Monday, June 15, 2020

Interview with Paula Miller: On Ice Hockey, Ice Swimming, and Finding "Alternatives to Traditional Sports and Feminine Activities"

Name: Paula Miller
Sports: Marathon and ice swimming, but I spent about 6 years mountain biking, 4 years rock-climbing, 11 years men's and women's ice hockey
Age: 48
Occupation: Archaeologist
Location: Lancaster, PA

Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival, Newport, CT
Water Temp: 30-31 degrees F
"The water literally freezes behind you as you swim. Ice
shards are skimmed from the surface between each race."

How did you begin participation in sports?
I think I learned to swim before I could walk. I joined the York YWCA Blue Dolphins in 8th grade and then swam for York Suburban High School.

How did you make the transition from pool swimming to open water/ice swimming?
One day, I was bored and began perusing the personals on Craigslist (what in the world was I thinking???). Under "Platonic Only," I found an ad posted by two guys—a biker and a runner—who were looking for a swimmer to join their relay team for the Philly Triathlon. So that was my very first open water swim—800 meters or whatever a sprint distance is—in the Schuylkill River. It never crossed my mind beforehand that open water might be different than a pool—I just got in the water and swam. It was fun, but I didn't really think about open water again until about eight years later when one of my Lancaster masters buddies (now my "swim husband") talked me into doing an open water race with him. Neither of us remember which race that was.

As for ice swimming, sometime around 2012 I ran across a video online of an ice swimming event, maybe in Russia. I remember showing my boyfriend (now my real husband) the video and excitedly telling him that I needed try that. He was not impressed. Fast forward about 5 years—I met Louise Darlington in the spring and I just never stopped swimming that year—she gave me a proper intro to cold water swimming. The water kept getting colder and we just kept swimming.

What is your most vivid memory of your sports career?
Playing hockey on the 1980 Olympic rink in Lake Placid—the "Miracle" rink. And going bobsledding afterwards with my team. The 1980 Olympic Rink is so insanely iconic—it was the gold medal game—US vs. the Soviet Union. The Soviets had taken gold in 4 or 5 of the previous Olympics, and the US team had young, inexperienced, college-level players. The US were complete underdogs, at home. And we won! It was the Miracle on Ice—easily one of the top sports moments of the 20th century. It was just incredibly cool to be in that arena and skate on that same ice. Plus, I was there with the most incredible teammates in the world. It was just a magical time and place.

How did you get interested in playing hockey?
Annapolis Rocks
along the AT near Frederick, MD 
One day after I had moved back to PA from grad school, my boyfriend got this idea that him and I, along with his brother, cousin, and a few of his friends, should start playing street hockey to get in shape. I was lucky if I'd ever even seen a hockey game, few of us were in any shape to be trying this, and I was the only one in the group who knew how to skate. We rounded up some make-shift equipment from Play it Again and raided neighbor's curbside trash, and went out to the local street hockey rink, where there was already a game in progress. The guys were all young, fast, and on skates. They let us join them and promptly kicked our butts. My boyfriend, after taking some heat for his poor performance in net, threw off his equipment and challenged someone else to suit up. One by one, we all tried it, with not much better success. I took my turn and surprised everyone by actually being "not that bad at all."

So, I went home and found a women's league to play in. It took some convincing, but I finally talked the head of the league into giving me a chance even though I had no experience or skills training. I played my first game with my leg pads on the wrong legs because I didn't even know how to get dressed. Every shot went in the net—I had no clue what I was doing. After that first summer season though, I started playing in a men's pick-up game on Friday nights, and next thing you know, I was playing every day, sometimes 2-3 times a day. For a few years, I was playing in two different women's leagues, going to open hockey over lunchtime, tending net for early morning clinics coached in Russian, playing men's pick-up, and subbing in men's league games.

