Tales of a Failed Childhood Athlete
One of my most vivid memories from elementary school is being picked last for the kickball team.
The whole class was sitting on the floor, looking up at the gym teacher as he picked team captains. Slowly, one by one, kids who heard their name would get up and walk to the padded gym wall, standing on their designated side.
Suddenly there I was, sitting cross legged alone on the gym floor. Everyone was just standing there, looking at me. I was picked last. I don’t remember feeling particularly embarrassed or upset at the time, but the messaged was received: I am not an athlete.
This is not a comeback story. I didn’t go on to place at nationals or lead the girls' soccer team to victory. In fact, I have only scored one soccer goal my whole life.
It was a couple years later and I moved to a different school district in the 6th grade. It took me a little while to get settled, but the girls were nice and I still count many of them among my best friends. I liked my classes and I generally had a pleasant, uneventful school experience.
Since I didn't show any talent at team sports, no one was pushing me to get involved in the athletics program at school except for my sportiest friend, Kathleen. She convinced me to join her community soccer team where, to the huge delight of all the parents that watched me struggle for months, I scored that fateful goal. She also convinced me to join the JV cross country team.
It was amusing to hear my dad tell stories about my short running career at my wedding a couple years ago. He talked about coming to my meets and thinking that surely I had gotten lost, because everyone else had finished and I was nowhere to be seen. To this day he thinks its commendable that I didn’t want to quit because I made a commitment to my team.
Growing up in America, sport is like a religion. And it continued to elude me. The girls in my high school that were so good at basketball and soccer intimidated me. When I didn’t make the tennis team it seemed like my fate was sealed: there’s some kind of club here and I’m not in it. I learned that sport is about competing. And since I never had a chance of winning, there wasn’t much point... right?
Fast forward almost 10 years when I picked up running again. I needed to lose some weight and I was stressed at work. The regular long runs of prepping for a half marathon gave me space to think, and showed me that I could push boundaries I never thought possible. The first time that I ran over 10 miles I was amazed, as I was when I ran under 10 minutes/mile in the race. I wrote all about this on Ladies Get Outside.
This began my new love affair with sport, but I didn’t know it yet. At this point I was still a gym rat, but I was getting fitter and healthier and starting to enjoy moving my body in different ways.
In 2016 my wife and I took off 10 months to go traveling. We loved to travel already, going places like Prague, Paris, and Rome. Being city girls, naturally we landed in Melbourne, Australia. We intended to spend a whole season there picking up part-time work before hopping to another city.
To both of our surprise, we ended up bored with city life without the routine of work, friends and extra curricular activities. We spontaneously ditched Australia, joining a close friend on her vacation in Bali. There we did a sunrise hike to the top of a volcano and tried diving. Inspired by the outdoors, we decided to head to New Zealand for 2 months.
Thankfully for me, New Zealand is just right place in the world for a mindset shift. Its rugged and varied terrain makes you feel like you are on the edge of the world.
There was just so much to see that I couldn’t help pushing myself outside of my boundaries to see it all. We started doing day hikes on increasingly difficult routes. Eventually, we worked up to a 4 day, 60km hike. The 2nd day was along a mountain ridge and I had never seen anything more beautiful.
One of my favorite things about our trip to New Zealand was staying in AirBnbs. There was one lovely young couple that are both school teachers, and one of them happened to be a gym teacher. Over dinner he told us about how he teaches his class outdoor skills and every year they take a trip out to the national park to practice and enjoy the outdoors. This blew me away and made me reflect on how my own gym class experience as a child did not serve me.
Another host was a young English man who had just moved into a new house that he was renovating. He barely had a working shower and almost no furniture, but he DID have a rock climbing wall in his garage! Surprised by his priorities, we had the most interesting conversation on different types of climbing and his experiences.
Inspired by our English friend, when we moved back to the US after traveling I was intrigued by climbing. I always thought it was scary and serious and I was intimidated enough to think it was something I should never try. But now I thought- if this is something you can do in your garage it can’t be that scary, right?! Well, now I am obsessed and I wrote all about my surprise love of climbing.
I also finally learned to ski this year, maybe out of shear boredom of the never ending winter we just had. I hated seeing the little 4 years olds lapping me, but I kept at it. Now, I can get down the main route without the help of an instructor and I have a blast, even though I go slow.
I have gotten so much benefit from all my new activities. Skiing is a great way to get outside in the winter and beat those winter blues. Climbing has given me new confidence as I conquer the fear of heights and reach new levels of difficulty. Running let’s me have personal time to think and burns calories. Along the way I’ve made new friends, built community and kept my weight steady. I’m not as thin as I was when I was in the gym with a trainer 4 times a week, but now I hold a comfortable weight without weight loss being a feature in my day.
None of this is to down play athletic achievement, or the benefits of competition. I love the Olympics, I am fascinated by feats such as summiting Everest or free climbing El Capitan, and I am not advocating for participation trophies. However, outside of the competitive sports there is a whole world of activity that is pure fun and has a myriad of benefits.
So I am posing the question: what if gym class was more about community than competition? What if we learned outdoor survival skills, or participated in community-oriented sports, like climbing? Perhaps I would have had more confidence in my ability, and perhaps I would have wanted to spend more time outside.
I would like to tell my childhood self that I grew up to be an athlete. Maybe I have been one all along. And since my athletic abilities help me see the world, have fun and meet people, I would even say that I’m an accomplished one. I just had to change the goal posts.