After Donna Pontoriero dropped 140 pounds seven years ago, she was deeply proud of her fitness progress: She had built up to walking or running 35 miles a week. Yet in 2012, a brain tumor forced her to slow down. And she’s still struggling to regain her endurance, she says. “I think back to when I used to run six miles without thinking about it. Now I struggle to do two or three,” explains Pontoriero, 44, a chiropractor from Bloomfield, NJ. In June, it took her an hour and a half to complete a hilly 10K. “I didn’t care if I was second to last. Just being there was a big deal,” she says.
But when asked if she considers herself an athlete, Pontoriero laughed. “The term never crossed my mind,” she says. “I look around at other people at races who have the right gear and are faster than me. They are athletes.” So what does Pontoriero call herself? “I’m a back-of-the-packer,” she says.
The Definition of Athlete
The term “athlete” is both confusing and loaded with stereotypes. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.” Meanwhile, the top entry on Urban Dictionary is more inclusive and democratic: “An individual who participates in sports. Characterized by dedication, focus, intelligence and work ethic.” According to University of Oregon track and field coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, “If you have a body, you are an athlete.” In other words, an athlete can be a top competitor — or an average finisher.
Calling yourself an “athlete” can play an important role in how you see yourself and how you ultimately perform, explains Kristen Dieffenbach, associate professor of athletic coaching education at West Virginia University and sports psychology consultant. “Everyone should think of themselves as athletes. It’s not reserved for people who get a paycheck from it,” she says, noting that she’s surprised how many clients are reluctant to embrace the identity. “It’s like they’re devaluing what they’re doing, even if they love physical activity.”
That “Who, me?” reflex is a hard habit to break, especially when the root of the word athlete runs deep in American culture. Ever since high school, people who played team sports were christened “athletes,” while the rest were regular PE students. The grown-up equivalent: People who “work out.”
Dieffenbach is on a mission to help her clients take back the word. “There’s an intrinsic value you get in terms of a sense of pride and feeling good about your commitment. That’s the the core of being an athlete, whether it’s for a medal or just to say, ‘Yep, I did that.’”
A better definition of athlete? Someone who enjoys physical movement, she says. “Maybe you’re training. You have goals you’re trying to achieve. You’re putting the effort in,” she says.
For those who still trip over the term, Dieffenbach suggests trying to acknowledge that you’re living an “athletic lifestyle.” That’s a concept Pontoriero can get her head around because it acknowledges her daily commitment — not her performance. “When I went to my first 5K, I thought, ‘What am I doing here? These people have been doing this for years.’ But I’m proud of getting up every morning, putting on my shoes and trying to get better and better,” she says. “Now I realize I do belong there. We’re all running our own race.”
Daphne Mattingly is also hesitant to call herself an “athlete.” But after completing her first half-[marathon] in 2013, she felt comfortable saying, “I’m a runner.” “I never did think of myself as an athlete, so that’s why I took up running. It’s a way for people who didn’t do team sports or weren’t coordinated to still be successful by competing against themselves,” Mattingly, 36, a safety manager from Louisville, Kentucky says. She finally felt like part of the club when she put a 13.1 sticker on her car to signify how many miles she’d run. “But now that I think about it, if you got the guts to show up and got the guts to finish something, then you are an athlete.”