Who are the people who have most supported or influenced your athletic career and how have they influenced or supported you?
My dad was always my loudest supporter and critic in swimming, but he passed away before I really started doing anything else. He would've loved it all, especially the hockey. My mom has always been my steadfast supporter no matter what madness I get myself into.

Why do you continue to participate in sports? Or why have you discontinued participation?
Hands down, no matter the sport: friends and road trips. I'm also not good at sitting still. I had to stop playing hockey when I moved back to central PA—no opportunities at my level. I miss it.

What are three words you’d use to describe your athletic body?
Strong, big, still big

What are your sports goals and/or what do you foresee happening with your sporting career in the future?
Open water swimming and cold water swimming is growing in leaps and bounds. This COVID thing is making training for long swims difficult. I have no idea where the winds of sport will take me. I'd love to return to ice hockey.

8-Mile Charles Bender Memorial Swim in Schulykill River
Is there anything else you’d like to say that isn’t covered above?
To this day, I don't identify as an athlete. I was just awful at traditional sports growing up. I was always the last person picked, and the first person picked on. I hated gym class with all my life. I was also forbidden to take dance, baton, and gymnastics. I think this poor athletic start in life set me on a path to find alternatives to traditional sports and female activities. In middle school, looking something like a cross between Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, I started skateboarding on this banana board I picked up for 50 cents at a yard sale. I finally got a real skateboard in high school and started skating half-pipes and pools. Skating transitioned to surfing and bodyboarding, and finally mountain biking, at least until my bike was stolen. That was all in high school, while I was trying to get through the bullshit of the high school swim team. When I left high school, I was happy to put swimming behind me—it never crossed my mind to swim in college. It took me over 10 years to even think about getting back in a pool. Anyhow, whatever I am, I'm having fun now, and I have some of the best friends I could ever ask for.

I wish more women would just go for it. So many times, women have said to me, "I wish I could do what you do." The thing is, they CAN. I was literally the last person picked for a team in gym class my entire school career. If you want to do something, go do it. Give yourself a chance. Explore. Be limitless.

Questions for Paula about her sports career? Please comment below!

This interview is part of the Thigh Flasher Athletes Who Inspire Me Interview Series. Contact me if you’d like to share your story as a sportswoman or nominate another sportswoman who has inspired you to get fit, compete, and or live a healthier lifestyle.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Interview with Louise Darlington Part 1: "Hey, I Think I'm an Athlete"

At Blue Marsh Lake northwest of Reading, PA
Name: Louise Darlington

Sports: Open Water Swimming, Running, Mountain Hiking, Trail Running, Triathlon

Age: 59

Occupation: Assistant Director of Library Public Services at HACC

Location: Elizabethtown, PA

Louise is a highly accomplished swimmer and teacher who is a certified US Masters Level 3 coach and Adult Instructor and American Red Cross certified WSI Water Safety Instructor. A swimming friend told me about one of Louise's open water swimming clinics at Blue Marsh Lake, northwest of Reading in Pennsylvania, which was where I first met Louise. Her love for swimming and her swimmers was palpable! Even as an experienced pool swimmer, I learned much from her advice and instruction on open water swimming during the clinic. I followed her on facebook and it has been a pleasure seeing her expand and enjoy her swimming career and swim coaching business. Below is an excerpt from an interview with Louise in her own words about her journey to becoming an athlete and coach.


My participation [in sports] began when I was working full time, caring for my mom at home – she lived with us – and also at the same time our daughter was in middle school and starting to display some behaviors that I didn’t understand. It was later discovered that she had developed an eating disorder and was later diagnosed as bipolar. So, at the same time I was working full time, caring for my mom, caring for my increasingly ill daughter, and I was turning 50. It was kind of like this perfect storm.

