Athlete

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!

8 thoughts on “Athlete

  1. This post resonates with me for so many reasons. I am reading 'Running the Edge' right now and they talk about this topic exactly; as it relates to running. I just thumbed through the book to see if I could find the passage that made me wonder if I am a runner. So, I run and I post my favorite quote about what makes a runner, well, a runner on my blog all the time, but for some reason I have a VERY hard time calling myself a runner. I love this post because you name what is important and that is being me! Running is simply part of that. Why is that, sometimes, not good enough? You have me thinking…

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  2. What a great post. It's strange how we sometimes fail to label ourselves the way others may see us. I would never call myself a writer but I'd had several people call me that. I would consider you an athlete, even without ball catching experience. 🙂 You use your body to compete, even if it's just with yourself. You are a runner. An athlete in my book. But the cool part is that it doesn't matter what you call yourself. You're you. A runner, a reader, a traveler, a knitter. They all make up you. And that's all that matters.

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  3. Great post–that is book quality for sure. I had many of the same feelings growing up, and I believe many others have too. In my era as a kid there were a lot of games played in the neighborhood, so we didn't have to participate just at school. Thus, it was more inclusive, and there was very little sports activities at grade schools back then–esp Catholic schools. When I entered high school I joined the wrestling and football, and the coaches back then quickly “weeded out” the non-athletes like myself mostly through humiliation. I joined the military after high school, and there I was introduced to running and karate. Once I got into running it changed my life, and from there I added weight training, and eventually health care as a career. I didn't care if I was a fast runner. I enjoyed winning or placing or just maxing my PT test in the army. My point is runners are athletes, and it is one of the most inclusive, welcoming sports there is–and I love the sport for that reason. You don't have to compete against anybody–you can just run. Competitive athletes develop their skills through extensive training, coaching, and genes–and there is a huge mental component–and since their goal is to “beat” their opponent they want their opponents to feel inferior. It is not personal for the most part. It is just that when we are younger we are more sensitive to these feelings in inferiority. So, do the best you can, have fun, and you are my favorite athlete, and I love you, my daughter!!

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  4. Loved this post! (I read it out loud to Aaron as we cook some Yugoslavian dishes for Easter.) It was cool to get to know you a little bit better. I had no idea you received some of those recognitions for your running! As usual, I'm impressed, and you're too humble. For the record, I personally WOULD call you an athlete. But the reason that you don't is a big part of the reason that I consider you to be such a special and unique friend.

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  5. Thanks so much, Sarah. I know just the quote you are talking about, and I agree with it so much. I don't know “Running the Edge” but it sounds like a good read. I will have to check it out. You are absolutely a runner! But easy for me to say, right? 🙂

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  6. Thank you, Cat! If I am an athlete (and my goodness, a knitter? Do flat things qualify me for that title?), then you are most certainly a writer. But, as you say, the most important thing is that these “labels” are small pieces which, when put together, make us who we are.

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  7. Thank you, Elena! I really miss you and I consider you to be such a wonderful friend as well. Thank you so much for your comment and sweet sentiment. I want to hear more about those Yugoslavian dishes! Did you make gebanitza? I will make it out to Seattle one of these days, I promise!

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