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Hannah Farley: Redefining Myself as an Athlete

TW: disordered eating

The definition of an athlete takes many forms, interpretations ranging between the level of proficiency or talent to one who is a participant in any contest requiring physical exertion. My personal definition of “athlete” has changed an insurmountable number of times since the beginning of my journey with sports. 

As a young girl, I only understood athletes to be those in the Olympics. I didn’t have a grasp on the word, only knowing that I loved to play sports and I looked up to the ones who could compete at the highest level. I would watch the gymnasts with awe, the skiers with praise, and the swimmers with wonder. I would yearn to be on such a large stage like that, amongst the best of the best, excitement tangible in the air, all eyes on me. I once thought this idea to be selfish, but have learned that it is one of the traits I hold dearly with my identity as an athlete.

From an early age, I was immersed in the world of sports. I was put into soccer - a time in my life that I will look back on with no regrets of leaving behind. I was frustrated when I didn’t have the ball, resented the tight braids in my hair, and felt separated from the rest of the girls on the team. I played for my mom, though, feeling like I should want to play the sport that she once did. Next was basketball, a short-lived adventure as I was more interested in the armbands we wore and couldn’t understand why nobody would pass to me.

I was then moved into volleyball, an activity I could play for sport or just for fun. I loved all of it, the passing, the high speed, the rush. I would watch professionals on TV and want to be just as good. I wanted to look like them, perform like them, be them. But the season came and went so quickly and I moved onto the next: softball. 

Softball was the most profound, life-changing sport for me. My 7-year-old self fell in love instantly. I spent time with my dad, I was in the sun, my mom would come to watch, and I was friends with all of my teammates. It was perfect. I can remember, so vividly, playing night games, going to afternoon practices, throwing the ball with my dad in the street. We would partner with older girls competing at higher levels, watching their games, and being struck by how well they played, their competitive edge and passion.

Then, my definition of “athlete” began to shift. I realized I could be an athlete and started to define the noun with words such as spirit, skill, determination, competitive, and fun. I started to look at myself as an athlete, whether I was aware of this or not. I started to expand on the competitive, prideful parts of myself. I would strive to be the best, turning everything into a competition: how many grasshoppers I could catch, how many monkey bars I could swing on, how hard I could kick a soccer ball. I was always diving into any activity, head-on.

I started to build my identity around the word “athlete” as I was always outside, always competing. It was amazing and incredible. It didn’t become my life, only just a pillar being built stone by stone over each year. 

As I moved into a more competitive level of softball, my definition of athlete again changed, aligning more to being on a team and earning a spot. Softball began defining me, it became my identity and what set me apart. 

However, I was no longer friends with all of the girls on my team, my dad no longer coached me, and practices were no longer just for fun. I started to learn what it meant to push harder at practices, start to improve my skill outside of the team, and grew tougher skin.

I started to dream of being a pitcher, wanting to be the one everybody was watching, the one with all of the pressure, part of every single play. I always wanted my hands to be on the ball. 

My coaches constantly threw me messages that I wasn’t good enough; I started to believe that no matter how hard I worked I would never get the time. But despite it all, I continued to persevere and kept working hard. Through this time, my dad stood nearby pushing me, encouraging me, and supporting me. Our relationship grew and flourished as another building block was added to our foundation of connection. 

I soon found my worth as an athlete, coming to respect my level of play and working for what I wanted. I started to succeed, to be noticed, to grow. I started to talk with colleges, the expectation setting in early on to receive a scholarship. I made lists, talked to coaches, signed with reps, all to find the college I dreamed of going to. Luckily, the game did not change for me as my devotion for it never changed. I revisited the game of volleyball, playing for my school and coming to win championships. It was the perfect blend of excitement, tenacity, and hard work. However, I knew that this sport was not a part of my future, and left it behind, tucking it into a special place in my heart.

I waltzed into my high school team, the only freshman on varsity, and soon learned my place in the world of softball. My definition of athlete became the title of a person who works tirelessly for physical achievement in competition. My story of an athlete changed from ease to grit. I learned what it meant to scrape, tooth and nail, to earn my spot on a high achieving team. Over my four years, I would come to make my mark on this team, my identity as an athlete further rooting deep into my heart. I learned about the importance of comradery, responsibility, and commitment. My sophomore year, a time I often refer to as my peak, is a shining beam of my ability. My team made it far in state, I trained and ran my first half marathon, and I committed to play softball at a collegiate level. My body and mind were the strongest they had ever been. 

With more time, I cycled in and out of falling in love with my athlete identity and my sport. I pursued other interests, expanded my character, and improved my skill. My definition of athlete became a person who works to perform at the highest of their ability, viewing this part of my life as more of an obligation than a choice. Yet, with every moment I thought about leaving it forever, there was another moment quick to follow filled with love and joy with the thought of stepping on the field. My fire was not yet gone, and I continued to move forward. 

Softball was taking from me my junior year, with an almost career ending injury. I had my first glimpse of fear, anger, sadness, and loss of control when I was told to take a break. I realized how much fondness I look at the game with; how much of my heart is entangled with sport. And, in the same breath, I was so happy to be told, for once, to take a break, my mind and my heart yearning for time. The message to keep pushing, running, improving, practicing was so ingrained in me that I needed to be told to stop. 

As time continued on, my motivations began to shift, my goals changed, and my ideals became distorted. I began to find myself working harder than ever and nourishing less and less. My identity as an athlete started to become less about what I could do and more about what I looked like. I depleted my body, abused its abilities, and ignored the exhaustion. I started to like how I looked, but found my performance becoming worse and worse. And for some reason, it didn’t matter as much to me as it should have. I didn’t realize the damage being done. I thought everything was fine, that I was doing the most and consuming the least; I was running my body into the ground but could only focus on how it looked. I abused my abilities. Until it all came crashing down. I felt weak, tired, and desperate. My body couldn’t sustain; my mind was destroyed and my heart was numbed. I found a semblance of achievement and progression in what I did on the daily, but all it was doing was setting me back. For the second time in my life, my sport was taken away; but it wasn’t just softball alone. It was all activity that built into my identity as both an athlete and a person. The debasement of my body had stopped me dead in my tracks, a wake up call I didn’t know I needed.

Over the past several months, as I have moved along my path of recovery, my definition of athlete flipped on its side. It became a definition of dedication, resilience, fortitude, and commitment. My responsibilities changed to those of improving mental strength and physical health. The athlete in me has been screaming tirelessly at me through this all, telling me to continue working to get back, yet also telling me to take a break. It is compelling me to improve; mentally and physically. However, now, it all must be a reframe into the athlete I strive to be. As I look at my future as an athlete, I see hope; an image of success with my abilities, appreciation for my body, courage in the face of my adversity, and willpower to overcome. I am redefining who I am as an athlete, one day at a time.

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