I’ve never seen myself as an athlete. When I was a kid, gym was my least favorite subject in school. I felt intimidated by my peers who played sports, and so completely out of my element. In grade school, I was often among the last picked for team sports in gym class, and it was no secret that my hand-eye coordination was less than desirable. Athletic? Definitely not me… not with my fear of objects in motion and the three gold bangles that adorned my right wrist every minute of every day from age seven to thirteen. Those bracelets drove my teachers nuts, because we weren’t supposed to wear jewelry in gym class. I hated explaining that they were typical of Egyptian culture and that they had become a permanent fixture on my arm as my wrist grew over the years.
By eighth grade, the bangles had become tight enough that my mother finally decided it was time to have them cut off. Even then, I was no athlete. Athletes were popular, confident, and tall. Most importantly, athletes could catch- a skill that I pathetically lacked and didn’t much care to develop. If an activity involved a ball, puck, birdie, frisbee, or anything of the sort, I was out. I buried my bespectacled face in my books and actually enjoyed school for the academics. I was a Mathlete, not an athlete.
Even when I joined the cross country, swim, and track teams in high school, I never felt like an athlete. It was no coincidence that these activities did not require me to catch, kick, throw, hit, [insert-verb-of-choice] a ball, and though I viewed my teammates as athletes, I somehow did not fit the bill. At least not in my own eyes. Thinking of those days, I am reminded of how differently we see ourselves when we look in the mirror compared to how others may view us. I was captain of my high school spring track team my senior year… the same year during which I was voted MVP. I had earned enough pins nearly to cover my letter, but still, I was no athlete.
When I competed in meets, I scoped out the competition to see just how intimidated I could feel before toeing the starting line. Seeing the other girls in their Nikes worried me that perhaps my Sauconys weren’t up to par. If the competition’s Nikes had spikes, I felt even more anxious. I had neither spikes nor racing flats, and my feet were too wide for Nikes, because I had inherited the joys of a long line of protruding bunions. I’d watch the other girls warm up before our races. Some of them did jumping jacks; others did crunches. I always jogged two easy miles and then did a series of strides… was that good enough? It didn’t help that Fairfax County, Virginia produced some of the country’s fastest high school distance runners. The regional meet was the furthest I ever made it in high school, and that was just fine with me. I was thrilled when my 5:45 mile in the district meet my sophomore year was good enough for sixth place. But it still didn’t make me an athlete.
In college, the label bestowed upon me when I joined the cross country team was “student athlete”. Even though I attended a small liberal arts university and competed at the NCAA Division III level, “student athletes” like me received pretty special treatment. We had our own locker room, university-issued clothing for training and competition, and even laundry service for said clothing. We got to travel to our meets with our expenses paid, and we were excused from afternoon classes if they conflicted with our competitions. It was cool to be a “student athlete”… that is, if you were one, and I most certainly was not. It was a label that, even after all those years, and even while serving as co-captain of the team my junior year, never quite fit my own self-image. Runner? Maybe. Athlete? No way. And I still couldn’t catch a ball to save my life.
Athletes are outgoing and self-assured; I am not. Athletes have hot bodies and six-pack abs; I do not. Athletes have all the right clothing and gear; I do not. Athletes are at the top of their game; I am not. Athletes are everybody else in a race but me.
I am not the best in my field, and I don’t aspire to be. I cannot catch a ball, and I don’t feel the need to. I don’t have a GPS watch, and I don’t want one. I simply run. Usually in just a T-shirt and shorts, I run, and sometimes, those clothes are even made of cotton. I don’t exude confidence and I hardly feel popular. I am comfortable in my discomfort among “real” athletes.
I wonder why it’s so difficult to consider myself an athlete. Perhaps it is because running is not a hobby or a game for me; it’s not a sport or something I do “for fun”, and it’s certainly not something I do for glory. It’s a part of me… it’s my way of life and something that defines me as a human being. It’s not a phase, and it’s not exercise. Running makes me who I am, and that’s a label good enough for me.
Thank you for reading!