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What Does it Mean to be an Athlete? One Athlete’s Journey

When I was 6 I knew that I was an athlete. I knew it in every fiber of my being because I played outside. To me, playing and moving around let me claim the title of “athlete”. Would you be willing to play with me? If yes, then you, too, were instantly an athlete.

At 8 years old I began playing in recreational YMCA basketball teams, and my definition of “athlete” shifted for the first time. It was clear to my coaches and the other adults around me that to be an athlete meant you had to be good. No, not just good, you had to be the best. I found myself practicing for hours because darn it, I wanted to be an athlete like Lisa Leslie.

Image result for lisa leslie

14 year old me began looking in the mirror and pin-pointing spots that just weren’t “athlete” enough. I knew by now that the real reason why my peers, especially my female friends, were athletes because they wanted to “look” like an athlete. Naturally that meant we began teaching each other how to eat as little as possible because that’s what amazing athletes apparently did to look the part. To be an athlete meant you had to be good at what you did on a diminishing amount of food. You had to be good and thin.

Related: Thank You Note to My Body

At 16 I realized that staying under 1200 calories a day or being a generally “good” player wasn’t enough; I needed to exercise as much as possible—regardless of if that exercise actually made me better at what I wanted to be able to do. I averaged 4 hours a day of exercise with nothing but a “low fat-cheese” quesadilla as my pre and post workout snack. Never mind that I had to pull myself out of games for fear of passing out. It was the quantity that mattered! The aches in my bones and joints were completely normal and a result of training, and no one really wanted her menstrual cycle anyway, right? Injuries were to be expected of a true athlete.

Related:3 Key Elements of a Successful Nutrition Plan

I met coach Chad at 17 (pictured below doing a handstand on dumbbells). She swooped in on her long board, a drumstick in one hand and CrossFit programming in the other. She got right up to the pull-up bar, did a muscle up, looked us in the eyes and said, “Alright girls, your turn.” She stopped male athletes in their tracks as they attempted to deadlift 200 pounds with rounded backs and instead showed them how to do it properly with that same 200-pound weight. She climbed fences because she felt like it and taught us how to do the same. She challenged us to move our bodies in new strange and challenging ways. Chad, in my 17-year old mind, could do it all and she did so while munching on some sort of snack or shake. When I thought of an athlete, I began seeing Chad.

“I was an athlete to Chad because I kept training and striving to better myself.”

When I was 18 I could still do very little of what Chad could, and yet she relentlessly referred to me as HER athlete. Even though I had no playing time as a player, and I couldn’t lift the heaviest or run the fastest, Chad always checked my progress. Had I improved my pull-ups? Did my back squat go up from 50lbs to 60lbs? Was I eating? If I wanted that PR, I needed days off to see my gains. Each improvement won her praise. It didn’t matter that I could only deadlift 90lbs and Monica 200lbs— I was an athlete to Chad because I kept training and striving to better myself. (Chad and me pictured below)

By the time I turned 22 I had finally forgotten how many calories were in a bag of chips. I was 30lbs heavier and while it caused me distress for the first few years of college, I attempted to focus on what my body could do. Did I just hit a 200lb deadlift? 18-year old Jasmine could never have dreamed of it! Each week I challenged myself to practice a new skill and slowly my body began changing of its own accord. I wanted to become a better, stronger, healthier feeling self. I began to become pretty sure that I could do all these things and still call myself an athlete.

At 23 I stared at CrossFit Slipstream’s advertisement for coaches. I felt that old panic arise. Surely I wasn’t athlete enough to be a CrossFit coach! I couldn’t do a muscle up, or a handstand, or a proper snatch. I was nowhere near as strong or muscular as all the CrossFit athletes or coaches I had seen. There were many hours others were training and I was not. Maybe I wasn’t an athlete after all? In the midst of my panic I realized that I needed someone outside of myself to tell me if I could really do this. I needed a coach. So naturally, I reached out to Chad.

To me, an athlete is someone who continually strives for progress—regardless of where they are starting out.”

I am now 24, and I have coached close to 300 hours. I still can’t do a muscle up, or a handstand, or a full snatch—but then again neither can many of my athletes. There are days when I run around screaming with my shirt off, celebrating my 100lb strict press PR while one of my athletes easily completes reps of 200lbs. There are days when I smack the ground in excitement as I see one of my athletes complete their first ever box jump after months or even years of step-ups. I’ve come to understand that there is no standard as to what it means to be or look like an athlete. To me, an athlete is someone who continually strives for progress—regardless of where they are starting out. An athlete treats their body with love and respect, which can even mean sometimes electing to take a day off. An athlete constantly checks to make sure they are working hard and consistently, but also making sure that they are not hurting themselves in the process.

While my journey as an athlete (and now as a coach) will continually change and grow, I can’t help but think that maybe 6-year old Jasmine possessed more wisdom then I could ever hope to achieve. Maybe that’s where coaches like Chad come in, to remind us that what it takes to call yourself an athlete is the willingness to simply go out and play. If you need help remembering to go out and play, feel free to reach out to me at jasmine@crossfitslipstream.com


-Jasmine Gerritsen