Everyday Athletes Talk About What Strength Means to Them
When you hear the word "athlete," what comes to mind? A thin, muscular body? Someone who's always at the top of their game? What about "strength"? Maybe it's being able to lift a certain amount of weight, or never letting them see you sweat.
Every athlete is different in myriad ways, from their own sport to their shape to their story-though too often, society relegates them to an incredibly narrow box, physically and otherwise.
The Weight Issue is an editorial package devoted to the idea that we need to change the way we think about bodies, size, weight, and health . In keeping with this mission, SELF asked seven athletes to bare all, including their personal definitions of strength.
My definition of strength is the purest form of yourself, holding your ground, and not letting anyone's opinions. Before I found Muay Thai, my life was pretty mundane. I was working in the fashion where I was not feeling challenged or driven, and I was constantly masked by my feelings with drugs and drinking. I was also in the middle of the gym, like running on the treadmill, and I was so bored.
Then I was invited to a Muay Thai competition, which made me rethink what a fighter could be. I saw a woman my size getting in the ring and shadowboxing, and I realized if they could do it, then so could I. After that, I completely changed my life. I used to be really self-conscious to the point that I could not leave the house without makeup. Now, I do not care; after work, I wipe off whatever makeup I'm wearing and throwing my hair up in a topknot, and I become the rawest and most vulnerable form of myself.
I feel like I'm living more genuinely now. I have a passion that I want to focus on, that compels me to try and be as good as I can possibly be. I'm channeling my energy differently before setting goals for myself in training, and competition, and just in. Finding myself and my inner strength has been a long process, but ultimately, it took finding Muay Thai to love who I truly am.
Strength gets misconstrued a lot. People think that not crying, not showing any emotion, is strength. But for me, strength has been perseverance; when I was just about to throw in the towel, finding a way to push through .
I was a sporty child. I thought without knowing it, being active became my escape from kids at school, or what was going on at home; getting recognized in athletics was a confidence-builder. I had such a wonderful pregnancy, but I had experienced depression before and I had a feeling. Sometimes it sucks to be right. I was in a dark place after my son was born, but eventually I realized I could turn to [bike] riding and yoga to help me climb out of it.
To be honest, the challenges aren't completely over. I’ve been in that dark place again; it was a long winter, and now I’m dealing with the aftermath of losing a baby. I’m struggling to get motivated to hop back on my bike, even though I know it will make me feel better. It's exhausting when you seem to be going backwards, no matter how hard you’re trying to trudge forward—but luckily, having a kid has finally taught me to be easier on myself. That's the thing about strength. It comes and goes, just like hardships in life, and I’m not ready to throw in the towel yet.
I've never really been identified with an athlete, even though I swam on teams through high school and college. And I've realized that for me, ideally, swimming is not competitive. For me, there are other, more important things, it provides: strength in showing up, strength in silence, and strength in numbers.
So many sports narratives are told in the context of some big victory, but for me it's much more about the commitment. When I was young, I would sometimes throw up the performance anxiety-but today, I'm just to be consistent and show up, rather than to set a record or win a medal, makes it more okay when I have an off day. That said, I have a lot of anxiety in my life, and swimming is one of the only times that I can find total quiet. Peace but also very literal quiet; I'm not looking at my phone, and all I have to listen to is the water. If I go swimming in the morning and feel anxious later that day, then I can reflect on that quiet, strong moment later again.
Finally, there's the team I belong to now, which is specifically for LGBT people and allies . Some people on it are 50, some just graduated college, and we all come from lots of different backgrounds, but it's such a universally amazing, supportive group. We eat meals together, hang out together; some of us go to the beach together, where we can swim uninterrupted for miles. It's good to be in the nature, breaking free of old competitive anxieties, and it's good to have a community. I'm so happy to have them in my life, and if it was not for swimming, I probably would not have met them.
For me, strength is vulnerability. It means being honest about my mental health, which definitely affects what I’m able to do physically, and using my platform to reduce the silence around it. But I find strength in transparency, because for so many years, I allowed people to censor me—“You can’t do that because you’re a woman,” or because you’re black, or plus-size, or bisexual. Actually, I can. And I do.
