,” Amy recalls. “The first day got me into that dark place, like I couldn’t go one more minute, and that was it, that was the catalyst. I went full steam ahead.”

CrossFit is a national company offering strength and fitness conditioning through weightlifting, body weight exercises, and aerobic workouts, along with competitions from the local level to national championships.

Amy has competed in CrossFit competitions both in Oregon and in New Mexico, never placing below third, often taking first. “CrossFit changed me from the inside out. It was and still continues to be such a transformative experience.” In the local gym, she had found not just a set of workout routines, but a channel for expressing her physical energy and satisfying her hunger for challenges. She also found “an incredible community of people who are all trying to better themselves through physical fitness.”  

And here was a fresh path for “finding Amy.”

“It was about regaining my independence as an individual and finding the thing where I can go be me and not Mom,” she says. 

Amy poses with other contestants from the Broken Skull Challenge and a fan (middle).

Back to Reality

By 2015, life was accelerating. Dusty would soon leave the Coast Guard. Amy wanted to move back to Los Alamos, where her parents remain. “It was a great place to grow up,” she says. “I loved being here.” Then, in March, “everything happened.” Amy accepted a job as a contractor at the Lab—it fell through, but she was subsequently hired internally. She joined CrossFit Los Alamos to continue her training.

Amy enjoyed watching CMT’s Broken Skull Challenge, which pits eight super-fit women and eight super-fit men against each other in three rounds of same-gender competitions. The winner gets $10,000. The losers of each event go home. Events include obstacle courses, with tasks such as running with a log slung over their shoulders, flipping huge tractor tires, and spidering up cargo nets. Contestants also go head-to-head in get-outta-my-way match-ups. The competitors are professional or at least super-serious athletes with backgrounds in CrossFit, obstacle course racing, professional wrestling, and mixed martial arts.

With Amy’s wrestling background and the new fitness levels she was achieving through CrossFit, she thought she had a shot. “More than anything, the challenge really excited me. I love the show and I wanted to be a part of it. Any chance to rough-house and to get my fitness on is a chance I want to take.” So Amy applied, sending a picture and “a spiel” about her wrestling background. In May she got a call from the show.

The challenge started with a battery of interviews, when Amy withstood phone and Skype interrogations that included rounds with the casting director and the producer. Besides looking for obvious personality defects, they were also checking out her telegenic appeal. “I think they were looking for beauty and brawn,” Amy says, “I’m sure they wanted someone who looked good on camera, but, more importantly, had the athletic ability to perform.”

The Skype session previewed what to expect during filming. The producers seemed intent on molding Amy into a snarling professional wrestler. During the interview—and later, during filming—they fed her trash-talk lines to say. Amy laughs about it now, but she had to push back in the moment. “I was very honest with them. I said, ‘I’m not going to trash talk. It really just is not my thing and it would be an awkward delivery if I tried.’ I am usually the loudest cheerleader in any type of competitive setting. I am always encouraging people and trying to find ways to motivate people when they need it the most. That’s definitely such a huge passion in my life. I consider myself very fortunate and thankful to be a part of other peoples’ journeys.”

Amy often takes her daughters to the gym. Here she holds Lilah while Paislee gathers herself for a jump onto a weight stack.

Following Her Passion

Amy sees a strong connection between physical and mental fitness. It all comes back to that dark place, the mental zone where her mind is telling her body to keep going, regardless of the circumstances, a lesson she applies to life in general. “Dealing with that dark place—where all you want to do is give up, lie down, and catch your breath, but you can’t, so you don’t—facilitates more emotional, physical, and mental growth than anything. You learn that most of your limitations, when it comes to pushing yourself, live in your head. Understanding and overcoming mental defeat are the first and biggest steps towards success in all areas of life. The power of a positive attitude is everything.”

“I am always encouraging people and trying to find ways to motivate people when they need it the most. That’s definitely such a huge passion in my life. I consider myself very fortunate and thankful to be a part of other peoples’ journeys.”

Today Amy nurtures that attitude at CrossFit Los Alamos, where she coaches and leads classes.

“I’m more passionate now than ever about my fitness journey, about staying healthy, and about loving myself and my body,” she says. “I think one of the best things about CrossFit is that it is bringing this big shift in how we are looking at fitness: it’s about functionality, not aesthetics. I hope we continue to evolve and that we, both men and women, continue to capitalize on this inherent strength that we have. I wish that everyone out there would spend more time focusing on how physically powerful we are, what we can do with our bodies and what it really means to be healthy, rather than trying to look like what our societal beauty standards say we should look like. It’s a very freeing mentality.”

Maintaining that functionality, however, requires constantly juggling work, family, and workouts.

“Every single time I am away from my children, whether it be for work or for play, I feel that ever-present mommy guilt,” Amy admits. “I think that all of us parents innately struggle with that. I have learned just how necessary it is for me to fulfill my needs. I’m a mother, but I also am still Amy. I have big goals and big dreams and it is so important for me to work towards them while I am raising my kids. In turn, I am a better mom for it.”

Those big goals include qualifying for the CrossFit Regionals in 2017. And, who knows, she might even test her strength on another reality show, but only if the filming schedule fits her work-mom-personal-life schedule. “Reality TV and real life are mutually exclusive!” Amy says with a laugh.

Amy Spears works for the Laboratory Counsel’s Environmental Safety and Health group.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the Employee Spotlight articles are solely those of the featured employees and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Los Alamos National Laboratory.