I faintly remember my gym class in the country that I was born in, Lebanon, where excruciating heat was coupled with wool gym track suits that we called uniform. My gym teacher was about 60 pounds overweight, tall with short dark hair, and a remarkable permanent grim. Drinking water was forbidden for that brutal hour we exercised outside; I still remember her shouting: “No water breaks!”, even with our dry-sobs and fatigue. But above all, she was consistent with her push: a woman who was indefinitely lazy.
Two years and a traveled distance of 5, 849 miles later, I was nine years old, and had just landed in Canada. The gym teacher in middle school was medium-built, about 5’6 in height, blonde with a “pixie” haircut, and a great sense of humour. I still remember her laugh, and her critical judgements against my ‘medium-lengthed’ heels. She would pass me in the hall and say, “You know, one day those heels are going to ruin your feet, and then you won’t be able to use them for anything”. In those critical words I found warmth, and a nod and a giggle from my side often did the trick. When I was 13 years old, we had to run track and field, and try outs put me in a state of grief a week prior. I was fragile, linguistically and socially insecure, and abnormally powerless. I never made the cut. And I never wanted to, anyway. Instead, they placed me in a team of athletes, hoping I would gain my confidence from the far and back position I found comfort in. And to question whether I excelled is to acknowledge that if I did, it was only done so by successfully achieving shelter from their shadow boxes.
Any physical activity up until this point was like fighting a losing battle with dust and dirt. Until one day my father came home with an extremely large box. Late in the evening I would hear the endless roar of his feet. He would run for miles, up until his t-shirt forfeited its right to lean against a couch or chair. But it wasn’t until that moment where I realized that no gaze, or lack of speed, or shortage of time, or language competency was going to be a freezing factor to my feet moving. My eyes could see nothing but a lone treadmill placed in a dim-lit basement and a window that overlooked a closed-off view with a small T.V in the room hooked up to a satellite that continuously played Arabic movies. Here I was 14 years old. At this age, I began to run.
Everyday around 4:30 pm I would come home from school and run. The more I grew fond of it, the more I pushed my limits, until the fear of exercise, and particularly running, was drained right out of me. At the age of 16 I signed up for my first gym membership, and even though I could run a 10k at home, I was still afraid to run in front of strange, lingering eyes. I occupied every other equipment at the gym, except the treadmill. In the classes offered at the gym, I opted for the ‘run-on-the-spot’ option about 100 percent of the time. The fear of running was not entirely gone. And to make matters worse, I experienced recurring nightmares of me trying to escape evil but couldn’t get my feet to run. These dreams were endless. Crippled by my fear, I’d wake up, strap those laces a little tighter, and head outside. But, like a dog afraid of his harness, my feet were afraid of the ground.
So, I took a piece of paper and wrote: “Bucket List: Run outside one day”.
Then one day, I was on an elliptical machine in a women’s-only gym. I wanted to change the channel but was struggling; it seemed as though the TV was not responding. I resulted to flipping the pages of a gossip magazine instead. This was a popular sport back then- not so much now. About 10 minutes into my fight of keeping my legs going opposite direction, I glanced up as I heard the words, “Known for her inconsistency; she blames it on constant thriving for perfection burdened by expectations…no longer fears not being perfect, no longer afraid of making mistakes”. Sasha Cohen entered the ice rink at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino and everything changed. The echoing effect of those words congregated in formation: fear does not discriminate. I watched her take her position on ice, breathing in determination, breathing out complication, as she was about to begin her (what I know now) short program.
For inspiration, Sasha was there. I was 18 years old, and as I grew leaner and longer, my endurance grew stronger. I watched as Sasha struggled with her triple salchow, and falling a few times, too. Then she’d pick herself off the ice, and try it one more time. Whatever she did on the rink, I imitated in the ring, as horseback riding became a sport I grew fond of. I followed Sasha until her last competition in 2010.
I will desperately resist making dramatic claims as I reflect back on the first Olympic game I watched. However, truth is, Sasha and the Olympic Games provided me the inspiration I needed to overcome my fear of physical activity- which translated later into my fear of lack of endurance. We all need examples of great inspiration. Somehow, it is as though talented people owe the world this right. The right to witness their greatness. Because it seems as though all this greatness could be incredibly contagious, and quite frankly, we desperately need to be reminded of what perseverance and hark work look like in an age that applauds quick and easy. I believe that raw and genuine talent moves a chord inside of us all, plays on both of our strings of fear and determination, as we witness the long haul of these uphill battles. It inspires, motivates, and moves.
I am now 27 years old, sitting and writing this blog post as the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio play in the background. My ears can hear one of the commentator say “Penny Oleksiak, a 16 year old from Canada wins gold in the women’s 100-meter freestyle”. Penny is someone’s Sasha, I am sure. This is a new generation inspiring the next.
Four days ago, in a hotel gym at Niagara Falls, I ran an 8k with two onlooking strangers. The exhilarating shock of overcoming my fear was a feeling as close, I bet, to those who received news regarding their entrance into the Olympics. Yesterday, I ran 60-minutes in a jam-packed gym. Though I may never be an accomplished athlete, nor posses the tenacity of a competitor of any sort, it still took me years to get here…and if you think about it, it is in every way quite like an Olympian.