As a kid, sports was never a part of my life. We were not a big sports household aside from the occasional Mets or Jets game at Shea Stadium near where my father worked. No one in my family played sports which was not terribly surprising considering we lived in the concrete jungle of Queens. Sure, we had some parks and baseball fields and Little League was pretty popular but that was mostly for boys. There were not a lot of sports options for girls in my neighborhood and my family had too many other things going on to worry about trying to push me to be more athletic. It wasn’t until I met my husband in my 20’s that I started to even think about sports in any meaningful way. He played football and lacrosse as a kid and invited me into his world of passion for sports. On our first wedding anniversary, he bought me a new set of golf clubs to engage me in an activity that he loved in hopes that I would too. I took lessons and partook in weekend golf outings with him and other friends. I really connected to the sport and played for years, never becoming an amazing golfer but achieving a level of competency that ensured that I would not embarrass myself too badly at the tee box or when putting on the green. We took destination vacations that were centered around golfing and I dreamt how, once we had kids, we would be one of those golfing families. Then, on Memorial Day in 2000, I played a round for the last time. I was 4 months pregnant with our first son and already feeling a little out of balance with my growing belly. Despite reading articles about how to navigate a new center of gravity while pregnant I decided that I simply was not a good enough golfer to figure out how to retool what was only a mediocre swing. That was 13 years ago and I have probably picked up a golf club only once or twice since then when we went for the occasional trip to the driving range with our kids. Our family golf outings were replaced with basketball and lacrosse games for the boys and endless chores that needed to be taken care of on the weekends since our lives were so packed with other activities centered around work, kids and finding time to sleep.
It wasn’t until the Spring of 2011 that I found another sport to capture my attention. It was kickboxing that won me over. Kickboxing lead to karate and, over time, the girl who never played a sport and was always picked last in gym class, was suddenly finding confidence in areas that I never dreamed possible. Yet, despite my love of kickboxing and my increased level of competence, I find myself panicking on Friday mornings – one of my 3 weekly commitments to the workout. Friday mornings make me nervous because I fear that I am not in shape enough or strong enough to endure the toughness of that particular class, taught by an incredibly in-shape, beautiful instructor named Lisa. She brings a different level of intensity to the workout and worry that I am simply not up to the task. And, while Mondays and Wednesdays offer their own share of toughness, Fridays leave me a panic – every single week. In my mind, I wander back to 4th grade gym class, tortured by my inability to turn a cart-wheel, knowing full well that the other kids are acutely aware of my lack of coordination and are always thinking about what a superb dodgeball target I consistently serve to be.
Regardless of my continued anxiety, I show up every week and find myself even more motivated as I manage to find my way in her class and, sometimes even, excel. I have a true love/hate relationship with the class most likely because Lisa intimidates me a little. The worst part is that I really like her. She is such a wonderful and supportive person…but she scares me just a little bit.
Last Friday, in what would typically be categorized under my worst nightmare, I was paired up with Lisa during our kicking and punching drills meaning that I was partnering with the best in the class while feeling like I was the worst. Never to be outdone, I managed to keep up and actually had a great workout. As we were finishing up our last drill, Lisa, in her most awesome way, was cheering me on and coaching me to finish the routine without giving in to the pain and exhaustion that was overtaking me. When we were done, she had a big grin on her face and said, “Wow! You are so strong!”
Sure, it felt good hearing that. I know I am physically strong. Even though I have fears about being able to maintain my endurance during a cardio routine, after 2 years of kickboxing I know how to leverage my body to harness my size to inflict powerful kicks and punches. Yet, when she called me strong, I thought about it more along the lines of having internal strength. I aligned it more with strength of mind over matter. I equated it to my ability to succeed when I put my mind to something. I refuse to give up and fail. I hate to make mistakes because I always strive for perfection. Even though I know how unlikely or impossible it is, I always strive to be the best. I am always drawn to the most powerful, most accomplished, most proficient and compare myself to them. I set the bar very high for myself. Typically these are unachievable goals but it keeps me motivated to continue to do better – even if I will never reach the top of Mt. Everest.
After I left the class, I was smiling on the inside, feeling really good about myself and, once again, relieved that I did not let the anxiety get the best of me and skip the class. My head was clear and quiet after all my energy and focus was concentrated on getting through the class. On my drive home from my workout, Lisa’s words echoed in my head – “You are so strong!”
I battle with maintaining my inner strength because everything in my life leading up to today has forced me to harness all the energy and strength that I have in order to survive from day-to-day. From the outside, it appears that I have an internal fortitude that has allowed me to endure what others might consider to be intolerable. I am a survivor. I have championed through adversity. Yet, there is a big part of me that feels weakness. I feel small and powerless, especially in the face of some of the most challenging personal and emotional duress. My emotional muscle often seems far less developed and defined that my biceps and triceps. It feels like I can crumble so easily when poked or prodded too hard or in just the wrong place. My weaknesses – my vulnerable spots – when attacked prove to be no match against the opponent and I am destroyed.
Those who know me best know that I have a rock-hard protective shell that covers my soft mushy interior. Truth be told, the shell is very thin and you do not have to press too hard in order to penetrate the gooey center. However, the strength that I portray to the world suggests that you can hit me very hard and continue beating on me before I will begin to bruise or bleed. Instead, I will quickly fall to my knees, cover myself and cry “Uncle” in order to preserve my well-being but most will never see that happen. I will put on a strong front and collapse silently on the inside. I will not cry, I will not beg. I will endure and create a way to escape the pain. You will never see me fall but you may find me curled up in the corner broken and defeated – if I let you.
I thought long and hard about Lisa’s words on Friday and took them to heart. I am strong. I can endure a workout, a beating, an emotional battle. I am standing more upright today than I have in years. I walk with a sense of pride and a clarity of who I am – most of the time. Yet, there are those people, those actions, those words, those assaults, those betrayals, those emotional crimes that offer a TKO without me even having a chance to put my guard up and defend myself. It is no surprise that kickboxing and I made such a good pair. I have been fighting my whole life. I grew up in an emotional boxing ring, dodging and weaving, ducking and covering. I rarely fought back. Every now and again I would take a shot and sometimes I could deliver a pretty strong punch but I never had the confidence to believe that I was strong enough to win the fight.
Motivated by Lisa and some of my other amazing supporters, I signed up today for a 5K mud run. I have never run more than a mile in one shot and even that was when I was much younger and in seemingly better shape. I felt exhilarated when I submitted my registration and paid my entrance fee because I knew that I am pushing my limits and testing both my physical and my mental strength. The voice inside me that has said “I can’t” is being quieted because I will. The voice inside me that has said “I’m afraid” is quieted because I am being brave. The voice inside me that has said “I’m weak” is being quieted because I am strong.