What Is An Athlete?

Aimee GalloIn December of 2009, I ran faster than I thought possible at the Vegas Rock N Roll Half Marathon. As I crossed the finish line with an astounding personal record my mind was opened to realities I hadn’t considered for myself. It is not the first time my body has surprised me in this way. (And I hope it isn’t the last!) Crossing the finish line, I felt like an athlete again. I have few moments where I own that title. And my lack of ownership over my accomplishments has led me to explore — what does it mean to be an athlete?

Miriam Webster says an athlete is “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina”. The same source refers to skill as “a : the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance” or b : “dexterity or coordination especially in the execution of learned physical tasks”.

So it seems to me that an athlete would be one who uses what has been physically and intellectually learned to do the best they could do at any given time (performance or execution).

I bring this to attention because we all have different definitions of what an athlete is. I have found the definition depends on one’s frame of reference. I’ve met a woman who has run twelve marathons and does NOT consider herself a runner. I’ve met people who consider getting their shoes on and getting out the door for two miles qualification as a runner. I was running distances of 12-15 miles before I considered myself a runner! It took over two years of running before I felt I “fit” the part. “Real” runners were faster than I, more experienced, “looked” a certain way and had a certain ease about them I lacked. When I unexpectedly qualified for Boston, I felt I had suddenly fallen into the realm of a “good runner”. It wasn’t until I started coaching cycling classes and running at the same time that I “felt” like I was an athlete. Mind you, I came to find that friends and peers considered me an athlete long ago — I coached runners, had a decade of running and six marathons under my belt by this point — but I considered myself an average runner at best, despite years of experience and a good working knowledge of my body and the sport. Athletes are “good”, right? Athletes achieve Boston qualifications, make Olympic teams and are sponsored by companies or run longer or more than I have. Athletes are Kenyan!

In reality, my idea of “athlete” was an elusive category of exercisers whose qualifications changed based upon whatever I considered to be impressive (that happened to also be out of my reach).

And here I am now, preparing for the Boston marathon, tinkering with my own training and surprising myself with what my body is achieving. I have accomplished more in the last two years than I had ever considered for myself. I feel like an athlete. Not just a woman with athletic tendencies, but an athlete. I’m likely a good seven years behind in recognizing my accomplishments and giving myself due credit, but I am finally owning it and giving myself that pat on the back. I’ve also been pondering this definition for myself and re-framing what it really means for me, as I have considered other women with slower paces and less experience to be athletes and yet denied myself this title.

When we look at our past and where we are going, I think a truer definition stems from not only what we are currently doing, but the place we have come from. The mental challenge for some of us to get out and get our shoes on qualifies us as an athlete. We overcome obstacles with child care, work schedules, PMS, mental roadblocks, injuries, yet we come back again and again. This kind of stamina is true athletics. Never giving up. Getting back up again and again and giving it another shot. It is giving it your best in any given moment. Some athletes are born with tendencies which make effortless what most would consider grueling. Other athletes are made — with hours of sweat, grit, determination and dedication to themselves and their sport. These athletes may never experience the Olympics, a Boston qualification or complete an Ironman or run a half marathon, but persistence and dedication to what they love places them a class apart from most of the population. They have trained. They have used their knowledge and experience to perform at the best of their abilities. They are, by my definition, athletes.

What does it mean for you to be an athlete? Do you consider yourself one? At what point did you find yourself to be an athlete?


February 01, 2010 at 5:15 pm

Nice piece, Aimee! It can be hard to own, or own up, to our accomplishments. “Fear of success” sounds ridiculous but is definitely real. With your work and your running, you’re defining yourself, though, and you’re a great example to anyone who hesitates to call herself an athlete.


Carola Kaufhold

February 01, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Aimee – I am right there with you – couldn’t agree more with what you are saying. I am also training for a Marathon – not Boston (yet) – my first, actually, but have been a runner for several years. Not to the level I am now, mileage, intensity etc. I am also a Bikram yoga instructor and practice myself pretty much every day, on top of the running schedule that has taken on a while new life since opting ‘in’ to the Georgia ING in March. I am running it for donation or sponsorship – a project I have created, for a nunnery in india. I figured it would help me through if my strong will and determination were to falter somewhere in the 26.2!! I ahve always had the goal of training, using my body as the divine machine that it is – seeing how far it can go if treated well and trained properly. AN athlete I have always wanted to be.
Now I finally also feel that I have become that! My boyfriend has said it for a long time, as you mentioned many in your life also have – funny how it takes so much more for us ourselves to accept what we are, to accept that we work hard and it is good and we ARE actualizing the potential!

Thanks for your thoughts!


