Olympic Inspiration: My Athletic Mirror by Sara Frykenberg
What I realized was that my ability was different from hers and that I really could, as in ‘I had the ability to,’ decrease our time. I carried our arms differently; and it surprised me. I’ve never forgotten this sudden sense of myself and of my own power.
Watching the Olympics this week, I found myself very inspired… and very reflective. You see I was once an athlete. Not an Olympic caliber athlete, but an athlete none-the-less. I swam competitively for eight years. My events were the 100 and 200 freestyle and the 200 and 400 Individual Medley. I started swimming in 8th grade. I worked out 30 hours a week through my last two years of high school; and I was relieved when I started swimming for an NCAA division one team in college because the NCAA limited workout hours to *approximately* 20 per week—so I had more time to study. I was a swimmer and I was completely dedicated to my sport.
But as I got older, my times slowed and I no longer felt successful; so I began to deny myself the title “athlete.” It’s still hard for me to claim this title (even when applying it to the past) because my body has changed so much, as has my competitive drive. I am more comfortable identifying as an academic. Plus, as therapy and my feminist academic studies helped me to realize, I had often used my swimming to physically punish myself, literally. I treated workouts like penance for failure, sinfulness, earthliness and a general lack of deserving. Workouts were a socially acceptable space to push myself harder than I should and wallow in the shame I “deserved” when I performed poorly. I used the competition and hierarchy in sports to see myself as less: to confirm what my abusive context told me was true about myself. Just as I shied from the title “athlete,” I also lost a connection to my genuine love of swimming and sports… which is something it’s taken me a long time to recover.
I love to swim. I started to re-member that I love to swim, to physically work hard and to create mental discipline through physical challenge through my practice of Kundalini yoga and more recent physical training. But watching the Olympics this week, I re-membered something more. Competitive swimming helped me to recognize and tap into a physical power I hadn’t previously known. I forgot this power at the end of my career but I had known it. I had tasted it; and I swam because of this taste, this self-knowledge and this ability to make myself more.
A 15 year-old won gold in the women’s 800 meter freestyle, coming half a second from the world record. England’s men’s gymnastics took bronze causing a tremendous outpouring of joy from British locals. The NBC commentator said, “no one alive,” had seen that happen, as was evident in the crowd’s excitement and pride. Young athletes, teens and children, lit the Olympic torch after embracing their mentors. The Olympics have a complicated history that has played into and worked with classist, racist, capitalist, heterosexist patriarchy. But is also represents one of the few cultural rituals we share with over 200 nations in the world. It also represents real hope for many individuals and something creative in the human spirit.
Watching these games, I remembered that did know what I was capable of creating and being, even in the midst of abuse and struggle. I would like to share some of those memories here, as I work to re-member that ability in my life now.
Swimming in workouts one day, our coach paired us in teams to race while physically holding hands. I can’t remember the explanation my coach gave for this exercise—maybe it was just for fun—but I do remember what it felt like. I, a freestyler, was paired with one of our best breaststrokers, L.M. L.M and I were sprinting a 50-meter free and with about 10-15 meters left, I remember thinking to my partner, “just hold on,” as I took our arm rotation even faster.
I realized at some point during our race that I could do more and could make our team faster and stronger. It wasn’t that I was “better” than L.M, because I wasn’t. We were well matched, though we specialized in different strokes. What I realized was that my ability was different from hers and that I really could, as in ‘I had the ability to,’ decrease our time. I carried our arms differently; and it surprised me. I’ve never forgotten this sudden sense of myself and of my own power. It helped me to know myself in a way I hadn’t before, and it helped my small team.
Swim meets also gave me a sense of myself: sometimes good, sometimes not so good or shameful. I was habitually too hard on myself and too nervous, a product of my not so great self-esteem. I remember ugly competitions—the way people would say to me before racing, “beat your sister” (who also swam), after they had told her the same. These painful comparisons encouraged divisions that my twin sister and I worked hard to resist, so that we could love and support one another. However, I also remember triumphs that weren’t about making others less or worse than myself. I also remember the efforts of teams.
My senior year of high school I swam 3rd in my school’s 4×100 yard freestyle relay and my sister swam second. I was more of a sprinter (my sister swam distance—the 500, 1000 and 1650 free), so my time was faster than hers. Actually my split in the relay was my fastest time ever: 52 __ something. Not at all fast by Olympic standards, but to me, lightning fast. But the fact that everyone’s times mattered was critical to this relay. Everyone had to do her part and everyone did. Our relay broke a 16-year-old record and helped us win our division championships—something our small team wasn’t expected to do.
I felt so powerful during the race and anticipating it on the blocks. I could sense the ability of my body. I could feel my muscles moving, my heart beating and my will fighting against the growing lactic acid as I raced. I rejoiced in our victory, but not because the teams we raced against were “worse” than our team. I didn’t revel in their ‘defeat.’ I was glad for my time, but not because I had a faster split than my sister. My sense of power came from the fulfillment of self-knowledge and potential. My joy was a product of something I achieved with my team: a way of being, a capability and yes, a time.
I think there is a cultural concept of victory as “better-ness” that can makes many feminists uncomfortable with sports competition. Why is faster better? Why do we have to “win” all the time? Why do we have to be on top? And I agree that there are real dangers in trying to “be the best” when it means someone else or their humanity needs to be less than you or yours. There are dangers to wanting to be the most powerful when so much of our world celebrates the power of control.
But sometimes sport is about our potential in humanness. Sometimes it is about recognizing our limits or surpassing them. Sometimes sports inspire us to be more of who we are as a community of interconnected humans who can create, change and grow. I re-member the way I can make myself better; and I am grateful to those whose lively competition pushed me towards this recognition.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.