The year was 1984. I was in our basement in Eugene, Oregon balancing on one leg, transfixed at our wooden television as Mary Lou Retton vaulted her way into Olympic history books. That year she won the all around competition, something no one outside of the Eastern Europe had accomplished. I'll never forget her steady concentration and focus as she ran down the runway toward the vault, catapulting off the hurdle, flipping around in the air and landing, scoring a perfect 10. Even at six years old, I understood the enormity of what Mary Lou had just accomplished.
I did a couple of round ups on a metal bar placed in the door jam between the family and laundry room. I knew right then and there I would never be a gymnast. No, no. I would out grow most girls by the end of that year and I was practically the same size of Mary Lou at age six! My talent would lie in my legs, undiscovered for several years. But the fire ignited.
It's important to have strong female athlete role models growing up. I wonder if things had been different if we were tuned into "The Price is Right" show instead of the '84 Olympics. Maybe I could have been a world class shopper. Nah, I don't think so.
Seeing Mary Lou do her thing on National television showed me that expressing yourself by moving your body is a good thing. That hard work, determination and sweat should be celebrated and not down played. I didn't think it strange when I was one of a couple of girls playing with the boys during recess and schooling them during kick ball and being the last person standing during dodge ball. Instead, I thought it was strange that other girls weren't playing with us. What could be more important than booting the ball over the fence or hitting all net during a pick up game of basketball?
Don't get me wrong, I had a Barbie growing up. What little girl named Jennifer born in the late 70's didn't? But she didn't hold my attention: not only were her boobs enormous, getting in the way of any kind of sport, her feet were curved for heels. Heels? Those are for the Vanna White types. And they prevent you from running forward as fast as possible.
Thankfully Title IX passed in 1972, meaning more opportunity for girls to play in organized sports. Having an older brother also helped: I wanted to do everything he did. Basketball, volleyball, track and field, soccer - we played them all. And my mom dutifully drove us to practices and games, with my little sister a babe in arms: watching, observing. I enjoyed playing with other girls on teams, but for some reason they didn't take things as seriously as I did. And since I liked sports, I excelled in them. Yet being a sensitive and intuitive child, I struggled with out performing my female peers and hurting their feelings. When I played with the boys it didn't matter. It was athlete against athlete. But with the girls, I didn't want to step on any ones' toes, let alone pull their hair so I pulled myself back.
Flash forward 12 years. I found a new sport. It empowered me beyond belief. I had a strong female mentor and role model and she introduced me to boxing. I was training with the boys simply because very few girls were into the sport. Fine by me. You want to hold back your jabs because I'm a girl? Forget it. I'm going to clock you. I came home with black eyes and a bruised nose but my heart was soaring. I found a sport that spoke to me: agility, speed, aerobic capacity, and a unique skill set. I fell head over heels in love with pugilism. It showed. I quickly excelled at the sport and was named as an alternate on the first women's world USA boxing team. I was surrounded by tough girls and I absolutely loved it.
But getting beat in the head took its toll. I suppose part of it had to do with the fact women boxing had a long way to go. In 2001, the chance of women boxing becoming an Olympic sport seemed impossible. I wanted to do what Mary Lou did - I wanted to play my part in the history books. I needed to find a new sport.
Thankfully my sport found me.
I suppose cycling was in my genes all along. My grandfather would go for 50 mile rides on a semi-weekly basis. He would return home, glistening with sweat and peel down to his undershirt, fatigued and barely able to lift his head to shovel in some food. So when a friend suggested I start commuting to work by bike, I promptly bought a bike and thought nothing of it. If Bope could do it, so could I. All I needed was a little encouragement.
(Notice a recurring theme here? Strong role models....)
Encouragement started to come in the form of out riding most men. It also helped that I had a pink bike and would secretly rub it in while cruising by them. "You just got passed by a GIRL on a PINK bike!" I would scream, in my head. That's it - enough shit talking. It's time to test your ability and start racing. I transferred my competitive urge, my fierce determination and soul into cycling. And the sport humbled me, immediately. Or should I say anytime I would point my bike uphill. I loved sprinting and going to head with the best of them, but anytime we would have a gain in elevation, I was out the back quicker then getting a flat. Sure I could win all sorts of flat road races, crits, track races - you name it. But throw in a significant hill and my weakness would come to the forefront.
Hills challenge me more than any other terrain. At first, I would mentally quit before even going up them. Then I started practicing them. And I got better. Then I pulled my hamstring and my confidence went out the door. Every year I would do the same hilly stage races, thinking something magical may have happened over the winter and every year I would curse myself for not losing those extra kilos. Eventually I gave in and focused entirely on flat and fat, I mean fast. Sure it made me feel better, but I still wanted to climb. Or at least be a contender. I wanted that overall title.
Eight years later: thousands of miles ridden, hundreds of races, wet, cold training rides, pasta feeds, and humble pies. I'm diligently working on climbing. I set new realistic expectations and moved to the mountains. And it seems to be working. I may not fly up the hill like Jimmy Cricket, but I get up them. I also ride with the guys, a lot. They push you. And I ride outside of my box. I cross my eyes that much longer, ignore the seething pain in my legs a little longer and I'm starting to get to summits that much quicker. Hard work. Determination. Strong role models. Strong training partners. And listening to goats while you climbed never hurts.
I am so thankful for the strong role models throughout my life and their unsolicited words of encouragement. They make up an important part of the female athlete I am today. Thank you to the Mary Lou's, Bope, Mom, boxing clan and cycling peers. And the countless other people who have contributed big and small in my pursuit of sweaty-ness. Don't worry, I will pass it on.