The accidental athlete (guest post)

I’ve only recently accepted being “athletic” as part of my identity. As a kid, even though I was encouraged to go out and play, I preferred to stay inside and read. I was never a fan of getting dirty, and other kids were loud and messy.

I was a failure at gym class. In elementary school we had to meet the Presidential Fitness test, which included being able to accomplish things like doing laps or jump roping for one minute. I could not get the hang of jump roping, and had to suffer the indignity of having to jump rope as gym homework.

I was bussed to the suburbs for school during elementary and middle school, which put a damper on doing any sort of after school sports. Not that I had any inclination to take part in any. As there was no way back home, and my school was at least a 45-minute drive from my house, I mostly just read.

Periodically my mother would sign me up for an activity to force socialization on me, but I quickly quit tap and ballet as soon as it was possible to do so. I just could not get the hang of what was going on and felt uncomfortable the whole time.

When high school rolled around, we moved to a suburb in the opposite direction of where I had gone to school before. I was finally able to engage in after school activities, as the school was a 15-minute walk from my house. Only, by this time, I was pretty well ingrained in my pseudo-intellectual activities, and I didn’t care for sports at all. I almost failed gym my Freshman year, because I refused to change into sweats for class. I stand by this; sweatpants and sweatshirts are a horrible look.

I did think about joining the girl’s soccer team my senior year. They were infamous for not winning any games in the last two years, so I figured I couldn’t do much harm. Plus I had already developed my thing for uniforms, and decided this would be an easy way to get one. But our school district had mandated exorbitant fees for participation in any after school activity, and I was already involved in our theater program.

My teenage love for dance music, later progressed into my becoming very heavily involved in the Boston rave scene. I spent the weekends of my early twenties running all over New England, dancing at parties all night. We’d generally arrive around 11 pm, and didn’t stop going until 6 or 7 in the morning. During the week my friends and I went to local club nights. I accidentally found myself in fabulous shape due to the physical endurance needed to dance all night.

As the years went on I still went out dancing, though not as much as at my peak. But then something happened that completely changed my life: The Democratic National Convention of 2004.

Rumor had it that the convention would create all sorts of problems for public transportation. Since driving to work wasn’t an option due to crazy parking fees, I decided to take up cycling. I have always been in love with efficiency and am naturally suspicious of things that involve running or walking.

That summer I began riding my bike to work and around town in general. I even ended up joining a bike gang, which led to all sorts of wacky adventures. And friendships with other strong, hardheaded women who liked riding bikes. These days when I show up somewhere without my bike or at least my helmet, people are shocked.

As much as cycling acted as a life preserver, I still stuck to my old ways of filling up my emptiness. I’ve always had a passion for food, but growing older and having more discretionary income meant I could eat whatever I wanted when I wanted. And in my twenties I wanted to eat all the time. This was encouraged by my hobbies. Riding long distances means lots of eating to get back those expended calories. Hitting the local barbecue joint after a long ride was a favorite thing
for me and my friends.

As the years wore on I put on more and more weight, which I was in strong denial about, until I had a “come to Jesus” moment. I had moved across the country, but was still riding my bike everywhere. Having just broken up the first guy I met in my new city, I decided to sign up as a contestant for the dating show that happens at the annual Valentine’s Day event run by my local bike coalition.

After the event, I saw a YouTube video and various stills of myself and was horrified. I had let my depression get the better of me. I was completely disassociated from my body, and had put on 50 lbs. over the last 7-8 years. The gradualness of this weight gain made it easy to be in denial, even as I found myself having to buy clothes in bigger and bigger sizes. But seeing these pictures made me realize I had changes to make.

As part of my bid to get my life sorted, kick my depression, and go back to what I know as my normal self, I joined my local YMCA. I know, I was shocked and dismayed by the idea too, but I knew I was not going to be able to get myself right on my own. I signed up for a few free personal training sessions, and had a weight machine routine. I also started taking spin classes, because I have never been the fastest cyclist (and never will be).

