The “Athlete” Label

Triathlon coaches have always referred to the people we coach as “athletes.” Until now, we haven’t bothered to consider the implications of this label because the people we coach do “athlete” things and it just made sense. When Coach Alison acknowledged that she has experienced her own sense of disconnection to being called an athlete, we knew it was worth investigating.

Coach Laura interviewed Coach Alison about the potential barrier to triathlon that can be caused by the dismissal of belonging to a group of people called athletes, the inadequacies of labels in general, and what we can do about it.

L: When I was interviewing some of our athletes for another project, it came up a few times that some of them felt uncomfortable with the label “athlete.” One person said that she was the kid who got a “D” in P.E. growing up. Another one said that she doesn’t look like an athlete. Then I brought this up to you, that I wanted to dig further into this, and you said that you’d felt that way too. 

To begin, I think it’s important for everyone to know that not only are you a coach, but please also share what you’ve accomplished as a triathlete.

A: I think I’ve done 25-30 total triathlons. I’ve done 4 Ironmans and 14 half Ironman distance races, and then a bunch of smaller ones. I’ve been doing it since 2010. 

L: Can you give us a starting point for why the label “athlete” has been a difficult association for you?

A: I think that there are so many things that we have decided are prerequisites for what is required to be an athlete. Part of it is speed, part of it is body type or your physical appearance. I also think that a lot of our identity in general is locked into how we develop when we’re young. Who we are and how we see ourselves is so largely formed during our youth that if you don’t see yourself as an athlete – if you’re not a varsity athlete or if you’re not on a sports team in high school or college – then that can be where that all comes from. 

For me, I grew up doing swim team but I was the summer swim team kid. I never did year-round swim. And because I didn’t swim year-round, I wasn’t the fastest. I always joke that I hit my peak athletic career when I was 12 because I was 6th in the county for 25 fly. So that’s my claim to fame. I was on the team but I wasn’t fast, I wasn’t a year-round swimmer, I was just kind of there and having fun and part of it. And then on my high school team (I don’t know if this memory is accurate or not), but I feel like I was someone who the coach used to fill spots where they didn’t have real swimmers. So it wasn’t like I was swimming this event because I’m actually competitive at it.

L: I want to go back to something you said at the beginning. You said that “we” decide what the athlete label consists of. Who is this “we?”

A: Maybe it’s just me. Maybe that’s how I perceive it. Those are the things that I personally struggle with as an athlete. And that’s interesting because as a coach, I have a very different perspective. But when I take my coach hat off and I’m just a raw vulnerable athlete, then I look at the world differently. 

L: Let’s talk about how we immortalize our attachments to certain labels as kids. Do you remember a time when you were growing up that you felt like you were on the outside of this “athlete” group?

A: I do remember an event when I was on the poms team. We had a powder puff game that was the poms team vs. the cheerleaders and there were a couple girls on the cheerleading team that were also on the cross-country team. And I remember the cheerleaders ran all over us because they would just throw to the cross-country chicks and I remember thinking well they’re athletes.

L: What labels did you align with? 

A: I was the smart kid. I was in the smart crowd, that’s who I spent time with. 

L: Can you articulate what kind of feelings it brings up when someone wants to call you an athlete? 

A: I think a lot of it has to do with where I am in my training. If I’m in a really good phase and I’m firing on all cylinders and nailing my workouts and I’m feeling strong. Then it’s easier for me to think yeah, I’m an athlete. But if I’m injured or coming back from an injury, or just things aren’t clicking and I feel like I’m failing at my workouts, that’s where the label is really hard for me to identify with.

L: What does it feel like though? Do you feel a sense of not belonging?

A: Yeah, it’s like I’m a wannabe, like I can’t quite get there.

L: I know that you consider the people that you coach to all be athletes. Can you talk about that? 

A: Absolutely – my athletes are athletes and that’s just what they are. It would never occur to me to use any other word to describe them because that’s what they do.

L: The way that you and Julie and I operate is that we believe all of our athletes hold equal worth and value. So tell me why your athletes are all deserving of that label.

A: I think there’s a real distinction between intellectually what I understand an athlete to be and then emotionally how I relate to the word itself. Intellectually, there are a couple different ways you can get to who is an athlete. There are certain events that you can’t complete, like an Ironman or a half Ironman or a marathon … there’s so many different events that you can’t complete and not be an athlete. But I also think there’s a lifestyle component. If you swim, bike, and run 5-6 days per week, it’s kind of hard to not be an athlete. 

