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The clerk assisting me in the shoe department needed to page for assistance. Talking into the tiny mic hanging from the cord around her neck she said, “I’m helping an athlete.” 

I smile to myself at yet another clever corporate marketer making us feel special by being more than a “customer”.  We are now visitors and guests and apparently also athletes. I casually turn my body sideways, pretending I’m not listening so as to avoid our mutual embarrassment. We both know I’m not an athlete. 

Sports were not a part of my childhood. I never saw either of my parents swim or pick up a ball of any kind. Despite having five brothers among my seven siblings, all I recall is one who wrestled for a short while. In springtime when the nuns brought the baseball gear out to the paved lot that was our field, I escaped going to bat by repeating “You go ahead,” to my classmates as I prayed for the bell to ring and class time to resume. 

I was on my way to high school graduation before Congress passed Title IX, the law requiring gender equity in sports.  In college I managed to eke out a single credit for an ungraded yoga class. Physical education (along with art) always lowered my grade point average. 

I’ve long held a belief about what it means to be an athlete. You are either be chosen to be on a team (I never made it past the South High pep squad.) or be talented. I was neither and knew it. 

As I walked out of the store with my box of new Nike Trail shoes under my arm, the clerk’s word insisted on staying with me. What is an athlete—really—I wondered. 

        Athlete: a person who is trained or skilled in sports or games requiring strength, agility, or stamina. 

Hmmm….Two days before my purchase I’d hiked eight miles with a 20-pound pack to prepare for an upcoming backpacking weekend with my son. Twenty years ago I cycled across the entire state of Iowa in a heat wave in a single week. More than once I’ve climbed 40 flights of stairs while barely stopping. Once I even completed a 10k (barely). 

It was merely the blessing of having two legs and the grit to keep putting one foot in front of the other that ever got me to reach any goal related to my body’s performance. I may lack anything innate or any measure of grace, but some dogged determination and a single word spoken by a salesperson seems to have won me this title. 

Coach Koenig 

Has anyone ever helped you to see who you really are? 

Have you limited your life because of a label? 

Who would you like to become that you don’t yet believe you are?