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first person

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Illustration by Raz Latif

If this time last year you had told me that an exercise bike would be my salvation, I’d have insisted your crystal ball was broken. I’d have protested that I’m not an athlete by any stretch, not even in my imagination. My co-ordination is lacking, my endurance is spotty and my speed is set squarely on tortoise.

In Grade 7, my physical education teacher watched me, eyebrow raised, as I tried to jump up and touch a marker on the wall. I huffed and puffed and stretched and wheezed, all to no effect.

“You’re doing pretty well in my class,” he said, piquing a nascent and long-cherished wish that I was, after all, a budding star. Then, the crushing caveat. “For someone with no ability whatsoever.”

I was subsequently the only one cut from the girl’s volleyball team. I remember snaking my finger down the list, recognizing the name of every single high-ponytailed, short-shorted, flush-cheeked girl whom I’d been spiking and serving alongside for weeks. When I got to the Ws, my heart sank to my lead feet in their squeaky white Adidas trainers.

In high school, being unsuited for a single team felt a bit like wearing a scarlet letter in lieu of a varsity jacket. I envied the honour roll kids who climbed academic mountains in their spare time, preserving their real energy for the basketball court, soccer field or dance studio. I was bookish and slow, and that self-image – of being a body better suited to quiet reading and leisurely walks – remained with me for my entire life.

I discovered running in my 20s, and I enjoyed the solitude, the feeling of quiet accomplishment and the endorphin rush – minus the fear of letting down teammates or failing to measure up. I dabbled in yoga and enjoyed the odd strength-training class, but I always prioritized cerebral pursuits over physical ones. It was easy then, after my daughter was born, to use lack of time as an excuse for lack of movement. Soon, a year turned into five, and then five more.

Perhaps it’s ironic then, that it was my mental wellness that finally forced me to rethink my fitness. This winter, I found myself bowing under the weight of pandemic-induced exhaustion. My fuse was as short my basketball jump, and I knew something had to change. I needed an outlet, a physical way to release the pent-up tension of months of video conferencing, on-and-off solo parenting and virtual school. A run, in the dead of winter, with my daughter in tow, wasn’t going to cut it.

The only thing I had in common with millions of displaced gym-goers was a mad scramble for workout gear. As I turned my attention to home exercise equipment, part of me knew there was a possibility that whatever item I chose could readily end up as an expensive clothes horse. But if I didn’t giddy-up and get something, my frustrations were likely to outpace my capacity to wrangle them.

I settled on an exercise bike with a big screen and the promise of life-changing results. I had a fit of pique at the idea that I’d wasted hard-earned money on a fad, and prayed I wouldn’t hate the sleek, 150-pound beast when it took up residence in my bedroom.

The biggest challenge was figuring out how to “clip in.” This is cycle parlance for attaching your shoes to the pedals. I almost gave up three minutes into my new routine because inserting the shoes felt like just one more athletic-related humiliation. I was sweating and swearing before I’d even begun. But after a few YouTube videos, and a decent amount of practice, I finally heard the fateful “click” that would harken the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Since early March, I’ve hardly missed a day on my bike. I’m not the fastest. My form needs work. My spandex gear is haphazard. But I’m finally learning that movement isn’t necessarily about athleticism.

More than anything, it’s about nourishing your mind. It’s the feeling of accomplishment when you finish something hard. It’s the commitment that comes from sticking with something that requires you to step out of your comfort zone. It’s knowing that there are other people out there, with similar struggles, who are getting on that bike and pushing through.

The instructors have become, in this barren pandemic landscape bereft of meaningful human contact, surrogate friends and occasional therapists. They motivate, cajole and inspire, but most of all, hold me to account. Sometimes I ride for the music. Others to sweat out workaday frustrations. Often, it’s just to buy me 15 minutes alone with my thoughts.

A handful of people will find glory in athleticism. For the rest of us, the reward is a lot more personal: better sleep, improved mood and a boost in confidence, to name a few. I always thought being an athlete was to belong to a privileged club: You had to muscle your way in, with innate talent and a competitive fire. It was a revelation, then, to discover it’s not a secret society. It’s simply a state of mind.

I’m not destined for the Olympics. I’ll never win any medals – except maybe participation. But this was never about ability. And that’s what I wish my gym teacher had told me.

If only he’d said, “You’re doing really well in my class. Look at your tenacity.”

Suzanne Westover lives in Ottawa.

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