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 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 just average girl. No presidential fitness glory for me, only a participation shout out. The early chipping away of my self-image an 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.
First published in Medium via Publishous. https://medium.com/publishous/a-ten-part-journey-to-peace-with-aging-ea7d65cb0ce9
I'm not always so good at being present in the moment in my own life but I'm almost always excellent at paying attention to what's going on around me in the lives of perfect strangers. I love the way people look and talk and interact. Watching and listening make me happy. It's like reading short stories without having to check out the book. Vignettes of lives that are disconnected from mine until I connect them by observation or overhearing. For the record, I do take only observe or listen to what is available in the public space around me; nothing sneaky or creepy!
I've heard great snippets of conversation standing still in a crowd, waiting in line, walking by people, or even riding my bike. Once I rode by a woman sitting on a bench and talking on the phone. I heard her say with great volume and emotion, "c'mon, he's not that bad...this is my dad we're talking about!" I think of it as serendipitous listening as opposed to eavesdropping. I've often thought I could write a book about the best things I've overheard. This is one of my favorites:
I was in Chattanooga standing in heavy rain waiting for my boyfriend to finish the first leg of an Olympic triathlon, a mile swim in the Tennessee river. Beside me were a woman, her sister (I don't remember how I knew, but I clearly remember they were sisters), and her two young daughters. We were all under umbrellas, happy to not be the ones in the river on that particular day. I gathered from hearing the women's conversation they were waiting for the woman's husband to also finish the swim.
"I'll be so relieved when he comes out of the water."
"When I told you earlier that he really doesn't swim, I meant it literally. He really doesn't swim."
"What do you mean? It's a triathlon...there's always a swim. Of course he swims."
"This isn't his first one, right?"
"Well, yeah, but this is his first mile swim and it's his first river swim. He usually fakes his way through with dog paddling and stuff. He hates swimming so he doesn't train for that part."
"Uh, he'll be fine? (several seconds pass) How worried are you?"
"Feel like I'm gonna throw up. I just feel like he should be out by now."
The girls are oblivious to all this, under a separate umbrella, giggling and running around in the mud. Some more time passes.
All of a sudden the woman says, almost yelling and very animated, "Girls, look, girls, look! It's daddy! It's daddy! Daddy didn't drown!" By the somewhat startled look on the older girl's face, it hadn't occurred to her until then that drowning was an option.
I love these glimpses into the lives of others. It's usually enough of a story to imagine the whole of it. The conversations they must've had about this damn event. Him complaining about the swim, her incredulous he wasn't going to train for it. "I hate swimming." "You're a husband and father, you could drown!" "I'll be fine. People hardly ever drown in these things." And on. It was also easy to hear from her words to her sister (really, how do I know the other woman was her sister??) that she was worried but not angry. The snapshot of their relationship one of affection. As he hurried up the hill to transition to the bike, she was jumping up and down to get his attention..."you're alive, you're alive!!!" Sweet.
I'm not positive why I enjoy snatching bits of conversation or watching an interaction so much. There's some thinking that eavesdropping originally emerged as a behavior to discover social norms or learn the location of the best food or the most secure shelter. Makes sense. Though I'm pretty sure that's not why I enjoy it. I think for me it's the story. I like re-telling the story of what I heard or saw. I like seeing the world through someone else's lens. I like hearing stories different from mine and maybe learning something.
Standing beside two women and two little girls for fifteen or twenty minutes that day told me a story of adult sisters who are also friends, of a family who support each other for important events even if in driving rain, of little girls who are growing up happy, of a man who loves a good adventure but doesn't take it too seriously and of a woman who lets him make his own damn mistakes even if it worries her a little.
It was a good story for a rainy day.
