I am strong

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

Allegheny has a new peak performance coach, Randy Moore. As soon as I heard the news, I wrote him an email.

Coach Moore. Welcome to Allegheny. I feel like your new position and presence at Allegheny is an answer to a prayer—or at least to a fervent hope. I want to return to conditioning to improve my strength and endurance and I’m thrilled to learn you have classes available.

A bit about me by way of introduction: I am a career journalist and I teach journalism classes at Allegheny College. I’m also the adviser to the award-winning student newspaper, The Campus.

I came to Allegheny by way of Afghanistan and a life-threatening illness that had me hospitalized in Kuwait. The doctors advised me to do nothing but walk for a year to allow my lungs to recover. That was 2012-2013.

I am now carrying 40 pounds I don’t need and I’ve lost strength and endurance. I was a college athlete. I rowed crew at Oregon State and I’m a Pac-10 champion rower. I’ve run marathons. I haven’t been running with the extra weight.

I know my body remembers how to be fit and strong. My concern is that I don’t want to push too hard too soon. May I meet with you to discuss my options?

We exchanged emails and decided the intermediate conditioning class would be a good place for me to start. If it proved too much too soon, I could bump down to the beginning class. Coach advised me to start with light weights.

I rowed in a lightweight eight in college. That meant I was wicked lean and strong. Nine percent body fat. I could walk out my front door and run 12 miles for the fun of it. I could bench press well past my body weight. I remember my friend, an offensive lineman, standing behind me in the weight room and willing me to my record 13 pull ups.

That’s the Cheryl of Fitness Past.

Cheryl of Fitness Present can’t even do a push up, let alone a pull up. I learned this the hard way. I took a class at the local Y. The instructor told us to drop and do push ups. Modified, if we needed it. I could barely do one modified push up.

I knew I was out of shape. I had no idea I’d lost my strength.

It takes a whole different kind of strength to walk into the weight room at the Wise Center. I’m surrounded by wall-to-wall mirrors and young, fit athletes. When I look in the mirror, I don’t recognize myself. I expect to see the lean me that once frequented weight rooms.

Instead, I see me: out of shape and overweight. And I have a relentless voice in my head, reminding me of how far I’ve let myself go. Who are you kidding? You’re never going to get fit. You’ll never lose the weight. You look ridiculous.

While I do sets of repetitions with the weights, the unkind voice keeps repeating its debilitating messages.

The trainers are excellent. Several young women are on the lacrosse team. Another ran track. They offer me encouragement. High-fives. Compliments on my form. Their positive voices and support make me smile.

My competitiveness is still intact. Once I got over my initial internal laments about my shape, I got into the routine and my competitiveness kicked in. Three weeks into the workouts, I took a week off. My knee and once-shattered wrist were not happy. Too much too soon.

I ran into my trainer, Maria, the one who’d run track, on campus. I told her I would skip a few workouts. She smiled and told me that I was wise to rest. She complimented me on my commitment, offered a high-five with a smile and headed to the Wise Center. When I returned the following week, she watched me carefully and inquired about my knee.

The trainers and coach are teaching me more than just form. They’ve offered me an alternative to the nasty voice in my head. I’ve decided I need to balance my competitiveness with compassion.

My body has served me well for many years, even when I have sorely neglected her. She has weathered brutal diseases—typhoid, amoebic dysentery, diseases that don’t have names. She’s endured extended periods of sleep deprivation, bad food or no food, and relentless bursts of adrenaline. It’s a miracle and an act of sustained grace that I am still alive, let alone spiritually, emotionally and physically intact.

I am an athlete. I am strong.

Meet the Cheryl of Fitness Future.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Keep playing your game no matter what anyone says

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From my weekly column Outside the Box, in The Meadville Tribune

Two Sundays ago, I watched the Allegheny women’s soccer team win the NCAC Division III championship at Robertson Field. I’d given my camera to a student who was covering the event and watched her dash down the field to photograph the hugging mob of players and spectators.

A few minutes later, I turned and noticed one player with her legs and arms wrapped around a man, hugging him tightly as he spoke in her ear. I lifted the only camera I had, my iPhone 4s, and recorded the moment—two frames.

