What Makes One an Athlete?

My favorite comedian, Mitch Hedberg, once joked that if he discovered he had athlete’s foot, he’d say, “That’s not my f***ing foot!”  I never considered myself an athlete as a kid.  I didn’t fit with that group of kids in school, despite playing some softball in middle school.  I am a bad team player and I much preferred doing Tae Kwon Do to playing a team sport.  As an only child, I learned early to rely on myself and I am too stuck in my own ways to work well with others.  I hated group projects in school.  I’m off-track, but, to my point, I was not an athlete before in my life.

Last month, I bought a Whoop fitness tracker.  The initial set up asked what kind of athlete I am for my profile.  I was annoyed that there was no option below casual athlete.  I marked this box, but it made me wonder.  Am I an athlete now?

I’ve been actively working out for over a year now, since February 2019.  I have lost over 60 pounds and gained muscles I didn’t know existed.  I can deadlift 200 pounds and run and do things I’d never dreamed were possible a few years ago.  I recently bought two knee sleeves for hyper extension issues and these are a game-changer.  I find myself pushing harder and longer.  After months of stagnation, my workouts have increased in intensity and frequency.  I find solace in my local gym, something that continues to baffle me.  I’ve made workouts routine.  But does all of this make me an athlete?

I’ve dwelled on this question and I’ve found an answer.  Although it may sound cliché, one is only an athlete if one has an athlete’s mindset.  I am still learning the limits of my body, but I have drive and commitment to be better every time I set in the gym.  I often think back to an embarrassing moment during my first day when my trainer was assessing my skills, or lack thereof.  I became stuck in an awkward position while attempting a bodyweight squat and had to fall over to get myself out of it.  I was deeply annoyed with my body and frustrated, but now I am not ashamed of that moment.  It was the start of my journey and now I can not only squat easily, I can deep squat with weight.  I’m learning so much about what my body can do.  I’m only limited by my mindset.  But with an athlete’s mindset, there are no limits.

My Journey to Loving My Body

In grad school, I took a seminar class focusing on the connection between the mind and the body while reading Victorian novels like Frankenstein and Dorian Gray.  (I know it sounds nerdy, but it was fun.)  This class, and the deep questions it provoked, has lingered in my brain since then.  One of my scholarly areas of interest before then was the body and gender, but I had never considered the links between the body and the mind, mostly because I saw these two facets as one and the same.  Late nights spent discussing the mind/body question led me to ponder my own mind and body.

Until very recently, I lived in my mind, and I neglected my body.  After gaining weight around 2011-2012, I escaped my physical discomfort by immersing myself in my studies and media, many books and television shows.  I made minimal effort in grad school when I began working out with a trainer at my university’s wellness center.  But I never pushed myself and often cancelled sessions when I was depressed or just not feeling up to it.  Many days were spent in my house or the local coffee shop, writing my thesis, studying for exams, or writing semester-end papers.  I would close myself off to the world with a pair of headphones and block out everything, including my own body.  I would dwell for hours in my brain as my hand moved across a notebook or keyboard.

To be frank, I hated my body.  I was never athletic as a kind, but I played tee ball and softball as well as gymnastics, dance, and my favorite sport, marital arts.  Then came the one-two punch of puberty and mental illness, which sidelined my physical activities as most days I struggled to merely get out of bed.  High school became college and I drifted from my body into my mind.  I became supremely self-aware of my mental states while my body suffered.  I wouldn’t say I had a bad diet or didn’t get off the couch; I was a typical American who ate large portions and wasn’t active.  But when everyone around you is the same way, you don’t notice it.

Then I gained a lot of weight and my indifference to my body grew into hate.  I gave up.  I ate tons of pasta and takeout.  My diet was terrible, and I sat in my recliner feeling miserable most days.  I didn’t know how to fix my situation.  I focused on school.  Meanwhile, I felt trapped in my body.

My first attempt to lose weight didn’t work.  Like I said, I skipped more workout sessions than I attended.  I didn’t commit and I continue to eat terribly, hoping the workouts I did attend would offset the calories.  I ignored my body except for the times my mom mentioned weight loss surgery.  This only made me feel worse.

