In high school PE was my least favourite class. It isn’t something uncommon for a teenage girl I guess. If you had told me I would go on to be an active-wear addicted, fitness loving twenty something I would have met you with extreme, A-level sarcasm. I was the queen of excuses and had a brilliant story for nearly every lesson. Often they were more than plausible given my medical condition. However, the real reason I had excuses wasn’t because I couldn’t or shouldn’t but because of my understanding of what it meant to loose.
Although I certainly was never sports star material, in primary school I was willing to give anything a go. I enjoyed physical activity and went to a school where sporting participation at all levels was encouraged. I played netball, tennis, did ok at swimming and while running was never my thing I gave it a go, because nobody gave me a a reason why I shouldn’t.
In high school though, things changed. I went to a new school where there many more students and sport was religion. Week in week out assembly was focused on the recognition of sporting achievements. Wins were celebrated, winners were immortalised. Loses were laughed at.
In PE class this translated to the narrative “If you don’t win, you fail”. Those who didn’t come first just weren’t trying hard enough. In my head, that turned into “If I can’t win, why try?”. I became the girl that didn’t feel worthy of participating and in turn what others saw was the girl who wasn’t interested. Even though at times it was the furthest thing from the truth.
Cystic Fibrosis is a condition that demands an exercise regime. It is the best type of therapy we can do, as it clears the secretions in our lungs that cause infection and helps to keep the lungs and body strong. I always knew this but when I set my ability as my measure of success – something that is very hard when your lung capacity is severely compromised, I gave up.
So what changed? It is simple (but oh so hard to put into practice); I became ok with not being the best and found people that believed in what I could do and the success that could make in the only area that mattered – my life.
When I started dating Cameron – one of those guys who was always the one standing at the front of the school assembly, he quickly realised how important exercise was for my health and our future. One day when I was in grade 12 he drew a training graph in my diary with the words ‘stronger, better, healthier’ there were little peaks in the graph but instead of a number at the top of each of them he drew a stick figure couple – us, and a heart at the end. It spoke to me in a language I understood. My ah-huh moment.
Cameron started encouraging me without expectation or comparison. He met me where I was at. Little by little I gained more confidence and better understood what exercise could do for me. In moving my body, I realised the power I had over my life and my health. Together we redefined winning.
Exercise became a big part of my life and health regime. When Cameron and I moved to Queensland to prolong the need for transplant a warm climate for exercise was one of the biggest considerations. It still wasn’t something that came naturally for me but I knew it was something that was necessary for me.
Now, as much as I love and appreciate my husband there is only so far him telling me what to do will get us both. He got me into the gym but he couldn’t always make me work out; he helped ignite the spark but couldn’t keep the fire going on his own.
Over the years one of the greatest things that has kept me going is Cameron’s encouragement to find people to support me – little building blocks that have joined together with all the other things I do to keep paving a path forward, or at least one that is there for me to try again tomorrow. The personal trainers who have welcomed me into their studios and treated me like any other member of their sessions; the group fitness instructors who have made a safe place for ‘the coughing girl’ to come back to class week after week (and not freaked out or made a big deal out of it); the yoga teachers that have adapted poses and made participation possible; the gym staff that have checked me in each time with words of motivation; Cameron’s tri training mates who have included me in their activities even though they realise I will probably never participate in their sport.
The ones, who like Cameron, believe in me in a way that wasn’t graded on my ability. They have had a bigger impact on me than they will probably ever know.
So if I could tell that teenage who gave up on PE class because she thought she would never win ‘the’ race one thing, it would be this: exercise and fitness are your own journey. It has nothing to do with what others expect. It is about reaching your own goals and loving yourself and your body deeply enough to get there. Winning has nothing to do with being first across the finish line. Step up for yourself, even when others don’t understand why you’re doing so.
And to any PE teacher, or in fact to anyone working within the fitness industry: the lives you change will be the ones you least expect. See your students for their race within, because that is without a doubt where the most important training will always be done. Remind them of their ‘why’ outside the PE class doors.