Strong Bodies

Thighs like small boulders, wasp-waisted, she approaches the platform. The young Olympic athlete dips her hands in resin, claps, strokes her chalked palms back and forth over the steel barbell weighing 94 kilos—207 pounds—shifts from one foot to the next, then back again. The horn blasts. She clenches her jaw, squats, yanks the barbell up to her shoulders, strains to stand. But the weight is too heavy. She dumps it, thud, leaves the podium, head low.

She returns a second time, still cannot make the clean and jerk. Her coach drapes a jacket over her slumped shoulders. Other women in her weight class, with equally muscular bodies, have hoisted the barbells high. But I feel for her. I can barely imagine what it takes to grasp a weight that heavy and lift it even an inch off the ground, let alone heft it overhead.

The Olympics are contests of perfection. Swim and track meets are lost by hundredths of a second. Gymnasts fail by degrees of perpendicularity. Divers are dropped for splashing.

And yet. How extraordinary are those strong, perfect bodies. What amazing feats of stamina, coordination, speed and strength, even by those who never make the final eight. Whenever I watch the Olympics, especially the summer games, I’m always amazed—and a bit jealous. At no point in my life, healthy or not, was I athletic enough to entertain a glimmer of hope that I could be like that.

Or so I thought. Every year in high school gym class, dressed in our light blue bloomer jumpsuits, we would tumble and stumble through two weeks of gymnastics. It was always my favorite unit, though I was terrified of the beam (especially since we had to balance in sneakers, which, of course, made it impossible to feel or grip the narrow wooden span).

I loved the parallel bars, felt exhilarated when I could do a flip or a penny drop. I flew over the vault, throwing my legs cleanly across the padded horse and landing firmly. And I amazed my teachers and astonished myself when, one day, I shinnied all the way up one of the thick, scratchy ropes that dangled from the gym’s high ceiling and touched the top. Me, the shrimpy first chair violinist who was afraid of heights. I wrote it all off as a fluke.

Now physical challenges are so much harder. But I’m in better shape today, even with scleroderma, than I was 10 years ago. I take Pilates every Monday night and a dance class on most Thursdays, stretch each morning and walk Ginger in the afternoon. I want to look and feel my best as I age, and I don’t want to give in to my disease. The latter has proven to be a powerful motivation, more than vanity and my own drive for perfection.

I want to be strong. I know I need to be strong to fight scleroderma. Living with any chronic illness involves a willingness to accept limitations, but I keep pushing the envelope to find out which limitations are real and which are just obstacles of my own making.

Sometimes I wonder what my health would have been if I’d had that attitude back in high school and pushed harder to be athletic. If I hadn’t assumed I was a klutz. If I hadn’t bought into negative stereotypes of female jocks.

But it’s far too late for that, now. So I keep working out and take great pleasure and, yes, pride in discovering that my body still responds well to physical exercise. And I watch the summer Olympics, daydream what it would be like to be a competitor—and cheer for the losers who keep on trying.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

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