How This Woman with Cerebral Palsy Beat Expectations — and Cancer — to Open Her Own CrossFit Gym

Doctors said Steph "The Hammer" Hammerman would never walk or talk — and now she's a Nike athlete

When Steph Hammerman was born, her future was unclear. She has cerebral palsy, and doctors initially said she might never walk, talk, read or write. But now, at age 29, she’s done all of those things — and more.

Hammerman, nicknamed “The Hammer,” grew up fighting against the expectations that were laid out for her. From going to sleepaway camp to earning her master’s degree, she always wanted to do more. But she realized after grad school that she needed to work on her health first.

“I felt like I was living my life for so many other people, and I was taking care of everyone around me and I was forgetting to take care of myself,” she tells PEOPLE. “I found a trainer and I really started taking care of my health. That started me on this journey of becoming an athlete.”

When she was ready for a new challenge in 2012, Hammerman tried CrossFit classes at the urging of a friend, and found that she connected with it more than any workout she had tried before.

“First of all, I love a challenge,” she says of why CrossFit appealed to her. “I love anything where people look at me and say, ‘Hmm, I don’t know if you can do that.’ And second was the community. I remember going into the space and people were lying on the floor after the workout and high-fiving each other. It was just this really cool feeling of acceptance everywhere. It didn’t matter who you are or your ability or skill level — you accomplished something after a workout.”

A year later she decided she wanted to direct her upbeat attitude toward coaching, and in 2014 she became the first CrossFit Level 2 certified trainer with cerebral palsy. “It felt like a natural progression,” she says.

RELATED VIDEO: This 8-Year-Old With Cerebral Palsy Finishing a Triathalon Will Make Your Day

After two years coaching in different gyms, Hammerman was ready to open her own. But in 2016 she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma stage 3B.

“I remember thinking to myself: I don’t have time for cancer. I have so much that I want to do and so much life that I want to live,” she says. “Going into it I looked at the doctor and I said, ‘Tell me what you want to do and I’ll do it.’ And she told me that I just needed to be myself, do exactly what I needed to do and I’ll be fine.”

And Hammerman’s positivity pushed her through treatments. After just seven weeks of the 29-week cancer treatment, her scans were clear.

“Not every day was easy and it wasn’t a piece of cake,” she says. “But at the end of the day, I got a third chance at life.”

After completing the remaining 22 weeks of treatment, Hammerman got right back to trailblazing. In 2017, she unexpectedly became Nike’s first adaptive athlete after sharing positive feedback about the company’s Metcon sneakers, which stood up well to the wear and tear of her movement on crutches. She called the company to pass along the positive message and couldn’t believe what happened next.

“I didn’t think they were going to sign me — I thought they were going to ask for people I knew,” she says. “We had two phone calls, and then they said they wanted to sign me as an athlete. I couldn’t believe it.”

Her goal as a Nike athlete is to “normalize being part of the adaptive community.”

“You are not an adaptive athlete — you’re an athlete who happens to have adaptive needs,” she says.

In 2018, Hammerman opened her own CrossFit gym, Hammer Driven Fitness, outside Raleigh, North Carolina, and it quickly filled up with members.

“I get to wake up every morning and do what I love, and not many people get to say that,” she says.

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