Part One: Things that are Horrifying: Mirrors, Wrinkles, Mortality
One of the freakishly horrifying things about aging is realizing the truth of mortality. Freakishly horrifying because most horrifying things are rare. Getting mugged. Being in a plane when it loses an engine. Skydiving for the first time. Bringing your firstborn home from the hospital and starting to realize what you’ve gotten yourself into. Those events, whether unexpected or intentional, don’t happen very often. The fear, sometimes paralyzing, is time limited. Whether there’s a good outcome or a bad outcome, the panic of it comes and goes fairly quickly. Even bringing that baby home, the horrification is short lived (even if it does revisit you periodically over the next many years).
The difference with aging is that it happens every single day. It’s typical. It’s inherent in breathing. It can’t be avoided. It’s desirable when you stop to think about it. It’s a source of daily gratitude to a benevolent god. Hand in hand however, it too often also feels…or looks…like the slowly evolving work of a dark magician. Forces of good fuel the earth’s rotation, keeping the sun and moon on schedule and gravity doing its thing. The dark magician using those same rotations day by day to remind me when I look in the mirror that the passage of time and gravity have a price. Horrifying.
As someone who has almost nothing of true significance to worry about day in and day out, having any level of angst about how well my skin doesn’t fit anymore is wasted energy. My life has been so fortunate damn it and who knows what I did to deserve it? Perhaps I weathered 50 prior lives, the first one as a soulless poison dart frog, and had to slowly earn this life. However it happened, the life I ended up with came complete with parents who told me every day how much they loved me and I could be anything I wanted to be. Throughout this life, opportunity just kept coming.
I’m not saying I haven’t worked hard, overcome obstacles, endured some trauma. I have. But not as much as so many on the planet. My world does not look terrifying, it looks like a big ball of happiness. I would love to say all this happiness keeps my perspective balanced and I only feel gratitude for every passing day. But no. I look in the mirror and fret. Sometimes I even feel horrified.
There is an ongoing conversation about the damage done to girls and women in our culture as we learn to measure too much of our value based on beauty, determining our own value by comparison. Beauty becomes a competition by middle school if not before. I always ranked in the middle. I wasn’t one of the pretty girls but I was one of the smart girls and “cute-ish” girls, so adolescence was survivable. And yet, I still catch myself wondering how I rank among other 50 somethings.
I don’t think it out with this many words in my mind, but the gist of it is this: how does the falling of my face, the long lost visual desirability of my thighs, and the growing crepey-ness (eww…crepey is such a creepy word) of my neck and arms compare? So counterproductive! Pondering my fading cute-ish-ness, besides that it’s crazy, is such a waste of time. These are the words that should be in my mind: I’m healthy and strong. I have happily grown, independent sons. I am financially secure. I travel. I work. I create. I have great friends. And on and on.
It’s not really the reflection in the mirror that is horrifying. It’s the reminder of mortality. Mortality grows ever more real in my consciousness as my reflection grows more “mature”. As the decades pass, there’s been a weird disconnect between the maturity of mind and spirit and the maturity of body. Away from the mirror, it’s so clear my very mature and very evolved mind and spirit are full of ridiculous wisdom and grace because I have mastered about a thousand life lessons and survived at least a million more. Stepping back in front of the mirror invites a different reaction: “Oh shit! Look at me! I have less than half a life left!”
What to do? Building a world wide campaign for the prohibition of reflective surfaces does not seem realistic, nor a good use of my remaining decades of my life. Perhaps responses less rooted in denial would include:
Aging is hard. I think about it, not obsessively, but too often. The plan is to write my way to a better place. So be on the lookout for part two. My hope is that other women will join me and share the horror and the laughs and failures and successes to an eventual place where the wrinkled, but supremely at peace, warrior goddess rules.
This was first published in Publishous on Medium. Find it here and wander around for other great reads at https://medium.com/publishous/a-ten-part-journey-to-peace-with-aging-796a824bda88
Hi, I'm Donna. Long time artisan/creative. Full time work in nonprofit world. Mother of two adult sons. Currently, also mother of two cats.
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