I’ve never been known as an athlete. I was once a cheerleader, and spent a brief amount of time on a dance team in college, but those were not considered “sport” when I was younger, but flights of fancy that happened to include incredible feats of balance and coordination.
The first time I went whitewater rafting was the first time that I ever put my body anywhere near the category of athletic. As I was hurtling down the rapids—of a class far more challenging than I was prepared for, since my sister and I just told the company guiding us down the gorge that we were experienced rafters to avoid the possibility we weren’t allowed to participate—and paddling like a motherfucker, I suddenly realized that my body was capable of great things. I was an athlete if I could make it down that river without drowning. I was an athlete if I loved hurtling down that river in that rubber boat, paddling like a motherfucker.
I think in that moment I became a little more brave, and felt a little less “breakable” and fragile.
I’ve always had this strange dichotomy of fragile and strong in mind. I feel broken and small and like I could shatter at any moment and never be put back together again, in true Humpty Dumpty fashion. But I also know that there is this visceral and strong animal that resides within, ready to attack whenever needed. I’m somehow both the predator and the prey.
Today, as I was joking with one of the trainers at my gym about my poor basketball performance in the past, saying, “There are some things no amount of practice can perfect—like my free-throws”, he responded with the assertion that I am an athlete.
When I pressed him for proofs, as an overweight and disabled woman who feels like shattering pretty much all the time lately, he said that all the proof anyone needed was to watch me work out.
Let me be clear. By “work out” he means me using a band and my own body weight to build atrophied muscles and upper-body strength. I don’t do some crazy CrossFit shit like some of my friends. I don’t run. I don’t use weights. I don’t train with somebody yelling at me to push harder and go farther. I do small and metered movements, always checking and double-checking that my form is perfect and my body isn’t taking on too much stress or strain. I am slow. I am unbalanced, and need my trainer to catch me on occasion, because I have toppled over completely.
But here is the thing: I am an athlete. I approach this process with the determination and the drive that any athlete would, even though my body places so many limits on my performance.
I am a girl with fight, even when I am frail and fragile.
So, I guess what I am trying to say is that there isn’t really a dichotomy at all. What I am trying to say is that I can be both things. I can be fragile and I can be fierce. And I can even be those things simultaneously.
Some days I feel like I am small and porcelain on the inside, but tall and steel on the outside. And that isn’t always a healthy thing, because sometimes I hide the vulnerability too well, and give people false impressions. But, often, it is a helpful thing to be both fragile and fierce. Because I don’t know that I could face the day if I didn’t have some shell that was protecting the precious parts at the core. I don’t know that I could walk my street, take the bus, sit in waiting rooms, see doctors, have tests and imaging and procedures and surgeries, pick up groceries, or go to the gym without that fierce part of me. But I also know that the soft and subtle and sensitive parts of me give me the compassion and humility that is so needed to be a decent and loving and caring person.
Strength can be weakness. Weakness can be strength. It all depends on the situation, and the perspective, and the purpose, and the mindset.
And I can be both weak and strong. So can you.
It took me a bit to embrace what that trainer said today. I didn’t want to immediately agree that I am an athlete. I wanted to protest and to point to all the frailty and disability and challenge that resides in my life and my person. But when I considered it a moment longer, I knew that he was correct. I knew that the strong, hard-working, brave woman that I am also shines at moments, and that I don’t only have that frailty and disability and challenge. I also have milestones reached, dangers navigated, brokenness healed, and struggles overcome.
I will always be disabled, barring several miracle cures being discovered in my lifetime. But I will also always be the athlete. I will always have strength of mind and will. I will always have a strong sense of justice. I will always seek to protect what is good and eradicate what is unhelpful or damaging. I will always approach my wellness and my loves and my passions with drive and determination. I will always be a fierce fighter.
We like to box things up, and divide and contain things. It seems neater somehow, and less messy. But life isn’t really that way.
Life is this messy mixture of the good and the not so good. Life is not dichotomies, but a doughy ball of mixed up ingredients that sticks to your fingers. It isn’t meant to be broken down and divided and put in the appropriate category. It is meant to be the mess. And that means that the fragile and the fierce can be one and other and together and apart and melded and separated to infinity, but they are never going to be all or none. They will stick to my fingers. I will sometimes feel one way, and sometimes feel another way. And sometimes I will feel both.
And the people who are in my life and in my inner circles will need to understand and acknowledge and accept that I am both things—the athlete and the disabled woman. I am both, and I won’t cease to be both.
Right now, I don’t feel very athletic. I have a headache. My shoulders and quads are screaming in pain in tandem. My hand and wrist are bruised. My facia is tight in my right leg. I am coated in pain relieving cream, and it isn’t relieving much pain. I desperately need to stretch well, but I’m afraid if I lay out on the yoga mat, I will just fall asleep there and wake with a ridiculous patterned face too late to attend important meetings tomorrow.
Right now I feel small and broken, and a little like I might break down.
But I’m fine with that. Because I know that my fierce self is in there somewhere beneath all of the uncomfortable surface. And when I need her, she will emerge.
But, in this moment, the only ferocity I foresee is the fight over the covers and space on the bed between myself and the dog and the cat. I will win that fight. I’m committed to winning that fight every night.
So, I head toward my bed with the aches of the day, but I know that I am and will continue to be the athlete.
Fight hard, my friends. But don’t be afraid to fall and to fail and to freak out as well. Be a complicated mess of dichotomous dough. Life is better that way.