I’ve only lost my cool in the gym once in my life. I was lifting weights early in the morning my senior year of high school, intent on being able to do 3 sets of pull-ups like I’d seen the senior athletes do at regional training camps. I was serious about training hard for cross country skiing, which meant that, like it or not, I was going to have to get serious about spending some time in the gym to get strong.
I was getting ready to do my first set of pull-ups with some assistance from a rubber band when a football player walked up with his chest puffed out.
“Move over, I’m about to do some REAL pull-ups.” he announced. “I need that bar.”
I almost punched him in his smug, stupidly chiseled jaw.
“These ARE real pull-ups.” I spat out. “You can just SIT AND WAIT!”
I was furious that, because I was a girl, he assumed he could boss me around and take over the lifting equipment just because he was going to lift something heavier than me. But maybe I should thank him, because I was intensely motivated to progress to unassisted pull-ups pretty quickly after that.
Either way, most women I’ve talked to can relate to a moment of feeling belittled, uncomfortable or out of place in the gym. Sometimes you feel self-conscious because you’re not super strong, or because you are incredibly strong and people are openly staring at you, wondering what sport you play.
I eventually learned to feel comfortable in the gym and convinced myself that I belonged, even when doing my weird “skier exercises”. But once I grew those coveted muscles, I wasn’t sure if I should be proud of them anymore. Finding a prom dress really, really sucked (and don’t get me started on the sports bra and heart rate monitor tan lines). Finding a pair of jeans that fit my quads without a huge gap in the waist was nigh-impossible, and some of the boys I dated weren’t super comfortable with the idea of their girlfriend being proportionately stronger and faster than they were. I had worked so hard to get strong and get biceps, but once I had them, they didn’t seem that awesome anymore.
Everywhere I looked, society had signs showing me what I should be striving towards. Billboard ads, tv ads, Hollywood stars, Disney princesses, even the Barbie dolls my little sister and I had played with…none of those cultural ideals looked like the professional athlete I was trying to become. I realized I needed some new heroes…and maybe the goal wasn’t necessarily to look like my Barbie doll (a feat that is anatomically impossible, by the way).
Ultimately, I learned to focus on what my body can do, not what it looks like. The choices I make and the goals I can hunt down are much more important than how someone else thinks I look. Of course…that’s easy to say, and much harder to believe! But it’s a great place to start.
You don’t have to look like a bodybuilder, and you don’t have to look like a barbie doll (but if you do, that’s cool, too). You only need to look like YOU, and you’re allowed to change over the course of your life! If you want to grow your muscles, that’s great. If you don’t happen to have to have tons of them, you can still hit the gym or run up a mountain, if that’s what you want to do. The bottom line is that you don’t have to look a certain way to fit in. You just need to have goals, and feel supported in whatever sports you want to take on.
The other worry I hear from many young women in sport is that they’re not allowed to be fierce and feminine at the same time. And I can relate to that – I’m famous for wearing sparkles on my face when I race, for goodness sake! But I also have a pretty sweet layer of drool over that glitter, because I’m pushing myself so incredibly hard. In fact, racing all-out from the gun and pushing your body past limits has become synonymous with “racing like a girl” on the cross country World Cup circuit. The women of the World Cup are known for pushing the pace right from the start and not being afraid to take chances and string out the field. And that’s a really, really cool thing to be known for.
You can be the grittiest, most badass racer on course…and do it with glitter on your face and braids in your hair (if that’s what you want)! You don’t have to choose between feeling strong and feeling beautiful, because they’re the same thing. I mean, I’m sponsored by a jewelry company (shoutout to Ross-Simons for being awesome!) and I wear really pretty sparkly things…all while I’m pushing myself in training and going on 3 hour long muddy, rocky runs on the AT trail. My point is that you never have to feel that pursuing sports will mean you can’t feel beautiful. In fact, you may find that feeling strong and capable makes you feel more beautiful because it’s coming from a place of strength! The key word here is “feel”, because it’s about how you feel inside, not how others think you look.
I love that I see glitter on both boys and girls of all ages, by the way. It’s not just a girl thing! The glitter, to me, is a statement; a promise to myself that I race because I love this sport, and a promise to go out there and have fun while laying it all out on the course. It’s a reminder to race with joy, to appreciate the fact that I get to be here.
Why am I going on about this? Certainly not to save future football players from being punched in the face. It’s to save them from making that kind of comment in the first place.
Being a girl in sport is so incredibly fun. I don’t ever feel less-than. I train exactly as hard as the boys, and I learn from them in training just as they learn from me in return. I race the same World Cup circuit, and when I place in the top 20, I’m paid exactly the same as the equivalent place on the men’s side. We have the same amount of cheering as the men, and our personal sponsors are determined by our individual merit and effort, but we have equal opportunity.
While giving an interview earlier this year, I mentioned how lucky I felt to be paid the same as the men on the World Cup, especially as news about Women’s Hockey and Soccer team pay gaps were coming out. Then I realized how dumb that sounded. I should never feel lucky for being paid to do exactly the same thing as my male counterparts. It shouldn’t be something I think about at all (and for the most part, I don’t). It should simply be a fact, for all women, in all sports, in all jobs. I feel so completely supported by the boys on our team, by our coaching staff, and by my sponsors. Because of this complete support, I feel like I can take on any training or racing challenge.
Girls belong in sport, in all capacities, in all body types. We belong as professional athletes, as recreational athletes, as coaches, as National Governing Body leaders. It’s our job – men and women – to keep girls in sport. What we say to the girls in our life as they set goals and work towards them can help empower them and keep them on track, or make them doubt themselves or feel out of place. The same holds true for young men as well; they also deserve respect, guidance and encouragement as they pursue their goals, regardless of body type or innate skill level.
Our words and actions have a huge impact on young people and coaches have one of the most influential roles in a child’s life. I know, because the words I heard from a former coach – no matter how innocent their intent was –contributed to my eating disorder.
So, I want to remind you, if you’re a coach and you haven’t already, please sign up for WithAll’s “What to Say” Coaches Challenge. During the 5-week Challenge, participating coaches receive short weekly emails with a phrase to use, context on why the phrase matters, questions for self-reflection, and suggested action steps to do with their athletes that week. It’s SO EASY and only takes 3-5 minutes of your time each week. What are you waiting for? Just do it. Please. On behalf of all the young (and older!) athletes you’ll interact with in your lifetime.
They are running one more pilot this fall and the deadline to sign up is October 20, so head over to whattosaynow.org/coaches and sign up now.
In other training news, I’m currently crushing caffeinated beverages at a coffee shop on main street, Lake Placid, NY. We’ve just finished up our first week of training and are starting on our second week! Right before camp started we got to cheer on Simi and Sophie as they got married on the most beautiful fall day in Vermont, and it was so fun to see these good friends and long time teammates tie the knot!
This fall, we’ve split the US team camp into two parts; an altitude camp for half the team in Park City and a sea-level camp for some of us in Lake Placid. I love coming here, being inspired by seeing athletes from many different sports all training hard at the Olympic Training Center, and feeling the strong Olympic history of the town itself!
We have a few team time trials to start dialing in our race-pace intensity, and try out tactics on each other. It’s been so fun to team up with SMS, Craftsbury and Sun Valley as well as a few Collegiate teams coming in next week. I’m looking forward to learning as much as possible from everyone here!