Am I an Athlete, or a Female Athlete?
It is one of my favorite times of the athletic year: max week- an entire week of lifting dedicated to maxing out in various lifts and exercises. My teammates and coaches all gather around the rack, bench, and lifting mat each time someone is about to test their strength. I walk up to the bar; I’m about to go for a PR in the power snatch. I think to myself “slow pull, fast hips, get under the bar.” I grab the bar, pieces of chalk fall to the floor as my teammates cheer me on.
“Slow pull...fast hips...get under the bar.”
180 pounds grazes the front of my body and flies over my head. I catch it, but I feel my shoulders shake. All I can hear is the weight room yelling “Up!! Get up!!” I stand up, holding onto the bar proudly before I drop it back to the floor. I am quickly surrounded by chalky high fives and sweaty hugs over my new PR. I am filled with pride as I walk to my teammate’s mat and cheer him on as he goes for his PR. In that weight room, I am just strong. In that weight room, there is no need to call me a female athlete... I am just an athlete.
The first comment someone would ask after finding out that I was a collegiate thrower was “Wow you must be strong” quickly followed by an inquiry of how much I can lift. After listing off some numbers, I would usually get the response “Wow, you’re really strong, for a girl.” The first time someone said that, I wasn’t sure how to respond. I was new to lifting and didn’t know what was considered to be strong or a lot of weight. The next few times I had that conversation, it became apparent that my success was not admirable; it was only admirable for a woman. I became more and more aware of how this verbiage was being used, not only in my experience as an athlete, but also through language used across the institution of sports.
I first picked up on it last winter, while watching the Olympics. The games remind me of the familiar feelings I once had during competition; the excitement of success, the frustration when you don’t hit your goal, the adrenaline as they announce your name, the pain when you fall, the joy when your teammate achieves success. But as I watched the Winter Olympics, I was hyper aware of how the commentators were announcing the events, because to be honest, winter sports were somewhat new to me. I picked up on the commentators saying things like “These women are out here doing X, Y, and Z,” or “These ladies are making a statement for women’s sports.”
This story is told over and over again. How often does a woman get referred to as a “female athlete,” rather than just an athlete? This isn’t exclusive to just athletes either. How often do we hear of a woman being referred to by her gender, rather than her profession? Female doctor, female artist, female rapper, the list goes on. I understand the reasoning for the need to distinguish between two sexes, but is it necessary? Why must women be identified by their gender first, and accomplishments second and sometimes, not recognized at all.
I am proud to be a woman and I am proud to be an athlete. I just wish that women, who are athletes, would be recognized by their contributions to sports first. That we be noted as outstanding athletes who are also female. Can I just be strong, rather than strong for a girl?