I also dabbled in other classes such as yoga, a few boot camp classes which I hated. Apparently, the trick, which I had never known in my youth, was to find a sport I actually liked doing. I keep myself amused not only with dance music and bikes, but with fencing and lawn bowling.

And so, I’ve come to an adult life where people constantly say I’m athletic, and are in awe of me, and I don’t know what to do with that. I don’t think fitness or sports has to be a big deal. You just have to find what works for you, and work it into your day. I realized that not doing anything physical led me to disassociate from my body and from my complete self, which led to any number of problems in my life, not just issues with my physical health.

Playing sports helps keep me grounded. It’s lead to a number of friendships, helped me get involved in my local community, and just kept me busy in general. It’s a a great stress reliever, and the endorphin rush from physical activity helps keep my depression under control.

Milisa Burke is a worker bee, a graduate student, a fencer, a cyclist, a lawn bowler, and a jaded raver. Not necessarily in that order.

Want to guest blog for Fit and Feminist?  Hit me up at saltonmyskin at gmail dot com.

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6 responses to “The accidental athlete (guest post)

  1. I’ve only recently (within the past couple of years) starting calling myself “athletic,” too. Strangely, though, I’ve been pretty consistently physically active for at least two decades of my life.

    Part of it, I’m sure, was that some of my activity was not mainstream athletics. (I’ve been riding horses since I was 5, and anyone who says that is not cardio has never had their stirrups taken away while jumping or posting a trot.) And part of it, I’m also sure, was that people pretty consistently told me that I was not athletic because my body didn’t look athletic.

    Crap. I was going to go somewhere brilliant with that — really, I promise! (okay, maybe not) — but then I got distracted by barking small dogs.

    • I still have some trouble calling myself “athletic”. Other people use it to describe me, which is how the post came about. I’m never sure how much of that is physical, or if it’s because they know I play a bunch of sports (or they see me with a bike helmet on).

      I am curious as to what “athletic” means for other people. I always feel a little offended, but I’m learning to embrace it.

  2. I also fell foul of a school culture in which music/art was pitted against sports/activities.

    At my school, you could be an arty person or you could be an athlete. And, like being a Beatles fan or an Elvis fan, you were one or the other. You could dabble in both, but could never like them both equally.

    I started cycling *a lot* earlier this year and it has completely changed my life. I still can’t reconcile that arty part of me with the new, ‘athelete’ part of me.

    And like you, people’s reactions to how much sport I do take me by suprise. They are in awe if I do a 40 mile ride, but really that’s just normal life to me now, and I love cycling so much that I can’t understand why you wouldn’t want to do it all the time!

    Thanks for a great article!

    • You’re welcome! I feel a lot of people have experienced this jock vs art nerd dichotomy. It’s important to be multi-faceted, you shouldn’t feel that you need to reconcile your different aspects. They’re all equally you.

      And now I feel guilty for not having done a long ride in a while.

  3. I can relate to this. I never liked any kind of team sport and was a huge nerdy bookworm all through school. In middle school my dad and I decided that we’d like to try taekwondo (we liked to stay up late watching kung fu movies together) and it turned out that we were both pretty good at it and stuck with it for several years. It was the first sport I was ever good at and I really enjoyed it.

    College intervened and I dropped martial arts, started bad habits, and turned into a drinking, partying lump. After college I realized what a slob I turned into and took up running and triathlon. Now, I really stink at both of these (I’m really slow) but I do enjoy the solitude of the long runs/bikes and the meditative aspects of the swim. I also have a ‘non-athletic body’ (a brick s**thouse) so I get surprised/skeptical reactions from people when they hear I ran 13 miles or swam 2.

    I have one more race this season at the end of the month, but I’m thinking about hanging up my distance work for the winter and getting back into the combat sports. I’d love to see an article on women in mixed martial arts!

    • My interest in fencing totally stems from my childhood love of swashbuckling movies. If they’d allow me to swing from the rafters during practice, I feel that it would improve my fencing skills.

      I did karate for a while, but sword play seems much more my speed for a martial art. Memorizing kata is hard!

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