I approached the young woman, wearing the No. 20 jersey, and asked her name. Brianna Layman. The man? Her father, Jeff Layman. Ever the curious journalist seeking—perhaps sensing—a story, I asked her about the moment I’d photographed.

“He was giving me a kiss and telling me how proud he was of me and how far I’d come,” Layman said.

How far you’d come?

In fifth grade, Layman explained, she had a coach when she was younger who told her soccer wasn’t her game.

“He just didn’t think I had any talent in soccer but soccer was what I wanted to do, so I kept playing.”

Before she left to see other family members and gather more hugs, I asked for her phone number. I might want to follow up with more questions.

I couldn’t get her story out of my head. As I pursued the story, I interviewed the team captain, Michelle Holcomb, a senior. She, too, had a coach who didn’t believe in her abilities on the pitch.

“You’re just not cut out to play competitive soccer,” Holcomb said, reciting her coach’s words. “Every one of us on this field has a story like that.”

I thought of my own parallel experiences with people in positions of authority or influence who had cast doubt or dumped buckets of cold-water negativity on my dreams and aspirations.

I imagine we’ve all encountered people who have offered us unsolicited, often uncharitable, advice. They seek to define us, shape us with their limiting words and narrow vision. They tell us what we can’t do. They tell us how we’re lacking in some way, missing the mark, falling short.

Too tall. Too short. Too young. Too old. Too soon. Too late.

Women don’t do that. Or worse, women can’t do that. Boys don’t do that. You don’t have the right training. You don’t come from the right family. You don’t have enough money. You’re not creative enough. You’re not smart enough.

When I was nearing college graduation, I was looking for an internship. I found a great opportunity: a Pulliam Fellowship. There were 10 positions each at two different papers, one in Phoenix, Ariz., one in Indianapolis, Ind. Paid summer fellowships with mentoring on a major metropolitan paper. I wanted one.

I showed my adviser the fellowship application. He told me I’d never get it. He told me I didn’t have the experience or the pedigree for such a lofty program. He told me that fellowship was for students who’d already had internships at USA Today, The New York Times or The Washington Post.

I applied. I earned one of the 10 spots at The Arizona Republic.

When I arrived, I learned I’d received the top, coveted spot on the state desk. I was naïve; I didn’t understand the implications. My fellow fellows wanted to know how someone like me—with no prior impressive internships—got the spot.

I asked my editor.

I had first choice, he said. I read your résumé. You speak multiple languages. You scuba dive. You fly planes. You’re an athlete. I knew I could send you anywhere and you’d come back with a story.

My editor didn’t look at what I didn’t have; he looked at what I did have. He read between the lines—and yes, thought outside the box. He saw my potential and gave me the opportunity and confidence to stretch as a young journalist, to grow, to channel my curiosity and chase stories wherever they led.

A good journalist is curious. A good journalist is persistent. A good journalist rarely takes no for an answer.

And champions, like Layman and Holcomb, refuse to let anyone tell them what they can and can’t do.

As a college athlete, I remember well our final day at the Pac-10 Rowing Championships. We were eight rowers lying on our backs in circle, heads facing in, the bare soles of our feet pointed out. With closed eyes, we listened as our coxswain described our race and we visualized every stroke—visualized crossing the finish line first.

The coach of the team we’d soon meet in the finals approached. He mentioned how nice it was for us to be at the competition then hinted that we were wasting our time since his team was favored to win.

Psychologically super uncool. Not to mention discourteous and unsportsmanlike. And intended to get under our skin and unhinge us.

It made me want to beat his team.

In crew, when a team wins a race, each member of the losing team literally gives the winner the shirt off her back.

I still have the shirt from the woman rowing three-seat on that favored-to-win crew team.

I wouldn’t have had half the fun or achieved much of what I’ve done in my life if I’d listened to others when they tried to define me, deny me, dissuade me.

It’s my life. I’ll live it. You live your life. And be blessed living it. It’s yours to define.

Take a cue from the fifth-grade Brianna Layman. Keep playing your game, no matter what anyone says.

And take inspiration from the college sophomore and NCAC champion Brianna Layman.

“Succeeding feels so much better when you prove people wrong.”

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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