I was once an athlete. No, not someone who won games or races. Not someone who broke records. Not somebody who made the top fold of the local sports page. Not somebody in a high school “hall of fame”. If someone threw a ball at me, chances are I couldn’t catch it. If I tried to throw a ball to you, chances are it wouldn’t get to you – either short or just way off the mark. But I did have a meager collection of certificates, plaques, varsity letters, newspaper clippings, and probably a medal or two.
That was a long time ago.
Something happened. A transformation.
So how does this happen?
I’d always been pretty active. As a child I played outside. I was also proficient with the VCR and TV at three or four years of age. I was the first generation on the Internet. I was the first person in my neighborhood with broadband. I also played football (for a time), did cross-country, ran track, and did all the pre-season and off-season workouts for those sports. When I was younger my brother dragged me to the weight room summer after summer. When I was younger still I had bouts of Karate and even tumbling. Yes, tumbling. Through all of that I learned to mimic and emulate some professional wrestling moves and how to fall (take a bump).
Not to say that I was particularly good at these sports. I had poor coordination and was not a good kinesthetic learner as far as that goes, so remembering how to throw and catch a ball was troublesome. It always was. That sort of thing is a reoccurring source of shame in my life -not really being able to throw or catch. I also never gained much muscle mass – at least, just not enough – despite the dedication of off-season lifting and workouts I’d never be what I wanted to be as a football player.
I ended up with some athletic asthma. So, while I worked out harder and smarter and did everything I was supposed to, I only ended up getting slower and slower when it came to running in races. Despite this I did what I was supposed to day in and day out, week in and week out. I did the workouts hard. I did the practices hard (except when goofing off with the team). I raced hard.
In return? I ate everything I wanted. Not that I ate poorly – mom generally had home-cooked, balanced, not-too-much-not-too-bad meals. I did have a 3-4 cans of Pepsi or Coke habit, though. But my activity combined with youthful metabolism meant that it didn’t really matter. But that all changed.
See, after my last track meet, I stopped running. Then I went to college.
The first semester at college nearly killed me. Homesick. Depressed. Long-distance girlfriend. Since I wasn’t on a team, why workout? Why practice? Instead I had food anytime I wanted. For free. Because at 11PM or 1AM a Philly Cheese Steak is an awesome thing to have, especially if it’s right downstairs. A credit-card paid-by-mom could keep my fridge stocked if and when my summer-job-paid-for-debit-card got low. I ate because I was bored. I ate because it was time to eat. I ate because South Park was on. I ate because it was Friday. I ate because I was sad. I ate because I was happy. Because I’m special!
It really didn’t even bother me. Sure, a few months in and I had an aunt say “Wow, you got fat!”. My face was filled out. More water. More fat. Homecoming photos from my still-in-high-school-long-distance-girlfriend proved that, yes, I had gained weight. Most of it probably inevitable. It wasn’t that bad. There were other signs, too. At some point I noticed some shirts I had were a little tighter than they used to be. Actually, all of them were. I wondered if I shrunk them all. At some point I decided to try and start running again.
“Wow, this is harder than I remembered! I should be able to run farther and faster than this! What’s wrong?” I thought to myself. I think that shocked me into inaction. It was easier to keep believing “I can run whenever I want to run as well as I did before!” than it was to keep working through the difficulty. I probably gained 15 pounds that year.
But things didn’t really go bad yet. I still walked to class most of the time. My dorm room was on the fourth floor of a four floor building.
Because getting your heart broke will either kill a man or make him fat, my sophomore year started off worse. I was more depressed, more lonely, and more desperate for control over something. I gained another 10 pounds. It could have been worse. But the real problem was that the patterns I started the year earlier continued. I was out of shape, but not fat. Not yet. I tried running again and guess what? It was still hard. Why run when I can eat and watch TV and study?
For a period of time later on in college I started running again. Consistently. Nothing serious – no marathons, no, just running. Why? I think because I was in love.
But I’d still have that Philly Cheese Steak and watch South Park on Wednesday nights and eat Goldfish crackers like a maniac whenever I was studying. So, I maintained.
When I graduated I lost the magical ability to swipe a card and have a wonderful assortment of fresh and ready to eat food. I had to grocery shop. So I did. Mostly. I was never too intricate with my “cooking”. But I did okay. But gradually things got worse. And worse. Again, when life feels out of control, at least I knew I could have whatever I wanted to eat.
Ten pounds more here. Ten pounds more there. Ten pounds more again, and again. Then twenty more. Size 31-30. Size 34-30. Size 38-30. Medium. Large. X-Large.
“You need to take care of yourself!” my mother would tell me. That just made me want to stuff food in my face even more. Year after year. Visit after visit. It didn’t help. She tried, she cared, but it didn’t help because I gave up. I gave in.
I hated how I looked. Even thirty pounds ago, I hated how I looked. I did everything I could to avoid being in a photograph. I did this for years. I still do, honestly. No pictures, please. Postcards are available in the gift-shop.
But I’m not 17 or 18. And I can’t keep pretending old pictures represent reality, my clothes shrunk, and my body is working just fine.
And I can’t keep avoiding the pain of hard work.
So I’m going to the gym. And I’m going to stay there. I’m sure if I find that sort-of-athlete again I’ll be okay.
The guy that did all the workouts.
The guy who didn’t take shortcuts.
The guy who was all business in the gym.
The guy who was DAMN good looking in a tux.
But mostly I’d like to not be ashamed of my body. I’d like to not be afraid of what my body can and can’t do. I’d like to not feel exposed when lifting a box or two for a friend. I’d like to be able to walk up stairs and not resent myself each step. I’d like to be physically healthy and attractive for a wife, honestly. I’d like to be alive for my nieces for a long time.
So here’s to the sort-of athlete I used to be.
And here’s to the man I need to be.