In All My Five-Foot Glory

For someone who hates exercising, I sure do a lot of it. Twice a week, I trek to the IM Building for whatever circuit training the skating team has lined up for me, and once or twice a week, I step on the ice to put my conditioning to good use. Every time, I experience the irony of physical activity: the muscular burning and quickened breathing that relax and restore me. In the moment, my lungs blast into hyperdrive as my muscles scream for air, but as soon as the timer reaches zero, the tension releases. Never do I feel calmer and more invigorated than after a challenging, agonizing workout. It’s kind of funny when you think about it.

Now, don’t get the wrong idea–I haven’t been a gym person for long. Actually, I don’t know if I’d ever been to a gym before the start of this school year. The closest I ever got was P.E. growing up, and I always dreaded that. Freshman year of high school, the computer system lumped me in a class with star athletes who were driven to compete. The girls secured their hair with neon Nike headbands and wore skin-tight tanks to match, and the boys’ arms bulged when they flexed, even at 14. Meanwhile, I systematically modeled my entire old T-shirt collection for the class and hoped they wouldn’t notice my complete inability to lift anything substantial over my head. To be fair, they probably did. During our soccer unit, the class would cheer if I got the ball, let alone kicked it. Regardless, I was thrilled to find out that a certain Michigan bylaw allowed me to replace the second term of P.E. with an extra year of Spanish.

Even still, I didn’t hate exercise, nor was I totally athletically impaired. I played two sports outside of school, and I actually looked forward to the nights I had practice. Growing up in the frigid north, I got involved in winter sports: figure skating and speed skating. No matter what happened during the day, no matter what tests and assignments my teachers threw at me, I always knew I would have a chance to shine at night. Mondays and Tuesdays, I zipped around the rink in a sustained squat, heart and lungs straining against the frozen air. Wednesdays and Thursdays, I alternated etching complex patterns on the ice and launching myself from it. Fridays were for drama club, because even the best can’t function at 100% all the time.

With all the time I spent on the ice, if you’re wondering if I could keep up with Apolo Ohno or land triple axels, the short answer is no. I knew middle schoolers who can lap me in a race, and single axels still defy me. Because I split my time between them both, I couldn’t dedicate myself to either, thus hindering my progress in both. I knew that I didn’t have a real competitive future, but that never stopped me from attending practice and working myself to a sweaty ache. What kept me going, even when advancement eluded me, was my own appreciation of what I could do. Maybe I, in all my five-foot glory, could never dunk a basketball, but you should have seen me fly when I broke a minute on my 500-meter sprint. Maybe my clumsy butt tripped on stairs, but my sit spins were the best of all my coach’s students. Maybe I would never achieve athletic glory, but everything I did felt better than what I did the day before, and I always congratulated my body for its effort.

This August, I had the opportunity to try out for U-M Synchronized Skating, which is a team version of the solo sport I love.  I’d always been able to flaunt my skills back home, since my friends are wonderful creatures who don’t know what good figure skating looks like. Taking the ice that day, though, I quickly realized I wouldn’t impress anyone else there. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that the gods of gracefulness and talent were not smiling down on me that day. Nevertheless, I scored a spot on the team (still puzzling over that one), and so far I haven’t lost that privilege. That day, I made a vow to myself that, no matter what, no matter how far behind the rest of the team I was or how tough the demands on me were, I would keep my head high and push through to earn my place in the program.

Fast forward about five months to last weekend, when the team won the Midwestern sectional bronze medal for the second consecutive year. This time, I was around to help. I really didn’t think it was possible for me to transform from a bumbling newbie to competition-ready in only a few months, but after dozens of workouts and on-ice practices, here I am, on par to blend in with my teammates. Like most college freshmen, my body has changed, but unlike my peers, I’m proud of it. I’ll admit that I’m carrying some extra orders of fries and many slices of cake on my hips, but at the same time, I’ve built core muscle underneath that, and my arms are no longer the consistency of Jell-O. (Strong evidence points to the existence of bicep muscles somewhere in there.) On top of that, I’ve added some new moves to my repertoire and have polished the ones I already knew. Day by day, inch by inch, sumo squat by sumo squat, I am improving. Despite the slow pace, I couldn’t ask for more.

Ultimately, this is why I push on, even if my progress is slow-going.  Truth be told, I still struggle with self-doubt sometimes. At the gym, my teammates’ form-fitting clothes hug their toned abs, whereas my stomach looks like a nice place to take a nap. But in the end, I can only control my body, so I choose to be happy with how it carries me through intense workouts and competitions under scrutinizing judges. Most importantly, however, it houses me–my drive, my ambition, my strengths, and my flaws–and for that, I’ll be forever grateful.

Cielle Waters-Umfleet,

Staff Writer, What the F Magazine

Art by Anna Herscher,

Art Director, What the F Magazine

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