On becoming an athlete...

I've been spending much of the last week reading a lot of other blogs, especially those of vegetarian athletes, trying to get a sense of how I need to adjust my nutrition to make up for the lack of meat. Since I didn't eat much meat before, I really haven't been doing much differently.

Reading, though, I realized that a lot the bloggers out there didn't start doing anything athletic until well after their college years. I found it fascinating to read about how they just picked up running, wishing that I could pretend to be so self-motivated.

I am a very different story. At the tender age of five, I picked up my first sport--martial arts. I wouldn't consider it a particularly aerobic sport, and I had no idea what it meant to be in shape, but I could certainly do more push-ups than any other elementary school kid you've ever met.

This is me in middle school. Embarrassing.
I continued martial arts through middle school and the beginnings of high school. Looking back now, I wouldn't consider myself at all athletic when I entered high school. I couldn't run more than a half mile without stopping. I was strong, but not fit.

At the time I entered high school, my older sister was starting her third year as a coxswain for our high school's rowing team. To follow in her footsteps, I joined the team as well, but as a rower.

In juniors and collegiate rowing, there are two race distances: 2000 meters and 5000 meters. In the fall, teams race 5000 meter time trials against one another. The races take approximately 20 minutes. In the spring, teams transition to the shorter 2000 meter distance, which takes approximately 7 minutes to complete. These are raced head-to-head oftentimes on buoyed courses.

Freshman year, we trained mostly for the 2000 meter distance, as our fall season was spent learning technique and gaining boat feel. At the time, I thought that 5000 meters was an impossibly long distance. This was also when I first started to really notice my weight, which sat around 150 pounds for most of my freshman year.

Sophomore year, I injured my shoulder and had to take most of the fall season off of rowing. Still looking to stay in touch with the team, I became a coxswain for the men's team. In rowing, the coxswain steers the boat and makes technical and motivation calls to the rowers, as well as executing the race plan both in practice and on race day.
Sophomore year of high school.
Like bicycling, extra weight in a boat will slow the boat down, so coxswains are generally small. In order to fit the bill, I lost a lot of weight that year, dropping to 125 pounds by the spring. By the spring, I was also healed enough to row again, and managed to find myself a seat in the women's lightweight boat. To qualify as a lightweight boat, all rowers must be under 130 pounds; the weight I had lost over the fall allowed me to make this weight.

I returned to rowing junior year of high school.
Junior year, I returned to the women's team as a rower. Exercising significantly more often, and training longer distances, I stopped focusing on maintaining my weight. Although I was fit, I weighed 155 pounds by the end of my junior year. At the time, the longest piece I had ever completed was 6000 meters, and it was pitifully slow. (In rowing, a 'piece' is a continuous hard effort for a given time or distance, either on the water or on the rowing machine.)

I ate a lot of ice cream in high school. (I still do...)
Senior year was similar to junior year, although I probably gained 5-10 pounds over the course of the year. My fitness didn't significantly increase.

Freshman year of college, things really began to change. Where before 5000 meters seemed like an incredibly long piece, it became a standard testing distance. To train for it, we often exceeded the distance, going for as long as an hour straight. We trained 6 days a week, all year, and lifted weights in addition to normal practices. My fitness increased dramatically, and I got significantly faster, especially at the longer distances. I also lost weight, ending the year at 145 pounds.

Running a mile was no longer a problem.

Sophomore year of college, I began to put on weight again. We were lifting weights more frequently, and the training became less about fitness and more about strength and power. By the end of the year, I weighed 165 pounds, and felt completely unfit. I had trouble running significant distances, tired easily, and felt sluggish all the time. Worn out, I decided to quit rowing--despite the many hours of training I put it on a weekly basis, my body didn't feel strong or fit.

Rowing at the NCAA Championship Regatta
Junior year, I had a lot of fun and discovered a lot about myself. Most importantly I discovered (with reckless abandon) how much I love food. I would spend whole afternoons bicyling to and wandering about the grocery store, pondering what I could make with my seemingly infinite free time. I learned to make pie and bread; I found my own favorite pasta sauce; and I gained a lot of weight.

Chocolate and butter: two major contributing factors to weight gain

I knew it was bad when these pants got too tight.
During the six years that I rowed, I had always told myself that it was ok to have a relatively high BMI, since all of my muscle weight skewed the results. Well, I could no longer lie to myself. At only 5'7", I was clearly overweight, and around December of that year, I decided it was time to do something about it.

Somewhere, I read that it was best to set big goals for yourself--something you'd never thought achievable--so that you actually had to make a change to start achieving them. So I set my sights on making it down to 130 pounds, the lightest I had ever sustained for more than a few weeks.

Progress was slow, steady and incredibly rewarding. I did almost all of my weight loss through decreased food consumption; exercise played a minor role. Funnily enough, at the end of a year with no training, I didn't feel any less fit than when I was training for 15 hours a week. In fact, I had more energy despite not training really at all.

By the beginning of last summer, I was down to 150 pounds. I had always imagined my weight staying fairly steady at a muscular 155 pounds for the rest of my life, so it was a lot of fun to be below that weight. I was also beginning to see changes in my body.

Tossing pizza dough over the summer. My arms and face had gotten skinnier.
Over the summer, I was starting to seriously consider going back to rowing, as I desperately missed the competition and the training. I knew I didn't want to go back to the open weight team, but with the weight I had lost, I wondered if it was possible to row lightweight. I began cycling to work, and riding along the water during my lunch breaks. I also joined the gym in my building and went to classes during and after work. (Spinning is really hard!!!) I was pitifully slow when I started up again, but I improved as the summer went on and continued to lose weight.
By the end of the summer, you could see a real difference in my body.
Now, in my senior year of college, I really consider myself an athlete. I went back to rowing with the lightweight women, and am currently in the best shape of my life. Over the winter, we trained even longer distances, frequently going for well over an hour during a single practice. Our testing distance became an hour, instead of 5000 meters. Because we're all relatively small, training became about increasing fitness, not strength.

We do also strength train! You can see it in my arms.
I also support that fitness with much better nutrition and a healthier body. Now, I can run up stairs without losing my breath. I can speed to class on my bike without arriving sweaty and exhausted. Most importantly, though, I love the training. I do all of the extra workouts and oftentimes feel like going for a run even on our days off.

I still eat a lot of chocolate and butter...
(I'm holding a pan of brownies that rapidly disappeared.)
Do you consider yourself an athlete? What's your story?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your story. The rowing coach tried to recruit me once because of my physique
    I've always been very active. I have done many sports but I figure skate the most


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