March 7th, 2017

Episode Four: The Alter Egos

Light rain drizzled from the stormy Victoria sky. Ahead, a grey and glass building emerged from a cover of arbutus trees and fog. Pacific Institute of Sport Excellence in the moody morning I mused, as I closed the writing app on my phone and hopped off the bus. The weight of my backpack settled on my shoulders; in its pockets I’d stuffed my work clothes, a day’s worth of food, and my books and laptop.

I ascended the muddy hill just as Sarah stepped out of her car. She shouldered her bag and jogged to meet me. “You working today?”

“Which work do you mean?” I laughed. The answer was all of them – hence the backpack crammed with food.

After the West Hub crew bid farewell to the San Diego sun, we flew home to rain and real life responsibilities. Though we’re all full time athletes, most people in our group hold down outside jobs. I gave Sarah a rundown of my day, and she invited me to visit her at the lab, where she works.

“But first.” I brandished my travel mug. “We lift!”

 

Elite athletes are often branded with the idea of work ethic, of toughness and drive. The image of pumping iron and pounding pavement seems to reach the public before the image of a whole person. Sometimes, that marketing strategy can make it seem like athletes only exist in their place of work. It’s like of how, in elementary school, kids assume their teachers dissolve beyond the walls of the classroom. I can assure you, though, Sarah and I exist beyond the edges of a track.

After weights and a run, we changed into clothes not made of spandex; like butterflies, we visually transformed into our alter egos. I call mine Responsible Grace. She really likes to wear suspenders.

Squirreled away in a cozy chair, I munched on quinoa bean salad and opened my laptop. At the table next to me, members of the women’s national rugby team burst into peals of laughter. I plugged into my headphones, pulled up a word document, and started typing.

Responsible Grace keeps pretty busy. Before practice, she tutors writing and research skills; between morning and afternoon sessions, she sits in PISE’s lobby and painstakingly pounds out an MA thesis. In the evenings, she sells shoes at Running Room, and, on airplanes or at bus stops, she writes news articles and edits for companies.

After weights, Sarah rushed out to her car and sped to the BC Cancer Agency. Once there, she donned a white lab coat and slipped her hands into blue gloves, her armor in the crusade against cancer. At her station, she grows human T cells, studies each individual cell, and genetically modifies them to enhance their fitness in the tumor microenvironment. This research aims to improve immune cells’ metabolism, so that when the patient receives their new cells, they can better combat the tumor.

In 2016, Sarah trained full time and produced a breakout season on the track. Though her eleven-second PB often steals the highlight reel, the most incredible part of her season was that she simultaneously completed her masters in biochemistry. Now, she works on contract for the same lab, generating new research and publications. Plus, in a typical week, Sarah also tutors disabled students and studies for the MCATs.

 

For us, the toughest part of being an athlete lies in the balancing act: the ability to train full time while finishing a masters thesis, also while working to pay the bills. However, this additional dimension comes with a significant perk, one that neither of us would trade for the world. Because of our other pursuits and responsibilities, Sarah and I know who we are outside of athletics.

One Saturday morning, I struggled through interval sessions on the track, and fell badly behind the rest of the group. Breathing hard, I let Heather pull me aside and listened as she told me to call it and go jog a cooldown. It was the right decision, but I still clomped through trails, bemoaning my woes to any squirrel that would listen.

Later, the West Hub coagulated in the tub room. Towels wrapped around our heads for warmth, we alternated between the hot and cold tubs, flushing our legs and boosting recovery. The cold water lapped at my thighs. I quietly stared into the tiny waves.

Sarah poked me in the bellybutton. “You gonna work on your thesis this afternoon?” I looked up. Her smile was kinda smug. The words sounded familiar, and I may have been annoyed.

But then, I held her gaze and realized that she was right.

 

Sarah and I structure our busy lives around a rigid training schedule so that hopefully, one day, we can compete against the best. Within each week, six mornings begin with workout or long run, while five afternoons end with another form of aerobic activity. In between we receive treatment, meet with coaches, and provide daily logs of heart rate and sleep. Given this focalized lifestyle, we cannot ignore our choice to pursue elite athletics. And, sometimes, our choice’s constant presence tricks us into believing that we’re just athletes, just the sum total of our physical capabilities.

Our other pursuits remedy this identity chasm. That Saturday, I could have spent the day dejected, fretting the workout while stretching on a yoga mat. Instead, I went home and wrote a scene where a character reached a state of failure. While I’ll wait for my supervisor’s response to decide if the scene’s any good, the act of writing helped me forget about the crummy morning and allowed me to move on with life. Being able to turn to another pursuit, whether it’s a passion or just work, always eases the strain of the athlete life. We’re more than just gals in split shorts, and fulfilling our other interests siphons the pressure of perfect athletic execution.

In San Diego, Sarah’s Achilles flared and she biked a workout instead of strapping on her spikes. At lunch, I watched her swallow more sighs than rice pilaf, and tried to think of what to say.

In the privacy of our dorm room, Responsible Grace snapped her suspenders and told Sarah to go study for her MCATs. Sarah spent the afternoon pouring over textbooks and rocking out to new illegal downloads. By the time dinner arrived, she strode into the dining hall wearing her usual dopy grin.

Yes we are athletes, but first and foremost, Sarah and I are fully-fledged people. Thankfully, together, we can keep each other “on track”, and make sure we each step into the other parts of ourselves.

 

Thanks for reading!

xoxox

S&G