My breaking point came in October 2018.  The following February, I moved to central Iowa and quickly inquired at my local gym about seeing a personal trainer.  I can’t explain what had changed for me, but I felt it was time to get out of my mind and into my long-neglected body.

The human body is capable of many extraordinary feats.  For so long I had lived with my body without pushing it to do more than walk and talk.  I saw exercise as something healthy people did or a short-term method of weight loss.  In America, exercise is not the norm.  Growing up, I was active and healthy, but I had lost that along the way.  I had forgotten what my body could do.

I have been working with an awesome trainer for almost one year now and I am excited about the changes that have happe3ned to my body.  This month I have accomplished many firsts: running on a treadmill (without holding on), lifting crazy amounts of weights, to name just two.  In only one year, I have gone from unable to squat to deep squatting with a weighted bar.  I find myself literally dancing with joy and excitement at times.  On the mental health side, I have never felt so stable in my life.  My highs and lows have mellowed out incredibly.  I have made my workout session habitual, by which I mean I just get ready and go with few exceptions.  At first, I felt anxiety when walking into the gym.  Now I actually feel relaxed.  I am learning to cook at home and my diet is better.  I’ve learned so much about nutrition and the human body.  I don’t know if I wasn’t paying attention in school or if no one explained these facts to me.  Either way, I’m making up for it.  I was never great at science, but I now have a basic, functional understanding of anatomy, biology, and related chemistry.  (For reference, I barely passed with a C in high school chemistry.)

My trainer has told me that this change is not a short-term solution.  It is a lifestyle change.  It is a shift at the core of how I live my life.  I didn’t grasp the profoundness of that idea until recently.  Yes, I have changed a great deal.  No, this change is not temporary.  I don’t want to go back to hating my body.  I like how I fell and the way my clothes fit me now.  I even see the appeal of fashion where I once dressed functionally, to cover everything up.  I recently purged my closet of everything that is too big for me now.  It felt exhilarating.

I won’t go back because I know how miserable I was living in my head.  I hated my body.  I have more on my weight loss journey, but I am amazed at the progress I’ve already made, especially in one year. (For the record, I’ve lost 62 lbs. as of this week.)  I feel good, not just mentally, but also physically.  I’ve never said that as an adult.

I feel now that I am living in my mind and my body.

My Breaking Point – Health and Fitness

Brief context: Harry Potter as a series of books has always been important to me since they entered my life at age 11.  But I never expected how they would affect my life when it came to my weight.

During October 2018, I flew with a few friends to Orlando to go to Universal Studios and see the Wizarding World in person.  I’d been to the version on the west coast in California and didn’t deeply enjoy myself because of the heat and having a toddler in tow.  So I was excited to say the least.

IMG_0801.jpeg

Diagon Alley, Gringott’s Dragon

The first day we headed straight through the main park at Universal and all the way to the back to enter Diagon Alley.  I was pumped.  I had a butter beer and was amazed at the detailed world around me.  Then I went to sit in a test seat for one of the rides.  I didn’t fit.  I was too big.  I was pissed and super sad.  I hadn’t thought about it, but my weight had gotten out of hand and now I couldn’t enjoy myself on vacation.

When I got home, I knew I needed to make a change.  I’d been seeing a trainer for over a year and nothing had come of it.  I didn’t push myself and he didn’t insist that I push myself.  I had started working out when I was in grad school, but I still ate a ton of garbage food.  I didn’t watch my diet and I didn’t exercise outside of our sessions.  I wasn’t taking care of my body while I enlarged the scope of my brain.  I didn’t feel like the workouts were helping and often cancelled when I just didn’t feel like leaving the house.

I was deeply depressed and isolated myself after I graduated in May 2018.  I would go days without leaving the house.  So I had been looking forward to my Orlando trip.  But I came back depressed and sad again.

I ended up looking for a new house in a new town four hours away.  I saw this move as a chance to make a dramatic change.  I looked into local gyms with professional trainers nearby.  After another bout of depression post-move, I sought out a new trainer in my new town.