L: Yes, that was my response when I spoke to our athletes who said they didn’t feel comfortable with the label. I said “well what does your schedule look like? What are the things that you’re committed to on a daily, weekly basis?” 

A: At the point that it’s what you do week after week, month after month, year after year, then you’re an athlete. That’s just what it is.

L: The reason I think this topic is important is that I wouldn’t want anybody to feel like this is a barrier to entry for them. What would you say to somebody who maybe felt drawn to pursuing endurance but felt disconnected or unworthy of being called an athlete? 

A: Explain.

L: Well you know that we all start triathlon because there’s some gravitational force pulling us towards it. It’s almost like it’s not our choice. We see a triathlon or we hear about one and we think “I must do this.” What would you say to somebody who was feeling that but was feeling held back by the fact that their label identity didn’t align with pursuing it.

A: I think that anyone is capable of doing this. There are of course some hurdles that you’ll have to get over like learning how to swim if you didn’t learn it as a kid. But you can. People do it all the time. I think the bigger hurdle is being willing to put in the work. If you’re willing to do the work, then you’re going to get there. And if you’re drawn to the sport and excited to dive into it, it’s all going to fall into place.

L: Yes. One of the things that you and Julie and I hold at the foundation of NYX is that our community doesn’t have barriers to entry. We have labels in the world primarily because of the limitations of language, and we don’t want to use our labels to be exclusive. We want everybody to feel like they can be part of this if they’re drawn to it and if it speaks to them on some kind of deeper level. 

A: Yes, 100%. And it’s about baby steps. You can start with a low key indoor mini tri, and if that goes well, then great, let’s do a sprint. And if that goes well, then great, let’s layer on a little bit. Still having fun? Are you comfortable there or do you want to take a bigger bite? It’s all about what drives you and testing the waters to see where you feel pulled.

L: I know you love coaching beginners, right?

A: I do, I really do! 

(a LOT of excitement exuding from Alison)

L: So tell me then, what makes a beginner – somebody who has never done this before and it’s not yet part of their lifestyle – an athlete already? 

A: The desire. 

L: Yeah, that’s all you need. 

(moment of recognition of the beauty of our sport)

L: Why do you think being open about this insecurity makes you a better coach?

A: The space that I occupy in triathlon helps me understand the experience of a lot of  my athletes – to show up at a race and look at all the people vying for podium spots and think that’s not me, but there is space for me here. Maybe it’s less about the label and more about how I can relate to my athletes.

L: I’d like to turn this into a larger discussion on the topic of labels. I think that we are using labels in the world right now to divide ourselves, to take sides, and to undermine the complexity of what it means to be a human. How do you see labels limiting us in our communities and in our lives?

A: I think it limits who we take a first step towards. I think about my neighborhood and we have all different kinds of people in all different phases of their lives. And my first step might naturally be towards the people who have similar aged kids to mine. So I might see people with the label of “Gen X” and I think I’ll probably get along with them because we have this first step in common. But we’ve had a book club on our block and the women who come span a big range of ages and phases in their lives and I’m always amazed at how much it does work and how much connection happens between people who I wouldn’t have naturally taken the first step towards. 

That’s the limitation. You don’t take that step. You make an assumption about who you will connect with, and in doing so, you also make an assumption about who you won’t connect with. 

L: I want to go back to what you said about how you see beginner athletes as athletes already just because of their desire. When we feel limited by our labels, it blocks us from being able to follow a desire. You might think “well I’m a mom and I’m a Gen Xer,” so maybe now that means you can’t be this other thing that you feel drawn to because your labels create exclusivity around it. And we stop listening to what’s in our hearts.

A: Yes, and in our sport that sometimes looks like “oh I can’t take up triathlon because I’m too old or too slow” but that’s totally not true. There are so many examples of people who have taken up the sport at every phase of life, with every body type and every background. I always find it so interesting to watch a finish line because people do not finish in size order or age order or any other predictable order. And it’s such a remarkable and incredible thing to go and watch and think wow, we’re all out there coming from different places and bringing different skill sets, and we’re all bringing desire, just in different ways and at different levels. And to see that play out is my absolute favorite thing and it’s what I freakin’ miss so much.