One of the things that I did, or had been doing, was going to the pool at Elizabethtown College on my lunch hour. I would go and jump in and it was kind of my de-stress. Up until then I was by no means an athlete. I didn’t have any set goals. I wasn’t sedentary, but I was trying to be active, you know, be healthy, but I didn’t have the mindset that I needed to do this to be healthy. When I started swimming at the pool, it was really for me to have time to myself. It wasn’t an athletic pursuit. So, I had been swimming at my lunch hour and then I started going to Curves, which was that little circular exercise thing, and again it was to try to help me stay healthy because I was gaining a lot of weight, mostly because of stress: I was turning 50, I was perimenopausal, I was having migraines every month, I was just a mess.

Swimming the North Channel from Ireland to Scotland
with a 6-Person Relay Team in July 2019
I didn’t have any goals, I was just trying to stay above water. But then I got bored. I am easily bored, and Curves was driving me crazy because we’d just literally go around in a circle. The women there were lovely women but they just didn’t seem to mesh with who I was, you know? They’d talk about recipes and retirement, and I didn’t feel like that was me. I didn’t connect with them. So then, right around that time, a gym opened up in Elizabethtown and I said to my husband, I’m really bored, maybe we should go to this gym. So then I’m still doing the swimming at my lunch, and then we joined this gym, and that’s where I learned to walk on a treadmill. I had never even walked on a treadmill in my life.

In 2008, a friend of mine who was a Pilates instructor, was starting to do more running, and she said to me, "Do a half marathon." At that time, I didn’t even know what a half marathon was. I said to my husband, maybe I can do a half marathon and he said absolutely! I didn’t even know what a 5K was. I asked him will you help me – yes I will help you – so I started running on this treadmill. I had never done a 5K. I went right from this treadmill to a half marathon. My first half marathon was the Hershey Half Marathon and I made it to mile 12 and I couldn’t go any farther. I was in such pain and I felt like an utter failure. That was my first athletic pursuit, it was as a running thing. After that I went home and I was so depressed and sad, I thought I’m just this 50-year-old woman, I have all of these problems, I can’t even run a half marathon, but I decided to give it one more go. I was able to successfully complete the Philadelphia Half Marathon two months later and I was hooked.

So then I was doing swimming at lunch and I started doing this running. And it was when I started to get into the running and half marathons that I started to think of myself as an athlete. But what really solidified it was when the same friend who told me I could run a half marathon told me, “You can swim around the Statue of Liberty. I know you swim at your lunch hour.” So, I decided to learn what it takes to swim around the Statue of Liberty. That was my very first open water swim and that’s what got me hooked on open water swimming. And I think because the half marathons – I started doing that just as that craze kind of hit and more and more people were doing running so it wasn’t quite novel a thing. But when I started doing the open water swimming I had more and more women my age coming up to me and saying, after the Statue of Liberty, “How did you do that?” And I think it was the feedback that I was getting from other women who looked like me and had the same life experiences as me – because I don’t look like an athlete.

Ice Swimming with Penn Heron Open Water Swimming Team
Them coming up to me, looking at me as an athlete, made me feel like an athlete. A lot of people do running and half marathons but it was that open water event that solidified in my mind that maybe I was doing something just a little bit beyond what I had imagined I could do. And I think that’s what triggered, “Hey, I think I’m an athlete.” It was when people started coming back to me, it wasn’t so much, it was like these women that I so resonated with their stories, trying to work full time, juggle all these things, I’m sad, I’m depressed, nobody takes me seriously kind of thoughts. I took them seriously. If I can do this, you can do this, and that’s when, as I started working with and coaching and spending time with women and then men, it solidified the fact that I think I am an athlete.

That’s how the whole coaching thing started because I had more and more people coming to me, and I can’t say I’m going to show you how to do this without understanding how I did it. I wanted to have some kind of instruction to give them. So the very first coaching certification I got was teaching adults how to swim. Because I had more and more people coming to me that didn’t know how to swim but wanted to learn how to swim. And then I was certified as a US Master’s Coach. And then from that, I got into open water and cold water and I am also an ice swimmer, which is a whole other sport!

