What Does it Mean to Be an Athlete?
I started running on my 13th birthday. I don't want to do the math; I know that wasn't yesterday even though I remember heading over to the local track with a friend like it was. After jogging a few laps and sprinting a couple more, I was hooked. Since then I've run a minimum of 40 miles every week. Except for the 7 weeks after I was diagnosed with cancer.
I'll spare you the details of my illness. Suffice to say that my first run back after treatment was no skip through the park. I was only able to run for 20 minutes before I was too tired to keep moving. Muscles, tendons, and joints were in agony every step of the way and when the clan of 70-year-old Chinese ladies who run along the East River path in lower Manhattan blew past me, it was pretty clear to me I had a lot of rebuilding to do.
Yet in that moment, I felt like an athlete.
Perhaps you think the only ones who have the right to call themselves athletes are the Olympians who jump, leap, and race their way into the record books, or the pros who win major titles. Slogging along at a 12-minute-per-mile pace as I did that first day back certainly didn't earn me a spot in either of those categories. And truthfully, even on my best day before I got sick, my physical abilities were never much above average. But my own personal definition of an athlete has room for anyone who loves their sport enough to reach for their personal best, no matter what the circumstances.
My definition includes the fat guy I see every day in the gym sweating his guts out on the treadmill, then the bike, then the weight machines. If all he wanted to do was lose weight, he could simply go on a diet. But I see the fire in his eyes and watch him do the work every day.
My definition includes every kid anywhere who does gymnastics, soccer, or Little League and every adult on every recreational sports team who will never be the next Gabby Douglas, David Beckham, or Derek Jeter but still shows up for practice, trains hard, and takes what they're doing seriously.
My definition also includes the East River Chinese ladies who run so slowly it looks like they're moving underwater. Three months into recovery, I now fly right past them but you know what? They're out there hitting the pavement, day in, day out, rain or shine.
In my book all of these people deserve the title of athlete: They set goals for themselves. They have the drive to keep going without any expectation of fame or fortune. They may not win every time — they may never win — but they constantly strive to put in their best foot forward. They don't throw in the towel readily, especially not those times when it would be easier to just give up and walk away.
Not everyone has the physical gifts to excel at their chosen physical pursuit. I don't think that should be part of the criteria for being considered an athlete. I've run marathons, 30-milers, and even 100-milers but I can honestly say that the first run back after fighting cancer was some of the most challenging and rewarding mileage of my life. So I get to call myself an athlete too.
What do you think the definition of an athlete should be? What have you done that gives you the right to call yourself an athlete?
— Liz Neporent, Fitness Reporter
Veteran fitness and health writer Liz Neporent is the co-author of Fitness for Dummies, Weight Training for Dummies, The Winner's Brain, and the just-released The Thin in 10 Weight-Loss Plan. When not pounding the pavement or pumping iron — or thinking deep thoughts about health and fitness for her latest writing project — Liz can be found hanging out with her hubby and daughter in New York City or upstate New York.