Redefining What an Athlete Looks Like

By Elise Bigley, NOWSA Co-Founder and Director of Marketing and Community Outreach

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from watching the 2020 Olympics is that there is no single way to look as an athlete. The physicality required to throw a shot put, sprint 100 meters, dive, and play volleyball are all very different. The combination and degree of speed, stamina, strength, balance, and agility all vary sport to sport, which result in their participants' different body types.

With female Olympians, you see a whole range, from 4’11” gymnasts to 6’9” basketball players. In the Paralympics, athletes compete at the highest level in their sport with immense diversity of “physical, vision and/or intellectual impairments.” No two athletes are alike.

I appreciate that the Olympics showcase individuals outside of the typical western standards of beauty and literally put them on a pedestal, in direct contrast to day-to-day American media.

Even within a particular sport, Olympic athletes have different heights and weights and are still successful, although some body features may offer certain advantages. Retired Olympic swimmer, Michael Phelps, is a commonly displayed example with his seemingly perfect combination of height, wide wingspan, and large hands and feet.

Sport can often mold athletes as they train during their developmental years, stunting their growth, prompting wider shoulders, etc.

These “superhuman” athletes and their physique may seem unattainable, but to me, seeing the range of body types normalizes them in a way. It is reassuring to see female and nonbinary athletes of all shapes, sizes, ages, colors, and backgrounds redefining what it means to be athletic. Their confidence is infectious. We can all be athletes in our own way, no matter how we are built.

There’s no doubt that even Olympic athletes have their own insecurities. Especially at such a high level of competition, they must compare themselves physically to others due to the inherent performance and zero-sum nature of sports. This impact on their mental health is another conversation altogether. As outsiders, all we see is how the athletes look when they’re on the field, on the pitch, in the pool, and especially on the podium, appearing proud and unapologetic.

If anything, that’s what we can take away from the Olympics. Realistically, it may be too late for us to turn into professional wrestlers, but we can still be successful athletes in our own right. We can acknowledge our bodies’ limitations, train in a sport we love, and stand proud of our accomplishments and how far we’ve come.

About elise Bigley

Elise is a marketing professional by day and NOWSA leader by night. She played softball throughout her youth and currently plays at the recreational level with North Coast Softball. She loves talking about the intersection of sports, mental health and social justice topics.