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Who Do You Think You Are?

When I was in kindergarten, our teacher had us go around the circle and say what we wanted to be when we grew up. “A nurse and a ballerina!”, I declared. My mom enrolled me in a ballet school, but my career was brief; my ambition was easily trampled by a little ballerina bully who kept chasing me into the bathroom of the dance studio.

A few years later, when my big brother signed up for little league, I followed in his footsteps. What I remember most vividly from my one and only little league season was admiring the dandelions in the outfield and daintily collecting them in a little bouquet, only to finally turn my attention to the game and discover that the other team had taken the field, and my team was at bat.

Junior high brought try-outs for basketball and volleyball. Once I was asked to be the team manager, but I never made it onto the team. By high school I had found a niche in theater and choir, and while I never won a solo or a lead, I got a few featured roles, harmonized damn well and genuinely enjoyed it. I was a theater-arts girl, or so I thought.

Then in college, my interest was peaked when I heard that a novice crew team was forming. I went to the information meeting, meekly eyeing the other women who showed up. Could a self-proclaimed theater-arts girl have anything to offer a rowing team? Was I setting myself up for another rejection from a sports team? Was I on the verge of completely embarrassing myself? But no one else had any experience rowing, either. It’s now or never, I told myself. May as well give it a shot.

We had a great coach who taught us the basics of rowing and gave us structured workouts. I started running and lifting weights and within a few months, our newly formed team had even won a gold medal in a novice regatta. I was shocked to find that I was one of the stronger women on the team. I wondered how that could possibly be. I thought that if more women had known about the team and tried out, there would be plenty stronger than me. There had to be some rationale. Still, I felt more confident and happier than I had ever felt before. I kept up with rowing for 3 semesters, as the realities of financing my education had me picking up multiple part-time jobs and maintaining a packed course load. Rowing had earned a special place in my heart and I planned that I would row again some day.

I focused on my studies and then my career (I became a speech pathologist, and spent years working in hospital–so maybe that kindergarten aspiration for nursing wasn’t too far off). I met my husband, we made a beautiful family and I focused on being a wife and a mother. I didn’t exercise consistently. In fact, after my 3rd son was born, I didn’t exercise at all for over a year.

That changed in 2007, when I reached the ripe old age of 36. I had lost my brother to lymphoma a few months earlier. My brother, who loved to ride his bike, imagined riding even when he had become too sick to ride. He wanted to feel free, to be outdoors, and escape the hospitals and treatments. A few months after he passed, I discovered an opportunity to do a ride benefitting the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in his memory. I sold his old station wagon and bought a bike. I was eager to learn to ride and train for the event, and I figured I might even enjoy an occasional ride after the event. I could never have imagined how transformative the experience would be.

There was this one guy on the training rides who always rode ahead of the group, eager to finish so he could get home to his wife and kids. Grateful to my husband, Adam, who was home watching 4 very young kids while I rode, I felt compelled to follow my teammate. Before long, my friends were bantering that I was some crazy fast rider. I was having a blast and thinking back to my crew days, once again getting a taste of that euphoria that comes with good hard exercise and achievement.

Then a friend suggested that I try a time trial, a pretty safe and straight-forward way to get a taste of bike racing. With nothing to lose, I showed up and raced, and then, with no fanfare, packed myself up, and headed home. Missionaccomplished. Not bad. Kinda interesting.

That evening, I got a call informing me that I had qualified to be on theLong Islandteam in the Empire State Games.

Who? Me? Are you sure you dialed the right number?

I had earned the last spot on the team. Once again, I rationalized that not many women had even tried out. I must have made it by default. Well, maybe so, but I opted in and headed to Westchester with some pretty talented cyclists fromLong Island. I was plunged into the world of bike racing. In four days, I competed in the individual time trial, criterium, road race and team time trial. My learning curve was steep. My goal in some cases was merely to finish the race and preserve points for the overall team competition. But I was hooked. I wanted more. I wanted to go faster and get stronger.

I hired a coach and started training for races. I amped up my goals in tiny increments and started feeling like this was something I could do. When I rode I felt strong, confident and happy. I was proud of myself. When I finished a ride, I was smiling ear to ear and I felt balanced. And then one day, it occurred to me:

I am an athlete.

Whoa. An ath-lete. Never a word I would have used to describe myself. But it fit. Really well. Suddenly my semesters of crew had some context. No wonder I loved rowing so much. It was all making sense. I get it now. It’s who I am. I am loud and I am proud:

My name is Jenn and I am an athlete.

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