To be a female athlete in these times is to be a living, breathing part of a tectonic shift in the cultural narratives told about what it means to be a woman. Certainly the path has not always been a straight shot, but progress never is. But make no mistake about it, progress is happening and it continues to happen every single day.
I had the opportunity to reflect on this two weekends ago, when Brian and I settled in to watch a replay of the 2012 Ironman World Championship in Kona. The Kona special is always inspiring, not just because of the professionals but also because of the age-groupers who found ways to squeeze in training around full-time jobs and families so they could qualify. I suppose you could say this is what qualifies for fitspo in our household.
One of the most notable aspects of the 2012 special is that it marked thirty years since Julie Moss’ iconic finish at Kona. At the time, Moss was a 23-year-old graduate student in exercise physiology who decided to compete in the Ironman as part of her thesis research. She led much of the race, all the way until she was about two miles from the finish line, when her body started refusing to cooperate. She was just a few hundred yards from the finish when her glycogen stores ran out and she bonked.
What happened next is the stuff of legend:
There is so much to marvel over in this video, but perhaps what I find most interesting about it is not what is happening inside the frame but rather the context in which this is all taking place. All of this happened in 1982, a full two years before women would be able to run the marathon in the Olympics for the first time. In fact, the world’s governing athletic bodies were reluctant to encourage women to run long distances – or even middle distances – for decades. Women were not allowed to run anything over 200 meters until 1960, and even then it wasn’t until 1980s that an event longer than 1,500 meters was established for women.
That reluctance is commonly attributed to the public reaction to the 1928 Olympics, when several media reports about the 800 meters race indicated that many of the racers had collapsed after the race. From Go Feet, an excerpt from an Australian news report at the time:
Several women athletes in the final of the 800 metres race at the Olympic sports at Amsterdam fell by the side of the track, apparently suffering from the dangerous strain. This has aroused adverse medical comment here. One specialist declares that women are not built physically to undergo the strain of races. Nature made them to bear children. They cannot rid themselves of fat to the extent that is necessary for the physical fitness demanded for feats of extreme endurance.
Compare that to the reaction to Moss’ glycogen-depleted finish fifty-four years later. I’m sure many people watched her and were concerned – and understandably so, as bonking is usually a sign that something went terribly wrong and is not something anyone should seek to emulate – but many people also watched her and were inspired. I imagine their thoughts are similar to mine: Could I do that? Do I have it in me? Could my will ever be strong enough? Would I have given up, even with victory in sight? And I imagine that, like me, they got into endurance sports because they wanted to find out.
As far as I know, there were no calls to ban women from Ironman distance triathlon. (How could they, considering that the same clip shows the eventual victor, Kathleen McCartney, crossing the finish line looking as fresh and energetic as if she’d just taken a quick jog down the street?) If anyone was wringing their hands over the state of Moss’ future as a childbearer, the record doesn’t show it.
What the record does show, however, is that she inspired thousands of people to get into triathlon, and in the process she expanded what it means to be a female athlete. She showed that it’s okay for women to suffer in visible and ugly ways, to collapse gracelessly, to do awkward things with our bodies and to make people feel uncomfortable and tense just by looking at us. In fact, she not only showed that it was okay to do these things, but that it could actually be incredible to behold. Otherwise why would so many cite her as their inspiration for wanting to take on an endurance event that still seems outrageously difficult?
Moss’ moment happened over thirty years ago, but today we had the chance to see that expansion of what it means to be a female athlete once again, when Diana Nyad finally swam across the Florida Straits, plunging into the water in Havana and emerging in Key West, 110 miles and 53 hours later, clutching the accomplishment she’d obsessed over for longer than I’ve been alive. Photos of her showed her smeared with white goo, her face strapped beneath a mask meant to protect her from jellyfish stings. We’d seen those jellyfish stings after her previous attempts, thick ropes of fiery red lashed across her skin, and they were ugly. And when she came out of the water, her mouth was swollen from being immersed in salt water for more than two days. No room for vanity in the sport of open-water swimming.
And not only that, but this was her fifth attempt at the crossing. She’d allowed the world to see that she was a woman obsessed, that she had a drive that concerned even people who were close to her. That kind of naked ambition is confusing in a woman even when it is applied in pursuit of goals commonly considered acceptable – money, fame, belongings - never mind an endurance feat doing something like open-water swimming in shark-infested waters, which understandably terrifies large swaths of the public.
Perhaps even more fascinating is that she did all of this at the age of sixty-four. We live in a society that wants women to always be pretty and well-groomed, to have manageable ambitions that are socially acceptable, and to finds ways to defeat biology so we always remain twenty-six years old. And yet here Nyad is, upending all of those expectations about what it means to be a woman and in the process showing the world that D.L. Stewart of the Dayton Daily News was right, that “the toughest athlete in the world is a 62-year-old woman.” (And he said that two years ago. It’s even truer today.) She showed that athleticism is not the sole provenance of the young, and that experience can count just as much as energy.
While watching Nyad’s last few miles on a live feed earlier today, I had the same sort of goosebumps-and-tears feeling I get whenever I watch that clip of Julie Moss. Part of it is the thrill that always comes when you are witness to the creation of history, and part of it is also the way superhuman feats can give us glimpses into the shared humanity that supersedes all other divisions, but deep inside, I also know that part of it is seeing that those superhuman feats are being performed by women. It feels like a thumb to the nose against all of the forces that still, even at this late stage of history, insist that the story of women is one in which they play supporting roles in service of others’ pursuits of greatness.
None of us may ever lead an Ironman or swim a hundred miles, but the desire to pursue our own greatness – to be the best possible versions of ourselves – is something we can all emulate in our own lives.