By Mara Abbott
2016 Olympian, CTS Athlete, and CTS Contributing Editor
Last week, I told my mom she was my athletic role model. If I had gotten a bigger eye roll in reply, she probably would have reversed her LASIK. The way she tells it, she was a complete klutz growing up, didn’t have the strength of other kids, and was always afraid to try new things. I must point out that she couldn’t be that bad – it takes a special physical talent to survive more than forty years of following my dad on his harebrained adventures. Nonetheless, she demurs – a very modest woman, my mama.
Perhaps being an “athlete” is not simply a static identity measured in specific accomplishments. Rather, it is a process, a lifetime of honing behaviors and attitudes. I have been involved with competitive sports since I can remember and my greatest passion in life is pursuing the edges of my limits. This turns out to be a fraught pursuit, for my greatest fear is to actually confront them. Thus, it would be to my great credit – to all of ours, really – to work to emulate the adaptable, intelligent, resilient relationship to fitness and movement that I see in my mother.
Become a student of your unique body
My mom has now struggled with back pain for over a decade, after early arthritis caused her vertebrae to shift, which compressed nerves. In search of solutions, she has made all-in, long-term commitments to at least four different treatment programs over the last decade, and had to pick herself up and continue moving forward when they didn’t work out. Back pain, it turns out, is notoriously difficult to diagnose and even harder to treat definitively, yet my mom approaches the challenge with steadfast determination rather than reactive helplessness.
She has discovered through careful practice which movements feel good and which to avoid, teaching herself anatomy so she understand the logic behind her observations and can prevent future unnecessary pain. She has become her own advocate in pursuing treatment options, doing research and arriving for appointments with careful lists of questions.
Not even the greatest doctors can ever know what it feels like to be inside of your individual skin. Taking ownership of that intimate relationship is our own responsibility – and our great privilege.
Commit to the mundane with diligence and patience
Mom now spends an hour each day working on her back. That’s not an hour running in the sunshine or descending the tight turns of a favorite canyon. It is an hour laying prone, making subtle and repetitive movements to lengthen the space between her vertebrae. The therapies of new Abbott family doctor/hero, Norman, genuinely ease my mom’s pain – but only if she practices them with daily dedication. It took her six months of commitment to his exercises to see results (as he warned it would), but her patience and faith have now allowed her to do things that a few years ago she thought would never be possible again.
How often do you forgo a recovery meal or skip warm-up and cool-down in the name of efficiency? Obviously, there is self-interest and direct reward in following good habits, but our commitment to rehab and preventive care is often set at ‘disaster-avoidance’ rather than ‘experience-optimization’. Whether your aim is a performance level or a level of vitality, sometimes we allow ourselves to believe we aren’t capable of the commitment required to get there, and that’s not always true.
Don’t give up on what you love
My mom can’t hike every day like she used to (go ahead and join my side of the “athletic” debate). She can’t cross-country ski as far or carry a heavy load to go backpacking. She has to be careful when she travels, because she can feel a bad bed for weeks. It would certainly be simpler to say those activities can’t be a part of her life anymore. Yet these are the things she loves, so she has modified her expectations.
I have a knee-jerk tendency to be an all-or-nothing person. If I can’t do something at the highest level, or the way I intended, I sometimes assume that means that I can’t do it at all. Yet my mom still hikes, just not every day, and she is careful with distance. She and my dad find quiet places they can car-camp with great day hikes, to avoid packing in tents and gear. She has spent years – literally, years – researching the best sleeping mats. Sometimes she knowingly overshoots her limits because she doesn’t want to miss out on an experience, but she accepts there will be a payback period for that choice and knows how to activate the resources that will get her back on track (see above: know your own body).
The fact running might evolve to hiking, daily might become weekly, and winning might give way to competing for fun, does not mean we are necessarily deprived of experience. Only one person can decide that not getting a first choice (or second, or third…) is equal to getting nothing at all.
Turn limits into an opportunity for expansion
The adage “when one door closes, another opens” usually makes me want to kick whoever said it in the shins, so I will only say this: I think my mom’s athletic horizons have expanded as a result of her journey with back pain. The one part about her non-athlete definition that was perhaps correct was her fear of new activities, a since-childhood certainty that she wasn’t built for such pursuits. Yet once the daily hike was off the table, she got herself a new hybrid bike. She has always commuted by bike, but only on certain routes, and not very far. Yet now she has taken her own valid parameters (few cars, straightforward roads and paths, not at night) and found loops she loves to ride. I am a notoriously slow bike commuter, but it still bears saying that when bike together, she is the one pushing the pace.
She has started swimming on occasion, too, which is remarkable because when I was growing up she was afraid to put her face in the water. Despite my pro-swim propaganda, it still isn’t her favorite, but bike lanes and pools are places I never would have found her before. Even if she wouldn’t admit it, her abilities and willingness to try are still expanding. There is, after all, only one person in my family who texts me when she gets a new by-bike record on the speed limit sensor near my parents’ house.
My mom says her commitment, patience, diligence and bravery are logical (perhaps) and normal for anyone in her situation (definitely not). I’ve spent my life saturated in the culture of elite competitors, so I’m claiming the authority to say – impartially, daughter or not – just how extraordinary of an athlete she really is. Olympics or not, there’s always something for me to shoot for.