And from the ice swimming is where I started the Penn Heron Open Water Club because I really wanted to be all inclusive. It was so wonderful to see people show up at our open water events who wouldn’t go to other events, or try on a wetsuit, or put on a swim suit, because they didn’t feel like they looked like an athlete. Our club is all inclusive. You don’t have to have a wetsuit. You can swim in a wetsuit or in a swim suit, I don’t care, you can be 60 or 20, you can be 300 pounds or 80 pounds, you can be black, white, whatever color. I just want people to feel that if you step foot in the water, you make that step, then you’re an athlete. Because it’s eye opening when you start to say I’m an athlete, it starts to open up a whole world of possibilities. I love when I hear people say, yeah, I’m really an athlete.

If you're interested in having a swimming coach, check out Lousie Darlington's coaching page.

Stay tuned for more from Louise on ice swimming, marathon swimming, and the swimming community.

Questions for Louise about her sports or coaching career? Please comment below!

This interview is part of the Thigh Flasher Athletes Who Inspire Me Interview SeriesContact me if you’d like to share your story as a sportswoman or nominate another sportswoman who has inspired you to get fit, compete, and or live a healthier lifestyle.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Interview with Marie Clark: "Finishing that Swim Made Me Feel So Strong and Powerful"

Start of Mile 7 @ Key Lido - April 2019

Name: Marie Clark
Sports: Marathon swimming, casual cyclist, and used to do triathlon and running
Age: 49
Occupation: IT Project Manager
Location: York, PA and grew up in south Florida
Connect with Marie on facebook or instagram!

How did you begin participation in sports?
I swam age group from 7 - 13, but stopped when I started high school due to social stigma (I was never a "small" girl) and lack of speed. Rediscovered sport as an adult in my early 30s when a friend encouraged me to walk a 5k with her during my weight loss journey. Walking led to running, then triathlon, and eventually what has become my true love, open water swimming.

What is you most vivid memory of your sports career?
There are many vivid memories, but finishing my first marathon swim is probably the most vivid. My arms and shoulder were sore, I was exhausted, the last (or next to last) swimmer, and yet finishing that swim made me feel so strong and powerful.

Swim to the Moon - August 2019

Who are the people who have most supported or influenced your athletic career and how have they influenced or supported you?

My best friend, Lynda Hasper, who dragged me on that first 5k, and then into triathlon (which I love) and is always happy for me. My fiancée, Joe Church, who constantly encourages me to reach for the next goal and puts up with me spending hours each week training.

Training Swim at Blue Marsh Lake

Why do you continue to participate in sports?
Community and health – the endurance sports community has become my family. My 4 best friends and my fiancée all came from my involvement in sports. My day-to-day social interactions are with others in the community, both near and far.

I also keep participating because obesity runs in my family, along with arthritis. Endurance sports help to keep my weight from exploding. I have discovered during the recent COVID-19 pandemic that swimming is critical to keeping my joints, muscles and tendons healthy. The weightless motion in swimming keeps me limber and pain free.

My endurance activities keep me in touch with nature. The lake at dawn, the ocean on a sunny day, the river at sunset. The water, sky, and sounds of nature soothe my soul and keep me sane.

Ocean to Bay 50 Mile Ride - April 2018
What are three words you’d use to describe your athletic body?
Strong, curvy, flexible

What are your sports goals and/or what do you foresee happening with your sporting career in the future?
Continue open water swimming. I'm due to have knee replacement surgery, so it will take me a while to get back to walking and cycling, but as soon as I can get in and out of the pool, I plan to be back in the water.

Is there anything else you’d like to say that isn’t covered above?
Anyone can be an athlete – it just takes consistent motion. Too many people say they are "too old," "too fat," "too injured." Progress is usually slow and you many never go very far or very fast, but you can learn to enjoy activity.

Questions for Marie about her sports career? Please comment below!