I've realized that when I'm free online, not okay, it becomes more okay. It felt good to speak in public about the trolled while running last year's NYC Marathon right after losing twins. I'm generally pretty desensitized to ignorant people-like, okay, I guess they have nothing better to do! But this time was different; one week I was found out I was pregnant, the next week I was miscarried-I'd miskarriages-I'd miskarriages-and then finally the next week, after years of screaming about it and being told I was imagining things, I was diagnosed with endometriosis. So many people reached out to me with similar stories, which was bittersweet; I was glad that my words were resonated with them, but also, it was devastating. Why are we still ignoring women's pain?
I'm always looking for the right mix of activity and rest for me, to maintain my sense of happiness, which means acknowledging things that do not feel great. There are many days when, because of my anxiety or seasonal depression, I've just hit a wall; I'm out running, or on an obstacle course. Physically, I'm in constant pain because of my endometriosis, sciatica, and disk degeneration. If I did not want to run ultramarathons or whatever, I would not. Balancing my physical, mental, and spiritual needs is the essence of what makes me strong.
For me, strength is physical: What can I lift? How powerfully can I hit? What can my body endure? And it’s mental: What can I can handle in terms of losses? How do I cope with adversity? It has to be a combination of those things, because my issues are kind of across the board. I live with chronic pain. I had back surgery when I was young, and have an issue with my knee now. I have body dysmorphia and social anxiety. I feel things very strongly. I’m a crier. I used to be really hard on myself, sometimes to the point that I’d act out physically against myself. I can still be overly critical to a point, but Muay Thai has allowed me to appreciate and love myself better, too.
I do not smoke anymore, I do not drink to excess, I go to bed and get up at decent times, and I'm not in my head. It's partly because, whereas I've always felt like nobody understands me, I know that I have to be in the right place. And it's partly that once you start hitting the pads, you just have to let that stuff go. Building my physical strength has helped when I do not really have as much mental strength as I'd like that day, and vice versa; I feel much more balanced now. It takes me out of myself, like meditation, but not.
Previously in my life, my definition of strength was to keep going, to trudge through. But more, it's having the ability to change, or to walk away from something. I've invested time and energy. Sometimes, that kind of strength is harder. I think my depression and anxiety have been really instrumental in understanding this, because they're not going away; this is what I have to work with, and it's helped me make resilient.
Lifting has saved my life in the past year. Through unemployment, a major depressive episode, and a sexual assault, I could still go to the gym and have a really good workout in a supportive environment. It's important to remind myself now, in an emotional sense, what I've learned from it in the physical one: Strength takes time. It needs building. It's not going to happen overnight.
Strength is something meaningful to me, which feels important to say. Before I started weightlifting, I got a lot of negative messages about athleticism and what my body was capable of; sexual trauma, being a woman in this society, and being a queer woman. way I thought I was allowed to be strong was emotionally, intellectually, and I became someone who wore the mask of that strength. But at a point, I got tired of not being confident or feeling in my body. At first, it was just me kind of being a gym rat, going to a gym and taking up space in an environment that was super masculine, super white, I was not. "Only once I started working on the physical stuff I realized that I had some huge mental and emotional hurdles to jump, and I was forced to confront those demons; my different strengths began at the same time.
The only way I thought I was allowed to be strong was emotionally, intellectually, and I became someone who wore the mask of that strength. But at a point, I got tired of not being confident or feeling present in my body, and not knowing what it was capable of. At first, it was just me kind of being a gym rat, going to a gym and taking up space in an environment that was super masculine, super white—the establishment that had been telling me all along that I couldn’t, or that I “wasn’t.” Only once I started working on the physical stuff did I realize that I had some huge mental and emotional hurdles to jump, and I was forced to confront those demons; my different strengths began growing simultaneously.
I'm a weightlifter now because the sport is beautiful and technical and challenging. But it's still a very white, male space, and I do not want to be in love with someone. I've started carving out a space on social media, with an Instagram account that highlights women of color in the sport. Someday, I hope to have my own gym, where I can sponsor athletes as well as paying customers on a sliding scale to make the sport safer and more accessible for everyone.
Nora Whelan is a freelance writer, editor, photographer, and photo shoot producer. Her work has been featured in Allure, BuzzFeed, Bustle, Cosmopolitan, Curbed, The Huffington Post, New York Magazine, OUT, Playboy, Racked, Teen Vogue, Them, and The Village Voice.