Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Before I get to the subject of this post, one quick update on a recent post ... right after I wrote about my recent diet and exercise changes, I went to the gym for a swim and somehow managed to injure myself by popping out one of my ribs while turning in the pool. I just hyper-extended myself and my lat pulled one of my ribs right out. Then, with the hurricane robbing so many areas of their power, I couldn't get to my chiropractor for another 5 days. That was tough -- I couldn't do anything for days and even after I was adjusted, the pain didn't go away. I've been pretty much sitting on my ass the last week or so. I can't work out without a lot pain and I tried to get out and ride last week and that didn't go well at all. I can't pull up on the bars without an electrifying shock of pain going up my side and back. It sucks and I'm pissed about it because I feel like I'm sliding backward and there's nothing I can do about it. It just sucks.

A painful ride in the tree piles of Wissahickon

Anyway, on to the subject at hand.

Today, The Fit Chick posted an article called "Are You an Athlete?" in which she responded to another article from The NY Times about why women can't do pull-ups. The questionable validity of that premise with respect to gender notwithstanding, I liked Selene's slant on the discussion. She addresses the question  of whether or not one can be called an "athlete" if one cannot do a pull-up. I think that question is interesting, but fails when put up against simple deductive reasoning.

I say this because I think it fails right off against the question of what an athlete "is". Whenever I encounter a question of whether or not something "is" something else, I like to start with definitions of what that something "is". So what "is" an athlete? The term "athlete" comes from the Greek "athlos", meaning "contest". It's actual definition is "a person trained or gifted in exercises or contests involving physical agility, stamina, or strength; a participant in a sport, exercise, or game requiring physical skill." Nowhere in its origin or its current definition is there a reference or requirement related to any single physical skill such as the ability to do a pull-up. In the second section of that states that anyone who participates in a sport or activity that requires physical aptitude is an athlete. Sounds about right, wouldn't you agree?

My own ability to do pull-ups has waxed and waned over the years, but that sort of a "skill" has actually always been the kind that did come naturally to me. And yet it in no way informed my opinion of my athleticism (or lack thereof.) In high school, I couldn't do one. By the end of college, after discovering the sport of bodybuilding, I could easily do 40 or so without a break. In grad school, when the luxury of fitness was lost to 15 hour days in a lab, I doubt I could do more than 5. After school, when I suddenly found myself living far from anyone I knew and with much more free time on my hands than I ever had in school, I focused again on the gym and as a result gained the ability to do a whole bunch. Once during a local town carnival, I stepped up to the Marine recruitment booth and took their challenge, pulling out over 50, which caught the interest of the recruiter who was disappointed to find I was beyond the age of enrollment at the time. And now, after years of focusing on cycling, which yielded upper body weight loss of around 20 lbs., I am probably somewhere around 10 or 15 max. Yet through all those different times, I've always been convinced of two things: (1) physically, I am no one's ideal of an athlete, which is okay because (2) I still show up to compete in what I love to do, which is what always makes me feel not even the least bit ironic when I tell people I am an "athlete" even if podiums are few and far between, and whether I can do a ton of pull-ups or not. Defining an athlete by whether they can do pull-ups is like defining a cyclist by whether or not they can win the Tour. It's just one limited area of endeavor in a wider range of what it means to be an athlete.

In fact, the most impressive cyclists I've come across in the last few years didn't even have working legs! At this year's Cyclemania, a guy on a hand cycle with paralyzed legs actually rod the entire course, including the massive climb up the back of the mountain. I never rode the whole thing all day, but he did it with his arms and made the technical turns on a low-sitting quad bike!

That's amazing. And that's an athlete by any reasonable measure, whether he can do a pull-up or not!

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