I met Joel when I was 293 pounds and very out of shape.  During our first training session, I squatted into position and found myself stuck in an odd crouch.  I couldn’t get myself up and was left to sort of roll/fall to my side to get out the position.  This deeply embarrassed me, and I thought about giving up.  Joel asked me about my goals, and I told him about being upset in Orlando because I couldn’t fit on the rides.  He understood and set me up for 3 workout sessions per week.  I had only done 2 per week max before.  But I knew I had to get serious and I took him up on the challenge.

The first month or so was the worst, mainly because I didn’t to build the habit of driving myself to the gym.  My anxiety was often high, and I postponed or outright cancelled a few sessions.  But eventually I made it a habit, which helped dampen the anxiety.  I began losing a few pounds and I grew strong.  I saw actual progress, the kind I had never had before.

I was told long ago that I would not lose weight because of the medications I was on.  I resigned myself to be unhappy in my body forever.  I worked on my brain and didn’t look in a mirror.  I felt uncomfortable in my own flesh and I deep hated myself physically.

But then I lost 10 pounds.  Then 20.  And so on.

As of writing, I have lost a little over 40 pounds.  My first weight goal is to be 200 pounds.  My ultimate goal is around 175-180.  For the record, I am 5’9” tall.

Although it felt like shit in the moment and for months after, I have Harry Potter to thank for kicking my ass into gear and starting my weight loss journey.

And yes, I bought a cloak.

IMG_1392.jpg

Oct 2018, 293 lbs

 

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_240a.jpg

Sept 2019, 40 lbs lighter

Higher, Further, Faster: Imbuing Captain Marvel with Meaning

I used to have Deadpool on my iPhone as the Lock Screen and Home Screen.  But after starting my weight loss journey, I wanted a sort of motivation mascot and the best place to keep this icon was my phone, which I look at often.  After a few months of searching, I settled on Captain Marvel as my mascot.

I’ve never read a Captain Marvel comic (but it’s on my list, I promise).  I saw the character for the first time when she debuted in the MCU this year.  Although I have mixed feelings on the movie, I watched it twice in theaters this March.  There has been debate about Brie Larson’s portrayal and her dynamics with other characters.  I’ll admit that besides the memory loss plot structure, it was a cookie-cutter Marvel movie.  So what did I see in Captain Marvel?

Captain Marvel, for me, has a character similar to Captain America Steve Rogers in that both are empty signifiers.  Both have vague characteristics, but they stand for a bland positive idea.  Carol Danvers is a mere human before she gains her power through an accident.  It is not her power but her character that gives her strength.  She always gets back up when she’s knocked down.  I’m willing to admit that I’m imbuing Danvers with more that appears in her movie or Avengers: Endgame.  But she is the most powerful character in the MCU and she’s able to go against Thanos one-to-one.  She protects people with her immense power.  Someone with her level of power could easily be greedy, but she empowers her friends and helps the helpless instead.  Like Rogers, she does the right thing.  She uses her power for good.

I first saw Brie Larson acting in The United States of Tara as Toni Collette’s daughter.  I have a few of her well-praised movies in my Netflix queue (I’ll see them one day).  I loved her in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, which is one of my favorite recent movies.  (You can’t go wrong with Edgar Wright.)  I cheered when she won an Oscar.  She is going to be one of the defining actors of my generation.  And despite the backlash, I like her politics based on what I’ve seen.  Larson also seems like a cool person.

So one day I searched for iPhone wallpapers featuring Captain Marvel (see below).  I bid Deadpool farewell after explaining that I needed a new icon to motivate me.  He’s cool with it.

Now when I look at my phone, which I do too much, I feel a warm spark of empowerment.  Yes, Captain Marvel is not perfect—no one is.  But, like me, she tries every day, and I think that counts more.

“Higher, Further, Faster” – Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers)

For those wondering, after six months of work, I have lost around 40 pounds and I have gained tons of muscle strength.  So I guess Captain Marvel as motivation icon is working.

captainmarvel.jpg

Lock Screen

captmarvelicon.jpg

Home Screen

 

PS: I know I’m putting way too much thought into this entire thing.