How I Became a Triathlete–of Sorts

It wasn't until I became an adult that I realized physical fitness didn't have to equate to physical torture

Today, at age 58, I can proudly declare, "I am a triathlete." I never thought I'd see the day.

I was an athletic dud as a kid, much to my parents' dismay. All four of us Clark kids were pretty non-athletic. Our parents, on the other hand, were quite sporty. My dad played baseball in high school and was famous for his left-handed pitches. My mom was voted best woman athlete at her high school (quite a feat, at not quite 4'11''). They surely expected at least one of their kids to excel at sports. Instead, we all inherited the other part of our parents' brains: We were bookworms.

By the time I was born, I'm pretty sure my parents had given up their dream of having an athletic kid. I acted accordingly, never really exerting myself in any physical endeavor. I grew up in the era of the Presidential Fitness Awards and always wished President Johnson hadn't butted into my life quite so intrusively. I dreaded the arrival of spring because it also brought the arrival of a series of athletic benchmarks I knew I would never achieve. Sit-ups, pull-ups, broad jumps, and worse of the worst, the 600-yard dash—all within the scorchingly disdainful view of my classmates. It was public humiliation at its finest.

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Our PE teachers tried to prepare us for these tests, but I'm not sure how slamming balls into each other during dodgeball or the yearly square-dancing unit (the one PE unit I liked) got us ready to perform like mini-Olympians.

I squashed myself into my too-tight gym bloomers and slunk into the gym at the end of the line, hoping the bell would ring before my turn came around. It never did. I don't think I ever achieved even one pull up. Instead, I'd hang there like a maimed monkey, mouth agape, face red, and dark underarm sweat patch growing by the second. Finally, the sadistic PE teacher (and they were all sadistic) would blow her whistle and say, "That's enough, Clark. Get to the end of the line." And off I'd slink to the next event.

Luckily, I had enough friends to ensure that I wasn't the very last person picked for games we also had to play in PE. Yes, I was always picked in the second half, sitting cross-legged on the cold gym floor with my hand raised and my voice saying, "Pick me! Pick me! Please!" Whoever was team captain would glance briefly my way, then move on to someone who could actually get the job done. I'd sweat it out nervously until, finally, my sportier best friend got selected and I'd see her whisper in the captain's ear. "Julie," the captain would grudgingly announce, "you're on my team." Yippee! I was saved from social, if not physical, humiliation.

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And so it went. Year after year. PE teachers hated me because I didn't try and I talked too much. One even contacted my mother because she didn't like my "flippant" attitude. She was especially annoyed that I had started the "Bottom of the Rope Club" as an antidote to her "Ring the Bell Club." Members of her club had to climb a rope all the way to the top, ring the bell and slither down. Members of my club took turns swinging at the bottom of the rope while chatting about other things. She shut my club down as soon as she heard about it and called my mother. No sense of humor at all, those PE teachers.

It wasn't until I became an adult that I realized physical fitness didn't have to equate to physical torture. I took a couple of dance classes in college, along with one truly excellent relaxation class, to satisfy the PE requirement. I found that I enjoyed them. I started going to the gym, basically to watch the boys play basketball, and realized a slow jog around the track made me feel better, if a little sore at first.

I joined a walking group after the birth of my third child, and the friends I made while walking and talking became the friends I lean on for pretty much everything. I have realized that combining physical fitness with friendship can be fun. Which brings me back to my new status as a triathlete.

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This is what I do, now that I'm retired. My husband and I have our coffee in bed, then leash up our two West Highland terriers and walk them through the neighborhood for an hour or so. We meet and greet friends along the way. When we return, I put on my bathing suit and a pair of shorts, and hop on my bike. I have one of those upright handlebar bikes with the fat seats—very comfy. I ride, mostly downhill, for about five minutes to my community pool. I park my bike and hop in the pool where I join a bunch of neighborhood women for a water aerobics class. Yes, many of them are a good deal older than me, but the water is warm and the music is good. You can work out as hard, or as light, as you want and no one cares.

And there you have it, three sports: walking, biking, swimming. A triathalon, of a sort.

Granted, it's all on a very moderate level, but who cares? President Johnson is no longer looking over my shoulder and I've taken charge of my own fitness at last.