What is an Athlete?

I just ran faster than I ever have before. I set a personal record at the Vegas Half marathon that opened up my mind to realities I had never considered possible for myself. It is not the first time my body has surprised me in this way. (and I hope it isn’t the last!) When I crossed the finish line, I felt like an athlete again. I have few moments where I own that title. And my lack of ownership over my accomplishments has led me to explore — What does it mean to be an athlete?

Miriam Webster says an athlete is “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina”.The same source refers to skill as a: “the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance” or b : “dexterity or coordination especially in the execution of learned physical tasks”.

So it seems to me that an athlete would be one who uses what has been physically and intellectually learned to do the best they could do at any given time (performance or execution).

I bring this to attention because we all have different definitions of what an athlete is. I have found the definition depends on one’s frame of reference. I’ve met a woman who has run 12 marathons and does NOT consider herself a runner. I’ve met people who consider getting their shoes on and getting out the door for 2 miles qualification as a runner. I was running distances of 12-15 miles before I considered myself a runner! It took over 2 years of running before I felt I “fit” the part. “Real” runners were faster than I, more experienced, “looked” a certain way and had a certain ease about them I lacked. When I unexpectedly qualified for Boston, I felt I had suddenly fallen into the realm of a “good runner”. It wasn’t until I started coaching cycling classes and running at the same time that I “felt” like I was an athlete. Mind you, I came to find that friends and peers considered me an athlete long ago! I coached runners, had a decade of running and 6 marathons under my belt by this point but I considered myself an average runner at best, despite years of experience and a good working knowledge of my body and the sport. Athletes are “good”, right? Athletes achieve Boston qualifications, make Olympic teams and are sponsored by companies or run longer or more than I have. Athletes are Kenyan!

In reality, my idea of “athlete” was an elusive category of exercisers whose qualifications changed based upon whatever I considered to be impressive (that happened to also be out of my reach).

And here I am now, preparing for the Boston marathon, tinkering with my own training and surprising myself with what my body is achieving. I have accomplished more in the last 2 years than I had ever considered for myself. I feel like an athlete. Not just a woman with athletic tendencies, but an athlete. I’m likely a good 7 years behind in recognizing my accomplishments and giving myself due credit, but I am finally owning it and giving myself that pat on the back. I’ve also been pondering this definition for myself and re-framing what it really means for me, as I have considered other women with slower paces and less experience to be athletes and yet denied myself this title.

When we look at our past and where we are going, I think a truer definition stems from not only what we are currently doing, but the place we have come from. The mental challenge for some of us to get out and get our shoes on qualifies us as an athlete. We overcome obstacles with child care, work schedules, PMS, mental roadblocks, injuries, yet we come back again and again. This kind of stamina is true athletics. Never giving up. Getting back up again and again and giving it another shot. It is giving it your best in any given moment. Some athletes are born with tendencies which make effortless what most would consider grueling. Other athletes are made – with hours of sweat, grit, determination and dedication to themselves and their sport. These athletes may never experience a Boston qualification or complete an Ironman or run a half marathon, but persistence and dedication to what they love places them a class apart from most of the population. They have trained. They have used their knowledge and experience to perform at the best of their abilities. They are, by my definition, athletes.

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