Part Two: Seven Stages from Athlete Girl to Athlete Woman

My sole purpose in this series is to be transparent, writing with some humor and exposing some anxiety, about particular phenomenons of aging as I experience them. In part two, my experience is this: after a hard-fought battle to transform myself from gawky non-athlete girl to athlete woman, I now have to learn to motivate older athlete woman in new ways.

Athlete Girl Stage One

I am not an athlete. Everyone says so.

I’ve played a lifelong fact or fiction game with my sense of self as an athlete. I always wanted to be an athlete. Ironically, those damn Presidential Fitness challenges undermined my athletic confidence, starting in elementary school. I would kick ass at every station (except that pull up nonsense) and finish with a high five sense of “you go you athlete girl”. When the rankings came out it was deflating to see I was a just average girl. No presidential fitness glory for me, only a participation shout out. The early chipping away of my self-image as athlete girl.

I’ve always been small so you wouldn’t expect gawky to be the accurate descriptor, but yes, I was gawky. Uncoordinated. Physically awkward. In 7th grade softball, my friends in the outfield sat down when I got up to bat. They thought it was funny, foreshadowing the inevitable strikeout. It wasn’t funny, it was maddening. I wanted to smack that ball over the school roof. I wasn’t good at volleyball or basketball or tennis either. I was the smart and not-pretty-but-cute-ish girl who was also not, by god, an athlete. Chip, chip.

Athlete Girl Stage Two

I am not an athlete. I say so.

In high school, I envied the track runners. I loved the gorgeous, well-defined quad muscles. I loved the graceful way some of them made racing look so effortless, even if in a sweaty, red-faced, heavy breathing kind of way. However, there were enough other self-confidence and popularity crushing obstacles to avoid without taking the risk of trying to run track and certainly ending up humiliated. I was not an athlete. I didn’t need anyone else to chip away my image of athlete girl, I was doing it myself.

Athlete Girl Stage Three

Take a deep breath. Be who you want to be athlete girl.

My freshman year at Indiana University, I would pass students running all over campus every day. I realized I was walking several miles every day, all over campus. My wannabe inner athlete had had enough. I decided to run. I asked a track running friend from high school, also at IU, to meet me at the track. Having no confidence as well as an awkward running stride, he very patiently ran beside me and coached me along until we fixed my form and found my confidence.

Athlete Girl Stage Four

Athlete runner girl.

Running. I was good at it. I wasn’t super fast, but I wasn’t super slow. I had endurance. I liked long runs and short runs. Treadmill running was fine and greenspace running was fine, but I loved running city streets. I liked to run on autopilot and think about things. I liked building my own admirable quad muscles. No more chipping away at myself as an athlete. I was athlete runner girl.

Running was my jam for about three years. When I moved to Chicago, running city streets became less comfortable as something I could do alone. I joined a gym, running less but doing much more strength training and indoor cardio. Then came marriage, a move to Nashville, and having kids; the gym was a very on again, off again thing. But that was my 30s, we were busy and active in general. I wasn’t thinking too much about my body as I recall, but it was healthy, strong enough and serving me well. I was lulled into the myth that since my body looked pretty good, it must also be in good shape.

Athlete Woman Stage Five

Life happens. Butts fall. Reclaim athlete woman.

After a particularly horrifying few minutes trying on a bathing suit in a dressing room with a 360-degree mirror, I learned a sobering lesson. At 41, my neglected butt muscles had lost the strength to hold my one decent curve in place. No longer was there one smooth line from my spine to the back of my knees. Just below the bathing suit bottom was the dreaded horizontal crease, also known as sagging butt. If my gluts had gone soft and could no longer defy gravity, what else was withering away? Goodbye every other week step aerobics, hello at least four times a week strength training and serious cardio sweat. My butt eventually recovered its ability to conquer gravity. Hallelujah.

Athlete Woman Stage Six

In the glorious 40s, athlete woman kicks ass.

A couple of years later, I joined a boxing gym. I was divorced but happy, in good shape, and ready for a new challenge. The boxing gym was expensive and I paid for the first 6 weeks up front, no turning back. Good thing! This mother of a workout kicked not only my butt but my everything. Pretty soon I could finish the hour without wanting to puke. I was practically a superhero.

A couple of years into boxing, several of us had become friends and started cycling in the warm weather months and rock climbing in the colder ones. In the middle of all this, closing out the decade of my 40s, I met a man. He was training for triathlons, so I thought, what the hell, let’s see what that’s like? Running again and learning to swim (more difficult for me than boxing!) and cycling for performance meant letting go of the boxing gym.

Training for triathlons was painfully good. Good for my muscles, my heart, my brain. Competing in triathlons, not so much. I had panic attacks during the swim. Not unusual because it’s weird swimming in a crowd. I thought it would get better, but it got worse. During my second event, I had panic to the degree I literally couldn’t catch air. Stopping every 10 strokes to tread water and breathe, makes for a very poor rank in the final standings. I decided my emerging career as a triathlete wasn’t meant to be. No regrets though, the onset of my 50s found me cycling several times a week, rock climbing a couple of times a week, and I’d started practicing yoga. I remained solidly athlete woman.

Athlete Woman Stage Seven

That killer core strength? Don’t take it for granted!

I’ve taken good care of my body (for the most part), my weight has fluctuated little and I think I exercise more than average. In return, I secretly expected I would always outperform most people my age, my body would take whatever level of exercise I was able to give it and respond as if I’d been training for the Olympics, and it would successfully resist any effect of gravity or any age-related metabolic slowdown. At the same time, I gradually traded seriously sweaty lung burning cardio for extended walking and eased off regular muscle screaming strength training. But, still in the gym 5–6 times a week, (but at about 80% intensity compared to 5 years ago), I continued to claim athlete woman.

In September of 2016 and July of 2017, I had cycling accidents, resulting in first a broken wrist and then a concussion. I did what I had to do to recover and carried on. What I have only recently acknowledged to myself (and now you) is the toll these events took on my late 50 something athlete woman. It isn’t that I didn’t fully recover, it’s that the recovery masked a slide to mediocrity. It felt so good to be able to ride again and climb again and do yoga again, it was too easy to claim the return to sport alone as a victory.

I could only ignore my fading endurance and visibly softening muscles for so long. A few weeks ago I went to a spin class. It was puke worthy. So I went to circuit class. Brutal. Running on the treadmill instead of walking. Hard! Strength training. Muscles so sore you’d think they’d never encountered a dumb bell before.

Athlete Woman Final Chapter: Decision Time. Athlete Woman for Life or Lily-livered Wimp Woman?

I have to get used to performance for performance sake and not how it looks on me. Historically, motivation was self-perpetuating because when I worked hard, I was motivated by the visible result. Working out meant a strong heart and good cardio endurance but I didn’t think about that as much as having flat, strong abs, muscles in my arms and back, and defined quads. I don’t know all the science around aging and our bodies, but I do know the way my skin covers my muscles looks different now. Let’s just say it’s not as motivating as it used to be.

I still want to look good and be strong. I still would like to find a magic wand and tighten up all the skin. Let’s be honest. But I think to fully embrace my inner and outer athlete woman, there has to be a shift in what motivates me. It probably needs to be some crazy training goal. Half marathon. Marathon. Mastering explosive plyometric moves that I have never been able to do. Return to boxing. Something. Kick it up.

I worked too hard to earn her. Not giving up now. Athlete Woman forever.

Visit Donna at BensonStreetStudio.com