February 01, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Wow – this really hit home with me. Striving to be an “athlete” all my life – but outwardly identifying with something else, something less. I just saw some pictures from last summer – and I almost fell out of my chair. I looked so fit – i looked like a real “active girl”! It’s how I secretly see myself, but never want to admit that I can live it everyday. I think by avoiding this label – I can avoid the extra workouts or skip a run because, hey – i’m not an athlete after all! When embracing the feeling and title of athlete – it’s almost a responsibility. But what a great one! Taking care of your body, respecting the great things it can do, and having the discipline to call yourself an athlete.

Now that’s something to live up to!

Aimee Gallo

February 01, 2010 at 7:34 pm


Way to go! I am inspired by your dedication to help a nunnery in India with your running; sometimes it takes doing it for others to do for ourselves, but in the end – we are doing it!! 🙂 I imagine thinking of them adds to the power and depth of this experience. Also, congratulations on the funds you have already raised! Continue to live large and vibrantly!

Sarah — isn’t it amazing how those photos can be such “reality checks”? How would it be for you to embrace how you secretly see yourself? I’ll let you in on a little secret as well — even athletes will sometimes skip a workout! It doesn’t take away all the attention, care, respect and discipline you can have for your amazing body. 🙂

Denise Youngman

February 01, 2010 at 10:03 pm

I have redefined athlete in last 3 years after joining forces with other women who are cancer survivors to start a Dragon Boat Team. Women from 30 to 80 yr old get into our 40 ft canoe and push their limits in ways they never knew they could. We are all athletes, some of us are just finding out what our bodies can do. Others are recognizing how much they can improve when they push themselves. We are transformed by the beautiful bay that we paddle on, by the speed we can achieve when we all work as a team, by the support we all feel from our teammates and we become the beautiful animals we were meant to be. Life is good, exercise makes it better.


February 02, 2010 at 5:43 am

My eyes grew to giants when I read this article title in my RSS feed. As I read it, I choked up… Like Sarah said, this article really hit home for me. I was an athlete ‘once’ in high school. I was a lacrosse player. Varsity team, captain… At that time in my life, I felt the best about myself, my achievements. I thought athletes were the sexiest, best things in the world. Their hair was tied in a mess, but their confidence shined right through. They had fully capable bodies. Nothing else mattered when I was on the field. I was one of those. After high school, high school sports stopped. I lost a huge part of myself. So much so, that every time someone asks me if I play at my college, I almost lose it. Due to time and location, I can’t play in college. Even if I could, it would end in two years. It’s been a few years since high school, and I’m still having so many problems with missing my sport, missing being an athlete. Sure, I’ll always have lacrosse in my life, but I’m a coach now- on the other side. My heart just rips open when I think of what I’ve lost. I call myself a runner, because I do run in the summer, however not regularly. I’ve run a few 5Ks. I have dreams of running a marathon. I’m not sure I think I can do it. My schedule is jam packed, but I fit in exercise at least 3 days a week. I don’t feel like an athlete, and I yearn to be one with my whole heart. I don’t know what to do. I feel broken from the identity I used to cherish, and I’d do anything to get it back… I’ve looked at definitions of athletes online, thinking of them as guidelines. If I could do all that, I could be an athlete again! But I either thought I would fail or thought the feeling would never come even if I achieved those goals. Thanks for writing this article… I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who has troubles defining themselves as an athlete.


February 02, 2010 at 3:30 pm

I had been playing sports since I was five years old, swim team, basketball, volleyball, running then I was a wild land fighter. When I got married in my mid twenties I put that part of me on a shelf and said ok time to let that go you are a step mom and wife now. This part is so lame I would get the Athleta and Title 9 catalogs and be so jelous of the women in the catalog. So I turn 38 and I am over weight diabetic and all I want to do is to be healthy, be on a team again. What I really wanted to do was go snow shoeing (sp). If you are over a certain weight you have to buy more expensive ones. I worked out very hard and got about 20 pounds off and still my diabets is out of control so I go through the process to have gaystric bypass surgery. That was a year ago!! I have lost 85 pounds I am running about 20 miles a week. Becoming a Yoga teacher for incarcerated youth and my dear sweet husband got me snow shoes for Christmas. We had no snow until about a week ago. We were sent home early from work because of a snow storm and I was so excited because I knew I could finally use my snow shoes…. When I put those on and took off through the snow I felt a freedom and a sense of peace I had not felt in over 20 years. Strength and endurance the only reason I had to stop was because it was getting dark and our power was out because of the storm. In that moment I knew I was an athlete again and I was back intouch with that person I lost. I have promised my self that if I want to train for a race or try something new I will not let fear or other people’s needs come before my training any more.