This interview is part of the Thigh Flasher Athletes Who Inspire Me Interview Series. Contact me if you’d like to share your story as a sportswoman or nominate another sportswoman who has inspired you to get fit, compete, and or live a healthier lifestyle.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Interview with Rachel Jenkins: "I Missed the Swimming Community"

Name: Rachel Jenkins
Sports: Swimming, Running
Age: 34
Occupation: Digital Project Manager
Location: from Latrobe, PA

Rachel and I were new to the Mercersburg Academy swim team the same year and lived in the same dorm, and we used to sleepwalk to morning practices together. We reconnected on social media when she returned to swimming on a Master’s team and launched her website The Lane Line: Workouts and Inspiration from a Lifelong Swimmer where she writes articles for Master's swimmers, coaches, and parents of age group swimmers.

How did you begin participation in sports?
I joined a swim team at age 6.

What is you most vivid memory of your sports career?
Army/Navy Swim meets in college. It’s just the most high-energy meet I’ve ever been a part of. It’s such a long-standing tradition at Navy—the Army/Navy match-ups—that to come into it and experience it for yourself is incredible. You feel like you have everyone that ever went to Navy or served in the military in any branch cheering you on.

For more about Rachel’s experience with Army/Navy swim meets, check out this post on her website The Lane Line.

Who are the people who have most supported or influenced your athletic career and how have they influenced or supported you?
My parents have supported my swimming career my whole life. My husband is also a swimmer and so he’s a big motivator. Now that I have kids who swim, I want to be a role model for them—showing them women can be strong athletes at any age.

Why do you continue to participate in sports? Or why have you discontinued participation?
I took a long break from swimming—about 10 years—because I felt burnt out and because my active duty service career didn’t allow me to make a lot of time for working out. I got back into Masters swimming because I loved swimming for me, and I missed the swimming community around me.

What are three words you’d use to describe your athletic body?
Swimmer shoulders/back, muscular, small chested

What are your sports goals and/or what do you foresee happening with your sporting career in the future?
I want to continue to compete in Masters swimming, and I’d like to start doing running and triathlon races. I’m also interested in long distance open water races.

Check out The Lane Line website, on Facebook, or Instagram. Questions for Rachel about her sports career? Please comment below!

This interview is part of the Thigh Flasher Athletes Who Inspire Me Interview Series. Contact me if you’d like to share your story as a sportswoman or nominate another sportswoman who has inspired you to get fit, compete, and or live a healthier lifestyle.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Seeking Sportswomen's Stories!

Although most sports facilities and events have been shut down worldwide to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, and many athletes—professional and amateur—haven’t been able to train for competitions in months, the situation does provide the opportunity for athletes to reflect on their sports careers and understand what kind of role sports have played in their lives.  

I’m on a quest to share my competitive sports stories and provide a forum to share other sportswomen's stories, and I’m working on partnerships with like-minded athletes and groups to further this mission. I am seeking people who identify as sportswomen to participate in a short interview to share on my website, social media, your own sites, and in other print and online publications.

If you identify as a sportswoman, please consider sharing your story! You can respond to the questions in this link, or you can send me a message to set up a phone/Zoom interview. Feel free to send this link to other sportswomen you know.

There are still inequalities in the written and spoken communication that mainstream media uses about sportswomen. By sharing sportswomen’s stories in their own words and free of sexist language and images, we can reverse this trend and have more equitable representation. This is a small step towards equity for all women, athletes or not. I also hope existing athletes’ stories inspire more girls and women to participate in sports.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Postpartum Body: No Intention of "Getting My Body Back"

I am amazed and grateful for what my body has accomplished in the past year:

Prenatal: In the first photo, taken a year ago at my goal meet of the season, I was in the best shape of my life and swam my adult best times that ranked me 6th and 7th in the nation in my age group in the 500 and 200 free.

