What Being an Athlete Means To Me

The last time I considered myself an athlete was high school. I was on teams. I was training. I was actively competing against other athletes.

Then I went to college and I stopped playing team sports, but I knew that if I stopped being active I would gain weight so I still took classes off and on at our athletic center or at a nearby gym for the next four years. Since then, I have been what you’d call and off and on gym goer. Not what I’d have ever considered is an “athlete”.

In my mind, an athlete was someone who was on an organized team and was paid professionally to do it or if you’re on a high school or college level, someone who trains to play competitively. Me going to Pure Barre a few times a week did not categorize me as an athlete. And that was still my thought process until I started the mentorship program with Nike that I am doing now.

When I first signed up for this program through Chicago Ideas I even checked with the organizer/producer to make sure I didn’t need to be a “runner” because sure, I exercise but I’m not running 8 miles a day or anything. She assured me they were looking for all kinds of athletes. I sort of chuckled at the word athlete, but I knew I would make a good mentor since I love motivating young women. And then I went to my first event and felt like such a fraud.


Our first time meeting our mentees was a few weeks ago at the USWT soccer exhibition game. We got to meet them before the game and make posters, eat lunch, play games and then went to watch the game with girls. The girl I am paired with, Ashley, is a cross country runner – something I know nothing about other than I know you run…a lot. The other mentor Ashley was paired with is a marathon runner and I automatically felt like I shouldn’t even be there. Not only was Kathleen what I considered a real “athlete”, but all the other women in the room also seemed to be more of what you would consider an athlete. A lot of the mentors own fitness studios, played sports at a college level, or have run 5+ marathons. And then there was me – a plus-size woman who exercises occasionally.

Even though I felt like a fraud, I still loved the camaraderie of the group of mentor women and I knew I was still bringing something to the table so this didn’t feel like a total loss. And then we had the 5K yesterday. Like I said, Ashley is a runner so she sped off like a bat out of hell once they said GO and like I said before, I am not a runner. I tried briefly to be one. About 6 years ago, my coworker, Sarah got really into running because our mentor and manager at work were really into it and encouraged us to run the Hot Chocolate 5K with her. For a brief few months, I did the Couch to 5K thing and ran a few 5Ks and tried to run an 8K and then I gave up. Running was just NOT my thing so why try to make it my thing, right? Same thought I had yesterday. Just do what you can and get there. And I did it. I cut a few corners so that I didn’t miss the rest of the day (we had some professional athletes come to talk to the kids after the run!), but I did it. And Ashley was so proud of me. Yes, my mentee was proud of ME. It’s a laughable moment, I know and such a Lifetime movie. Mentor gets a mentee who she learns more from than the mentee learns from her. So cliche. But it’s true.

This whole experience, which isn’t over by the way, has taught me that being an athlete is really just a state of mind. I don’t consider myself an athlete because I ultimately I don’t think I do enough to be an athlete, but like Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman said, “If you have a body, you are an athlete.” This is incredibly true. My adamant statement that I’m not an athlete I believe comes from being plus-size at the gym. Being plus comes with an assumption that I’m not active or that I don’t know how to use gym equipment or I’ve never set foot in a gym at all. It doesn’t help when you meet new people and tell them that you played traveling volleyball and they respond with, “oh really? Never would have thought you’d play sports.” And maybe that’s also because I come off as a girly girl, prissy sort of person, but in my mind, it’s because they think I can’t possibly move my body because it’s larger than theirs.

Sometimes that’s a hindrance for me to want to go to the gym and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes I know I’m strong and other days I believe what I think others see in me. However, I also know the importance of being active. I was a student-athlete once upon a time. I know what strength that gave me – to have a voice, to speak my mind, to get to know other women well. It has taught me so many things that are useful for my corporate world life today. It has taught me that being healthy is important. And I know that is what I am bringing to the table for my mentee. Sure, she is teaching me, but I am teaching her what being strong is just by showing up, by participating, by not giving up.

And I think that’s a much better definition of what an athlete is, don’t you?