Shana Crovo

February 03, 2010 at 10:49 am


I so identified with your article! I was actually a late bloomer in the fitness and athlete category. I dabbled in dance, cross country, and cheer as a kid and early teen but didn’t follow through. I think it was due to the low self esteem issues that plague many teenage girls. The irony is that if I had identified myself as an athlete as a young girl it probably would have boosted my self esteem. I began running 5Ks with my mom as a teen, began teaching fitness classes at 18, a year ago began running 1/2 marathons (my 3rd is this Sunday in FL:-)) and doing triathlons. Like you and so many others that have written I still wouldn’t really call myself an athlete, but based on the definition I suppose I am! Thanks so much for sharing! I look forward to future posts:-)


Aimee Gallo

February 04, 2010 at 10:28 pm

I am so moved by how open and willing the women here are in sharing their triumphs, their losses, and their hearts. I can feel the disappointment and frustration, the hope and yearning, the joy and reward is owning and reclaiming our power in movement (I love what you said, Denise; “Life is good, exercise makes it better”).

For all those who have the calling to become or reclaim her inherent athlete; I encourage you to create a space to foster that vision. What inspires you and fills you with possibility? Create a vision board, pull out your old race bibs or jerseys, place inspiring mementos in prominent places where you can be both consciously and subconsciously reminded of your destiny. Be open and willing to consider that the right circumstances will show up for you – – just like Colette’s snow storm. Foster the potential and it will blossom!

With great respect and admiration;


Jodi Seals

February 11, 2010 at 9:41 am

OH Stefanie…I could have written exactly what you wrote, only my s;ort was rodeo. I was a barrel racer, at the to; of my game in HS. Then I graduated, got married, had kids, losing a huge ;art of me. Now I give riding lessons and teach barrel racing, like you on the side but wanting to so badly to be what I once was. An “athlete.” I too yearn to be one with my whole heart, but life as gotten in the way. I also feel broken from the identity I used to cherish and just like you, I thought I would fail. It’s that thinking that has us in this rut. I believe we have to change the way we think in order to succeed and begin to think of ourselves as the athletes we once were and CAN BE AGAIN!!! You are not alone girl, but we CAN do it if we can just change our thinking!


February 11, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Hey, Jodi! It’s nice to know I’m not the only one… Do you have an email or something?

Catherine Dickson

February 12, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Hi Aimee and Girls,

I can certainly relate to ‘what is an athlete’. An athlete, to me, is someone who has an undying passion for what they love to do that starts at a physical level but then becomes so much more. Giving it your all, giving it your very best with a fiery determination to continue is key. The physical and mental fuel it takes to stay in an athletic presence year round is what inspires all the people I know.

I may not be competing publically as a bodybuilder. Haven’t done so yet at 48 years old. Although my daily life in the gym resembles hard work, focus, consistency, and a real discipline that boils down to a strong love for being and staying fit.

We are the ones that decide what makes an athlete an athlete in our own minds and hearts. Discovered through the perserverance we carry out to stay (or get back into) in the sport(s) we engage in and love. 🙂

christine lewis

February 13, 2010 at 11:40 am

Wow.I was hopeing to get some inspiration and now I feel so ridiculous that I actually thought a “runner” was one that could run a mile in at least nine minutes.Not only do I feel like I dont even have the qualifications to referr to myself as a runner after reading your article I’m embarressed for myself that I ever have. That was hard to read now I truely feel like I will never “get”there.

Aimee Gallo

February 13, 2010 at 1:28 pm


It’s unfortunate that you took the article as a tool of comparison and a means to disown your own athleticism. My point was that being an athlete isn’t really about qualifying for the Olympics or being a certain speed or looking a certain way, it is about having the tenacity and willingness to keep going, to never give up, and to let our love of our sport carry us through the rough patches. For ten years I always looked to those who were faster, went further, had more experience as runners and called them athletes while denying myself that title. I now see that it was, as Catherine pointed out, a decision I had made that ultimately sold myself short. In my heart and mind I have chosen to now call myself an athlete.

Runners get out and run. They may be fast or slow, they may go short distances or long, but they get out and go. It’s so much more than a number or a time.
I hope that you can embrace your own inner athlete; that you can celebrate your own journey in fitness as a powerful testament to your qualification as one. We are rooting for you!

Catherine Dickson

February 15, 2010 at 9:40 pm

Hi Christine!

I agree with Aimee wholeheartedly in saying that an athlete goes out there and runs. An athlete, to me, is someone who carves out their own description of what it takes to celebrate their active way of fitness. Mainly as a lifestyle choice or behavior for their overall well-being: mind, body, and soul.

I’m an athlete in my own description of what that is versus what other people’s view of that may be. Again, mostly since I don’t compete against others. But rather I compete against myself. I exercise my mental and physical muscle daily and strive to stay engaged with the lifting I do creatively to avoid adaptation and to get the results I’m looking for in the muscle I carry.

People often ask me why I haven’t competed. I compete every day…I’m just in the gym doing it–setting my own stage, posing with good form, ‘clocking’ my own miles, winning my own titles. All seen and heard through the sweat and grunts of loving what I do and how I choose to do it!!!

Go out there Christine and do your thing—your way! And be ever happy with yourself for the effort and attempt you make to enjoy something physical. Especially since it makes you feel good to do so (and it’s good for you)!!!

Keep going strong! It is a journey of fitness for a lifetime, after all….:)

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