Thursday, February 08, 2007


My mom likes to tell a funny story about when I was born. I had such big shoulders that when I was about halfway out the doctor said "Look at those shoulders, this one's a football player for sure!". Except of course I was a girl. He was close though. Not a football player but a swimmer was born.

The water has always called to me. As a child, I dreamed I was a dolphin who'd been born into a human's body. I read Jaques Coustaeu and watched his TV specials, I cried when I listened (over and over and over) to John Denver's song "Calypso", the only song that moved me to tears. My parents knew that if I got into a pool, or river, or lake, or ocean, that they would have to drag me out by my heels to get me away from the water, and one of our most memorable family vacations was spent at a hotel complex in San Diego that had seven swimming pools. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

Unfortunately, I lived in a reasonably small town and there was only one swim coach for both the city team and the high school team. A grumpy man with a loud shout and constantly-blowing whistle, he did not so much inspire as berate his swimmers into performing. I dropped off the city team after than one season, tried it again in high school and only made it a week or two. I always swam for pleasure, but did not seem to be destined to become a competitive swimmer.

Luck was on my side though, because in college I took a swimming class for credit that was taught by the assistant University team coach. He convinced me to walk onto the swim team, and I met the head coach who would turn out to be the single most influential person in my life, outside of my parents. After taking one look at me, he said "Shoulders. Feet. You're going to swim butterfly."

"But coach, I don't really know how to swim butterfly!"

"That doesn't matter. With shoulders like those, you're a butterflier." And so I was. That photo is me at age 20. No kidding, those are butterflier shoulders.

My love for sport was born. My coach insisted we all do a triathlon as cross-training and I found my true passion there. But although I've had twenty years now as a triathlete, running and biking as well as swimming, I will always be first and foremost A Swimmer.

Some people say biology is destiny and from a sports viewpoint I can't argue with that. This year I'm trying to become a faster runner, but one look at my body and you can see I'm optimized for water, not land. For starters, I have an extremely short torso. I can stand with my hips level with a friend who is 5' tall and we're the same height, yet when I stand up I am 5'7". I pray that high-waited pants never come back in fashion, because my waist is roughly one inch below my bust and I look like a total gomer if I ever tuck a shirt in. When I was pregnant, I looked like I was carrying a missile silo because the baby had no place to go but straight out. Along with my lack of torso, I have massively long and flexible arms and legs, capped by enormous hands and feet. I wear the same shoe size as my husband, and a full glove size larger. I can span an octave + 2 easily on the piano. Hands like shovels, feet like flippers. I trip over them running, but I can kick 50 yards in 55 seconds. Couple those long arms, shovel hands, and flippered feet with the fact that I can rotate my shoulders 360 with ease and bend my arms around like a pretzel, and you've got one swimmer's body.

My children have inherited much of my physique as well. My son at age 10 can already borrow my shoes. Yep, never let it be said I didn't give my kids a solid foundation in life (that's actually my dad's joke, he used to say that when I'd complain about my big feet). My son's shoulders actually got...ahem.. stuck during childbirth. Luckily for him, he's a boy. Boys with big shoulders are complimented, punched roundly on the shoulder with a "he's a big tough guy" kind of bonhomie. Big shouldered girls are another story. Actually, I was fortunate to hit teenagerhood in the eighties. Those of you who lived through that era of big puffy-shouldered jackets and blouses know what I mean. I just took the shoulder pads out of every shirt and jacket I bought and was happily in style for a few years. But in general, shoulders like a linebacker are not what every girl dreams of. My daughter has inherited my shoulders and I am very cognizant of the words and messages she hears about her body.

It starts so young. Carrying around my solid bruiser of a baby boy, I got no end of compliments: "What a sturdy fellow you've got there.", "That kid'll be a bruiser for sure.". Carrying around my sturdy infant girl, I got "Aren't you concerned that she's a little too chubby?" I'm not kidding! The messages we get about big strong bodies start in infancy, and that to me is sad. So when my daughter mentions that she has big shoulders, I say "Yep, you've got a really strong body like I do, and I bet you'll be a great swimmer too!" (she already is, and I can't get her out of a pool without pulling her out by her heels like my parents experienced with me). I don't tell her "you've got a figure like an oatmeal box" , which is what I was told at a young age.

And truth be told, it's not a bad thing, these big shoulders, these long legs, the hands that span an octave+, the feet big enough to ski on. I know I will never break 6 minutes in a running mile in my life, but I'll see you on the other side of the lake in no time.


KayVee said...

You have fabulous shoulders! They're beautiful. I am the total opposite of you: long torso, short arms and legs, and staight (no shoulders, no boobs, no hips). Not sure what that makes me good at...but I do love to swim, too.

TriGirl 40 said...

Hey is that you in the top photo, too? Love it. It amazes me that people aren't more aware of their comments to women - especially little girls. Divagirl is a beautiful - it is great she has you for her example. The new Dove campaigns are an exciting step for appreciating women in all shapes, sizes and ages. I've got the swimmers' shoulders (though they may be countered by the couch potato hips) - but now I am starting to wish I had the hands and feet, too!

Lana said...

Great post, and nice blog! It's too bad to have to hear comments about your body type. That's ridiculous!

Ginger Breadman said...

It's funny - when you mentioned your dolphin dream, I can't help but compare it to the things my kids have passions for now, and wonder what they'll love when they are older. I love how you translate the portrayal of body image for your daughter. As an active mother of 3 active girls, I couldn't agree with you more. Your appreciation of what your own body has done for you in life is a huge role-model for your daughter - (and your son).

TriJack said...

omg you can kick 50 yards in 50 sec!!! you never stop amazing me about your swim... wow
it's interesting how as young people we are frequently embarrassed by our perceived imperfections, but as we get older and more mature, those perceived imperfections become the qualities of which we are most proud...

TriGirl Thea said...

I agree with trigirl 40. That is a great photo.

I think its great that you have finally reached the stage in your life where you can accept yourself just as you are.

I think its a real shame that in our culture women (especially) spend most of their teens and twenties fretting about their perceived imperfections.