20 September 2006




Main Entry: ath·lete
Pronunciation: 'ath-"lEt, ÷'a-th&-"lEt
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Latin athleta, from Greek athlEtEs, from athlein to contend for a prize, from athlon prize, contest
: a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina

For the first time in my life, I am finding an enthusiasm for athletics. I stop to think about why I never liked sports as a child and recall unpleasant moments of being the last kid picked for any team sport and of gym teachers with whistles around their necks yelling at me to do better, try harder. I was never good enough. I was never an athlete. I hated my body as a teenager and grew very fat and very, very depressed.

Not all of my early experiences with sports were unhappy ones. I loved swimming in the pool and learning yoga with a very patient instructor at the local YMCA. I can even remember having fun in gym class during kindergarden and first grade. But after lower elementary school, I suddenly felt inferior based upon my inability to run fast enough, kick or hit the ball well enough, play rough enough to keep up with the neighborhood gang and the kids at school. I wasn't competitive enough. At a certain point, I never even tried anymore. I did the minimum in gym and didn't play on any sports teams until one summer during high school when my best friend's mother found us a softball league which was less high-stakes competition in the town just one over from ours. We played as well as we could. Sometimes we won, and sometimes we lost. I enjoyed playing shortstop, but I wasn't a great hitter. It didn't matter.

But none of the physical activities I did really caught on with me except hiking in the outdoors. I wanted to be in wilderness, away from suburbs and away from the traffic and people. The problem was I wasn't able to go hiking often enough for it to be sufficient exercise. I had a poor diet at school, where I couldn't stand the food and so loaded up on sugar and starches. I didn't much like the healthy foods my mom fixed, but I made my best effort for her sake and snacked heavily in between meals.

That seems like so long ago. In fact it was half my life ago: 18 years. Today I don't even recognize my body when I glimpse myself in the mirror. It's like another person has grown in my place. It's been a five-year struggle, but finally I've managed to become a healthier, happier body as a result of learning how to exercise with weights and machines properly and of experimenting until I've finally found physical activities that I can love, not merely do competently. It helped to have a partner who was not only encouraging, but who actually took the time to show me how to safely use weights and machines and to demonstrate proper stretches.

After I made progress with the weights, abdominal stretches and such, I realized that I wanted to be athletic without the activity being so boring. Last year I began taking yoga after a 30-year hiatus. I actually remembered some of the poses and taking the class dredged up old memories of the young man who taught this YMCA class of five- and six-year olds about forming the poses of animals and trees (Hatha Yoga). I also remembered how much I loved the relaxation at the end, where he would have us imagine a glowing ball of blue light. This man must have been the Pied Piper, or how in the world did he get a class of bouncy preschoolers to lie down and relax?

My latest daring adventure into the world of sports is kayaking. My husband and I have gone out on at least one short kayaking paddle since the beginning of August. We began on our vacation in Central Coast California and have taken weekend trips to local rivers and creeks every weekend since our return. We took a half-day lesson in sea kayaking in Monterey Bay, and recently decided to go for the full one-day basics course. It's now that my muscles are looking toned and I'm beginning to sculpt myself into a real athlete for the first time. I can hardly believe it, but I'm falling in love with this sport. It allows my husband and I to spend time together, while combining our love of the outdoors with the enjoyment of freely moving through the water.

I think the noun "recreation" is a very appropriate word to summarize my feelings about this process. I am re-creating myself and relieving many of the angry feelings I had toward my body. The mind-body connection is so powerful that I feel like I am becoming a whole new "Me."


  1. I utterly despised gym class as a child, but in my adulthood I have been desperate to find some sort of athletic activity that I enjoy at least a little bit.

    Treadmills and the sort bore me to tears. I've been thinking instead of trying Japanese Taiko drumming, but I can't find a class anywhere. I haven't a clue what I am going to do now...

    By the way, the writing is lovely.

  2. Taiko drumming. Now that would be cool. Very challenging!

    Have you tried Tai Chi or other, related martial arts? I took Tai Chi for a while during graduate school. I loved it, but the moves and postures didn't come so naturally to me as Hatha Yoga does. But every-body is different. I know a studio in Annapolis that offers a number of really unusual body-work classes like Nia, which is apparently some combo of dance, yoga and pilates. Sounds intriging, but I'm not a dancer. A friend took belly-dancing, though, and loved it. You'll find something.

    Treadmills are dead boring. Anything you can do that's enjoyable physical exercise you will stick with and not get tired of it. I really didn't care about taking care of my body hardly at all until I had some serious health issues in my early 30s.

    My 2-cent advice: don't wait until you have a health crisis!