The Body in Sport - Part 2

author : Scott Tinley
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Part Two: On Appreciation and Acceptance. At some point your body will let you down. Then you have to decide whether it is really the enemy.

by Scott Tinley
  
Ironman World Champion, 1982 & 1985
Ironman Hall of Famer; Triathlon Hall of Famer

           My neighbor John can't run anymore. The soft tissue around his knees isn't torn, tattered, ripped or scarred. It's just gone; like some magician from his youth had waved a handkerchief over his leg and shazaam -- thirty years and thirty-thousand miles later, the head of the tibia is staring at the lower part of the femur like two grumpy old neighbors. The soft tissue and the ivy-laden fence gone, they must redefine their relationship.
          The cool part with John is that he's okay with it.
          "This knee has supported me for much longer than I would've expected," he spoke, as if giving a eulogy for a fallen soldier. "He's contributed to the cause, done his time and now I'll let him rest."
          I almost wanted to take my hat off and sing Amazing Grace.
          The relationship that some athletes have with their body is like that of a jilted love: you only really understand it when you feel the bone-level pain of unexpected loss. It's justifiable, of course. The musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems that propel us -- as 250 pound linebackers, forward into human carnage; as seven-foot forwards, upward into rarified air; and as endurance athletes, across barren lava fields -- is the vehicle that provides us with not only our recreation but our identity. The embodied athlete finds validity as a human being with a particular purpose. For the athlete, arms and legs aren't body parts; they're an extension of our psyche and our soul.
          And so it is when appendages and central parts fail the athlete, we are rarely unaffected. Career-ending surgeries can bring depression and necessary adjustment of self-identity. Minor strains and sprains cause irritability and frustration. My neighbor's level of appreciation and acceptance is an anomaly. The insightful and pragmatic will realize that the athlete's relationship with their body is as fluid and dynamic as the body itself; much more so than the sedentary individual. How we think about our bodies is affected by intrinsic and extrinsic factors; self-images from within and mediated images from the outside.
          Athlete's bodies have become part of the economic and cultural landscape. It's not only about skill and performance anymore. It's about just looking good while we just do it. Athlete's bodies are objectified, aestheticized, and commodified. In other words, they are separated from the human as a living being, looked upon as art and beauty and then sold in every form from the masculinized Gladiator to a sexualized pin-up doll. If you aren't talented enough to win but you have the goods elsewhere, you can still become a talking-head commentator or star in a centerfold spread.
          The body has many roles to play, and society is often the curtained puppeteer holding the strings. But we all have a little Pinocchio in us -- that innate need to go it alone. We are tossed into the fray of decision. What do we think of our bodies? Are they simply a carrier for our minds and souls? Are they meant to carry us across oceans and continents and finish lines and the bathroom floors? Are they meant only to attract the opposite sex and then procreate the species? Or some unanswerable amalgamation of the above?
          Multi-sport athletes have a reputation for narcissism, for an overt focus on how they appear while they perform. Any number of participants will justify this with comments like, "I worked hard to look this good, to go this fast. I'll flaunt it as much as I want." To be sure, there is nothing wrong with showing outward pride for the results of inward hard work. It's natural. What's problematic is when our feelings toward our bodies and what we can or cannot do with them become manipulated by those who may not have our own best interests at heart. Still, multi-sport athletes have shown a level of independence in thought and action. There is little difference between a teenager with a purple Mohawk and the first Ironman competitors. Somebody said it couldn't or shouldn't be done. And so they went and did it.
          At what costs though? Serious triathletes have often traded health for fitness, only learning the difference when tragedy comes knocking as a stress fracture or chronic fatigue. Or worse.
          There are people like Rudy Garcia-Tolsen, whose story is well-known, and Dr. Beck Wethers of the infamous 1996 Mt. Everest tragedy when five climbers died in a sudden storm. The Dallas physician, who lost all or parts of several fingers, toes and facial parts, reportedly told an interviewer who'd inquired about the multiple challenges he faced without digits and dexterity, "It's only body parts."
          Indeed. But those parts are hard to come by, even with reconstructive surgery. Wethers and Garcia-Tolsen, who opted to have his deformed legs removed as a child so that he could "be more like the other kids," certainly took the high road. When set up against elective surgery that alters such horrible maladies as size 34 B breasts and replaces them with a socially-desirable 36 D, one wonders just how they should go about this relationship with their body. But if the elective rekindles lost feelings of self-esteem and results in better lives, so be it. There are no right answers, only personal choices.
          I hope that when my joints grind away like chalkboard fingernails and my face looks like the dashboard of a '62 Buick left out in the Arizona sun, and my kids have to help me onto my three wheeled bicycle, I will be able to say that she gave me a good ride.
          Other days, I remember when it didn't. When it was busted.
          Like this one from a few years back:
          I paddled around the neighborhood on my crutches, a hundred feet at a time before resting, and then limped a few more houses down before re-tracing my new training route. It's wasn't exactly high quality intervals but it's all that I could do to stay sane. I was a caged animal who couldn't even pace the cage with any degree of authority. I was injured and it sucked.
          Like most lessons I have learned in my life, I learned about injuries the hard way: With irony and disbelief. I don't even train very hard any more. How could I break my foot simply by flying a lifeguard rescue boat over a large wave and landing off center? The worst thing I did in 25 years of professional sport was to break my neck. I only did that once and earned those fractures, but not the lucky result. That was a gift from above, someone putting me on notice.
          Then, as I moved through the classic stages of loss, from disbelief and anger to depression, bargaining and acceptance, I was given the opportunity to consider every athlete who has been sidelined, whether temporary or permanent, and limp a block in the shadow of their collective shoes.
          I would never consider that the two new Suisse-made stainless steel screws in my 5th metatarsal would give me the ability to know what it's like to be facing twenty or thirty years racing wheelchairs instead of titanium two-wheelers. But I know that as athletes, we rarely look back, rarely slow down long enough to ponder the "what fors" and the "what ifs." It often takes the gloved hand and firm, knowledgeable voice of a doctor or nurse to help us find the brake lever, to help us realize how special the human body can and should be in any form.



Scott Tinley won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

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date: September 16, 2011

Scott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

avatarScott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

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