L: Me too. And now I forget what my next question was because that’s too important to move on from right away. That’s my favorite thing about our sport too.

Maybe the problem with label over-identification is that it blocks the sense of community that can only come when we identify with what we feel drawn to in our hearts, rather than identifying with a word or an arbitrary group that we’ve been assigned to.

A: As a Gen X person, and I think my kids are Gen Z, labels are an interesting topic. Gender and sexuality and the words we’re using now have transformed so much since I was in high school, college, and in my 20’s. When I grew up, there were very specific, very minimal labels. And you fit in a box with a label and that was it. And I talk to my kids and I hear how they talk about the world and gender and sexuality and it’s interesting to realize that they’re not using boxes the way that my generation did. It’s so much more of a spectrum now and there’s fluidity. It’s so much more freeing. The possibilities that their generation has for how they identify themselves are so much more vast than my generation which had such a limited, defined set of labels. 

L: I am loving that about this generation too. I’m a millennial and I even grew up with limited labels so this stuff is so new and I love it! 

A: These kids are growing up and moving through the world and realizing there’s this whole range of options that they can identify with and it’s so much broader than this very limited worldview that used to exist. People are so much freer to discover who they are vs. try to force themselves into a box.

L: I also love that whatever these new things are that people are realizing they can identify with – none of that means they can’t identify with something else. There are no limitations associated with these new labels. It’s the way the world is evolving. I know I can speak for Julie in this conversation when I say that’s what the 3 of us want for our community, right?

A: Yeah. The other thing that I like is that they don’t feel like they’re stuck with one definition. You can be one thing today and a completely other thing tomorrow.

L: Yes! That’s so important. Do you see any connection with that and either our community or endurance sports in general?

A: Well if you look at the population of people participating in triathlons, it’s not really teenagers or very many people in their 20’s. It’s heavily skewed towards 40’s and 50’s. So the people who are currently participating are the ones who are used to finding a definition and sticking with it, and thinking that it has to look one way. So I do think that the next generations that are coming into our sport will be more adaptable and fluid in terms of how they think of themselves and question if there’s a label at all that they need to worry about.

L: I’m excited about that. Maybe this is our call to Gen Zers: Please join NYX Endurance and come teach us how to not be identified with labels!

A: Exactly! 

L: The other thing I’m inspired by with this next generation is that I find them to be very unafraid of taking a stand in the world. How can we embody that more at NYX and where do we go from here with our labels? 

A: Well the simple thing would be we should just all consider ourselves athletes. But maybe we need a new label or a new way of talking about ourselves that’s a little bit broader, a little bit less stuck in the prior version of what an athlete had to be or look like or do. 

L: I think a good metaphor we can use is if we think of triathlon and athletes like genders, right now there are only 2 genders: athlete and non-athlete. What we’re missing is the “they.”


L: I don’t know what that is but maybe there’s somebody out there that can help us with that. And in the meantime, we can at least do our best to preach that at NYX, we want you to be part of our community if your heart feels drawn to this. We are accepting and inclusive and to us, the more diversity the better, right?

A: 100%

L: To wrap up, how do you want to move forward with your relationship to the “athlete” label?

A: So I did do some thinking about the word athlete and my relationship with it, knowing that we were going to have this conversation. It was actually really great to realize that I have actually gotten more comfortable with it since I first started the sport ten or so years ago. Back then, I had a really hard time using the word athlete to describe myself. But over time, mostly when I look back and realize how many races I’ve done and the kind of training that I do on a weekly basis throughout the year and think is normal, I’ve gotten more comfortable thinking of myself as an athlete. Like I said before, I do still struggle with it sometimes, but I can recognize that when my training’s not going well or I’m struggling with an injury that it’s more I don’t feel like an athlete right now

You know it takes years for our identities to develop as we’re kids, and even though we may bring those identities into our lives as adults, I think over years and years we can also change them. So I guess I want to move forward by realizing and being super proud of the fact that I am not the same person I was in my teens. I am stronger and braver and a little proud that almost-50 year old me could probably kick my 20-year old ass.

NYX Endurance

Our mission is to develop an endurance community that empowers each member towards both individual and collective potential. At NYX Endurance, we believe in the relentless pursuit of better. We believe there is no success without suffering. There is no progress without perseverance. There is no light without darkness. #embracethedarkness