I never considered myself an athlete. My twin sister grew up with the reputation of being the tomboy of the family, the sporty one who participated in soccer and other organized sports. I was the brain and artsy one who spent more time practicing my scales and arpeggios on our baby grand piano and perfecting pirouettes in the dance studio. I was intimidated by sports. And I found that I had absolutely no coordination once you threw a ball into the competition. So out were softball, volleyball, soccer and pretty much every other sport.
I swam during the summer and for my high school, and I started running in junior high, but just to lose enough weight to stop my period (I was a tad anorexic). I continued jogging and swimming through college into early adulthood. But just to stay in shape. Not to push myself.
And then an odd thing happened.
I was running around the Naval Academy one morning, in my mid-20s, and this 80-year-old passed me. I said something to him like, "Whoa, Dude. Where do you think you're going?" My ego couldn't take it. So he asked me to join him. By the end of the five-mile run, I was gasping for air. He told me it was good to push yourself. (He was a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Marines.) You learn a lot about yourself. And he ordered me to show up again the next day.
So I did. And before I knew it, he had talked me into training for a marathon. Yes, that's 26.2 miles. I got to 18 miles and had to back out due to a knee injury, but I was astounded that I could run that far. I continued to train for other events: the Annapolis 10-miler, a sprint triathlon and others. And I made it past the finish line!
The Marine was absolutely right.
It did nurture self-esteem: the process of pushing yourself to a place you didn't think you could go, and then all of sudden you are there, at the spot where your family and friends greet your sweaty self. And that sensation of triumph, the athletic high after an event, drives you toward others.
Now I'm swimming with a group of athletes who are preparing for the Great Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Yes, a whopping 4.4 miles of kicking and stroking in the water. I didn't sign up in time, so I'm not registered, but by training with these sharks, I am amazed that I can swim over 4,500 yards and still function throughout the day.
In her new book, "Run Like a Girl: How Strong Women Make Happy Lives," Mina Samuel writes:
I discovered serious running at age twenty-seven and now participate in road races, marathons, and triathlons. I also hike, kayak, climb, do yoga, cross-country ski, and snowshoe; and as many other things as I can that get me outside in the fresh air, sun, rain, wind, and snow.
Over the years that followed my "discovery" of running, my self-confidence grew, and feeding off the accomplishments I achieved in sports--setting new personal bests, winning a little local race, surviving the setbacks of injuries and marathons gone wrong--I discovered a capacity within myself that I never knew I had. I wasn't just physically stronger than I expected, I thought of myself as a different person, as someone with more potential, broader horizons, bigger possibilities. I saw that I could push myself and take risks, not just in sports, but elsewhere, too. The competition in sports, as in life, was not with someone else, it was with myself. To "compete" was to discover my own potential to do better, to hold my own self to a higher standard, to expect more of myself--and deliver.
As William James, the nineteenth-century American philosopher, said, "Human beings, by changing the inner beliefs of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives."
That's it, I think. That's why sports can be a powerful tool of transformation: they make you aware that your potential isn't a set point, that you can do practically anything you set your mind to. I mean, hell, I may even be able to catch a ball if I tried. But in the mean time, I'm having too much fun seeing how far I can swim and making sure I outpace the old farts at the Naval Academy.
A version of this post originally appeared on Beyond Blue at Beliefnet.com.