Pregnant: In the next photo, I’m 37-weeks pregnant. I had a fit-enough pregnancy. I trained for an ran a half marathon then a full marathon and continued swimming, walking, and strength training a few days a week.

Postpartum: In the third photo, taken exactly a year after the first photo, is my 3.5-week postpartum body: 20 pounds lighter than my maximum pregnancy weight and 20 pounds over my fighting weight. I’ve been walking 1-3 miles a day and doing easy exercises to start to strengthen my core and supporting muscles so I’ll be ready to run, swim, and strength train in a few more weeks.

I have no intention of "getting my body back."

First of all, it never went anywhere. Believe me, I fully experienced my body through the whole pregnancy, labor, and delivery. My body was very much present for all of that.

Second, my body just did an amazing thing that it has never done before. It had to grow, expand, flex, stretch, and then deflate again. It's had these new experiences and it will never be the same. And that's OK. When you experience something life changing, you don't just go back to "normal" when the event is over.

I have no doubt I'll be able to get fit again, in time. And, at some point, that will probably be my goal. But right now, my body goal is to rest, heal, and nurture the baby. Yes, I would like to swim and run again soon, but more for mental health.

I know so many amazing mother athletes who look like strong athletes but more importantly accomplish amazing athletic feats. I'm lucky to have so many role models to look to so I don't feel panicked or rushed to get into competitive shape again. It will happen.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

How Endurance Sports Did (Not) Prepare Me for Natural Childbirth

I'm part of an ultrarunning group on Facebook, and at the new year, someone posted the question, "What ultra event are you looking forward to this year?"

I responded: "Childbirth."

My goal was to have a natural, unmedicated birth with few to no medical interventions because of the numerous health benefits for me and the baby. Although the birth didn't go 100% as planned (do any of them?), we did successfully have an unmedicated birth, for which I am grateful and might not have been willing to do without the amazing support from Jon and Alexandra, our doula.

I'll spare you the details of the labor and delivery (though I'm more than willing to talk privately about it), but, because this is an athlete's blog, I will share my metaphors about natural childbirth and endurance sports.

I've run marathons, never an ultra (it’s on my bucket list). But I would say that natural childbirth, for me, was like running an ultramarathon on a treadmill controlled by someone else (a sadistic someone else): the intensity could change at a moment's notice and I had no authority to slow it down or stop it. I also had no control over the distance or length of time of the event, which made it more challenging to pace. In addition, I had only trained for a marathon, and this was quite a bit longer.

It also made me think of swim practices when I was a kid. Coach Rusty used to have us do 25-yard sprints at the end of practice. “Just one more!” he’d shout, and I’d give it everything I had. But when I got to the end of the pool, I’d hear him shout again: “Just one more!” And I’d get to the end of the pool and hear him again: “Just one more!” This could go on and on and on and we'd be five minutes then ten minutes then 15 minutes past the end of our practice time and parents were waiting to pick us up and other swimmers were waiting to use the pool and I would have no idea how many more there actually were but somehow found power and motivation to give my all on each one. That is what the second stage of labor was like for me, but more painful and several hours longer.

I get to a point in just about every race, particularly endurance races and even some workout sets, when I question why did I sign up for this, why do I do this to myself? And that feeling eventually passes, or it passes by the time I'm finished, and I'm proud of myself for being able to stick it out. I definitely hit that wall during labor, probably in transition, when I wondered why I so adamantly wanted a birth experience that didn't include pain relief. But that passed and I was happy to have an unmedicated birth experience and I’m hoping that has helped our health and recovery.

I prepared for a natural childbirth the way I prepare for athletic events: learned as much as I could, listened to and read other people's stories about their experiences, ate well, kept a regular sleep routine, hired a coach, and practiced (in this case, practiced relaxation and pain-management techniques). I can't say that being athlete fully prepared me for a natural childbirth, I'm not sure anything could have done that, but it definitely gave me some mental toughness to draw on when I needed it the most.