The first time I touched a barbell, I was 48 years old. I’m now 54.
Some people say my age is an irrelevant point about me as an athlete, but they are wrong. It’s extremely relevant. I was a fully formed adult with scars and strengths from living life before I decided to live a completely different way. And my decision impacted a lot of people who thought they knew who I was before I decided to be someone else. I’m still working on making sense of all this. Something yanked my chain this last week and I need to write to figure out what I think about things. Sorry – I need to be a bit cryptic about it because it’s private. But I believe humans have similar responses to things, even if details are different.
Please forgive me for veering into the past for a moment. If what I’m going to say later is going to make any sense, I need share parts of my personal history. I don’t feel comfortable doing that, because I don’t want to give the impression that I think my life has been difficult. It’s just been a “life”. But these things are a bit relevant to why I think what I think as I keep transforming into an athlete in the second half of my life…
- My scoliosis was diagnosed early in high school and I was pulled from all sports. I was told to be “careful” for the rest of my life. Between the ages of 17 and 24, I had at least two episodes when my back would freeze up and I could not move for about a week. I remember my mother pushing me around in a wheel-chair at the hospital to get x-rays. I believed all the adults who told me I was fragile.
- In my 20’s, I got a job at a gym as a receptionist. That’s when I first saw female bodybuilders in magazines. They were about my age, but they looked so strong – not fragile. I wanted that, but I was intimidated by it for a couple of really good reasons. 1) I have scoliosis and shouldn’t lift, and 2) women aren’t supposed to look like that – guys didn’t like it. I didn’t question those beliefs at the time. I accepted them and set other goals for my life.
- My mother died from a brain aneurysm when she was 56 and I was 28. I was the family member who was tasked with the decision to remove her from life support. I watched her die. I know some of you have had to do that, too. It’s not exactly like how they show it in movies or on Grey’s Anatomy.
- I decided to get a degree in mathematics and teach math because I was intimidated by it. That was when I began to do battle with my fears. The time span from my first day of college to my graduation with a degree in mathematics was 16 years. Mom died during this time and I lost my job because I needed to take a leave of absence to handle my mother’s affairs out of town. Once I could get back to work, I had as many as three part-time jobs to support myself and still have a schedule flexible enough to attend school during the day when the classes I needed were offered. This was the first time I set a scary goal and achieved it.
- For the last 20 years, I’ve taught math to teenagers, ages 15-18. Takes a little courage to show up and do that every day. Not many adults would want to attempt to manage a room of 30+ teenagers. Fewer can handle it when a whole bunch of them are anxious about what you are asking them to do. Math teachers are in short-supply these days. Burn out is high. Many students believe they will fail before they try, so they won’t try. They will do a lot of other things to avoid trying. While teaching geometry, I teach a lot of other things, too.
And that brings me back to my first point – the first time I touched a barbell, I was 48 years old. All of these other things happened years prior to that.
To decide to become a female bodybuilder at that point in my life, I had to challenge and beat down a lot of my own thoughts about what women can do, what a person with scoliosis can do, what a busy teacher can find time to do, and what a post-menopausal woman can accomplish in bodybuilding. I’m not saying my journey has been harder than someone else’s, because I know it hasn’t been. There is no comparison to what others have had to deal with to just get through another day. I have not had to survive trauma.
That said, I’ve still accomplished enough hard stuff to feel like I can do more. It’s my journey. I’ve already lived a life and I’m still in the mix. My ego tells me that I should be respected for that, but I can’t control what others say or think. (Yeah, something happened a couple days ago. I was hurt by it, but I learned something useful.) I remind myself what I’ve done to get here. My ego wants to puff up – that’s what others do, right? But that’s not going to help me do anything except become an asshole. I don’t need to defend my thoughts.
I am sensitive. I am scared. I am brave. I reflect. I learn. I overthink. I lose my focus sometimes, but I get it back. I tell my ego to shut the hell up. She just wants to generate negative thoughts that feed uncertainty about whether I will ever have tangible success as an athlete. I may always be a novelty act in public, she tells me. Ageism is alive and well, we all know that. Is that my only obstacle? Of course not. But it’s there. I can’t get younger, but I can improve. I may always be switched to the outside of the youngest, most novice bodybuilder in the line. If I’m a better bodybuilder than I was the last time I showed up, I guess that’s going to be enough. My voice may shake when I say “my journey on my terms“, but I’m still saying it. I’m still insisting on it.
“Why bother?” I ask myself almost every day. Almost every day, I quit. And then I recommit to what I’m doing as an athlete. The last year has been difficult. I may not be able to break this cycle until after I compete again. That last competition experience needs to be replaced by a new one before I’m going to get closure on what happened that day. Simply getting on stage again will be a win because I will be able to put away two years of trying to make sense of what will now be called the “2015 WTF Happened? Blesson”.
And then I touch a barbell and I happily battle gravity. I get a little bit of clarity when I’m at the gym. Lifting still fixes me. I love to train. That’s why I bother. Everything else is just distracting noise, whether it’s external or internal.