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Alumni Magazine

Chemical engineering alumna is the 18th fittest woman in the world

Shelby Neal lifts weights during CrossFit competition.

Inhale belief, exhale doubt.

That mantra helped Shelby Neal, engineer and CrossFit athlete, become one of the top-20 fittest women in the world. She finished 18th out of 40 women at the 2023 NOBULL CrossFit Games, the highest level of CrossFit competition.

Neal graduated from NC State University in 2021 with a B.S. in chemical engineering with a nanoscience concentration, and she was one of the few athletes at the competition who has a full-time job outside of training for competition. She has been working toward qualifying for years.

“Every time I began questioning myself or being down on myself, I tried to literally focus on my breathing and with each breath thinking this mantra,” she said. “Big breath in and big breath out. Pushing all the negative thoughts out… Then repeating positive things back to myself. It helped me so, so, so much because it was also tied to a physical action.”

The 2023 CrossFit Games started Tuesday, Aug. 1, and ran through Sunday, Aug. 6, in Madison, Wisconsin. Qualification starts with The Open, an online round open to all competitors — more than 300,000 participated. About 10 percent of participants are selected for a second online round, and from there a certain number of athletes are selected from each region. Neal is based in the northeast region, which sends 60 people to the semifinals. In each semifinal round, anywhere from two to 13 athletes move on to the CrossFit Games.

Every single cut I was in danger of being done, but I didn’t let that scare me or stop me from achieving my goals.”
– Shelby Neal

The point of CrossFit competition is to find the fittest person there. Athletes are tasked with intense physical workouts, most of which they don’t know about until the competition begins. This year started with mountain biking, which Neal enjoys.

But by just the second task, she was asked to do something she’d never done before: flip a 350-pound rectangle called “the pig” for a challenge called “The Pig Chipper.” Neal was nervous she’d be the only person who couldn’t do it. But she did. And then she did it 19 more times, while completing physical gymnastics challenges in between.

Heading into the final round of cuts, Neal knew she was on the brink of not making it to the final. Ten athletes were cut after six workouts, and 10 more would be cut after the ninth, which was Olympic weightlifting. Athletes had two attempts to complete a one-rep-max snatch, lifting a barbell from the ground to above their head in one motion, and a one-rep-max clean and jerk, lifting the barbell above their shoulders and then raising it above their head.

Neal lifted 183 pounds for the snatch, and after missing an attempt at 191 pounds, she moved on to the clean and jerk. She was agonizing over what weight to choose, and decided to go with a weight she knew she could hit. When she lifted 240 pounds successfully, she did an impromptu twirl, holding back tears of joy and feeling relief in knowing she’d given everything she had. It was enough to put her in the final.

“Every single cut I was in danger of being done, but I didn’t let that scare me or stop me from achieving my goals,” she said.

Neal has been training since 2014. Growing up, she was a gymnast, which helped set her up with a good strength foundation for CrossFit.

“My gymnastics coach talked about [CrossFit] a lot,” she said. “She talked about how difficult the workouts were, and how she did 100 pull-ups in a workout, which is a very common workout that CrossFitters do every year called Murph. It just got me excited. I didn’t understand how anyone could possibly do that, so I wanted to try it.”

The Murph starts with a one-mile run, followed by 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups and 300 squats, and finishes with another one-mile run. It’s intense, and other CrossFit workouts are even harder. But Neal wants to push herself to her limits.

She also has the additional challenge of balancing a full-time job with her training. She is a patient-specific design / process engineer at restor3d, a Durham, North Carolina-based medical device company and additive manufacturer that makes personalized 3D printed orthopedic implants. She usually works from about 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., spends three hours each weekday in the gym, and spends four to six hours in the gym on weekends.

Neal grew up in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and competes and coaches at 12th State CrossFit in Raleigh.

She knew from an early age she was interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and she attended Wake STEM Early College High School.

By ninth grade, she had decided on studying engineering. With her high school’s proximity to NC State, her college choice was easy. She found her interest in 3-D printing in college, and she worked as a medical 3-D printing student engineer in the Center for Additive Manufacturing and Logistics (CAMAL) during her undergraduate years.

Neal sees connections between engineering and CrossFit. Both are challenging, and both require efficiency.

“Crossfit movements are … very similar in that the most efficient way to do them is the way that makes biomechanical sense,” she said. “So, using engineering and physics to figure out what’s the easiest way to do this movement, the best technique, it makes sense biomechanically.”

Thinking about the biomechanical processes also helps her coaching, which in turn helps her be a better athlete. “I feel like people believe me a little bit more because I’m an engineer, even though they shouldn’t,” she said with a laugh.