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Fighting To Be Seen As A Plus Size Athlete

Photo: Courtesy of Louise Green.
We talk about fitness all the time, but athleticism is a whole different ball game (sorry, I had to). Like all of us, plus size athletes deserve recognition, and guest columnist Louise Green is living proof of how your life can change when you make yourself be seen. — KM
About 15 years ago, on a rainy night, I stood on the corner outside my local running club. I leaned against the cold concrete wall, watching the “real runners” mill about, discussing their latest runs and training regimes. My inner voice started to chime in with unsolicited chatter: What were you thinking? They are totally out of your league. The commentary almost deafening, I stood to the side, silently watching. I wanted to leave, but I was too paralysed with fear to turn around and go home. Yet, all my life, I had dreamed of being a runner.

My fear of participating was real, though. It stemmed from my lack of confidence that I could actually make it as a runner in my 220-pound body. After all, I’d never seen a likeness of my body successfully running (or participating in any sport, for that matter) in any fitness media. Furthermore, I’d never seen plus-size runners in my highly active city. This truly was uncharted territory, and my fight-or-flight instinct was acute that night.

I’d spent the last decade drinking, smoking, and diet-cycling — and that was what had brought me to this corner, waiting to sign up for my first run club. I’d had enough. I’d hit rock bottom, and now I wanted good health and the athletic life I’d been dreaming of. I was ready to do whatever it took to move forward.

Somehow, at the strike of 7 p.m., I managed to get through the door. I made my way to the back, where a chalkboard and benches were set up for the Tuesday Night Learn To Run 5K Clinic. I gathered with the “real runners,” nervously fiddling with my shoes until a woman decked out in running gear stood before us and introduced herself as our run leader. In that iconic moment, my fear and anxiety slipped away. I found myself paralysed again, only this time with surprise and joy — because she was a plus size athlete. Until that night, I didn’t know they existed. How could I have? Her name was Chris, and her courage to be seen as a plus size athlete forever changed my perception of what my body was capable of.

After years of flipping through fitness magazines, books, and DVDs, trying to force my body to fit into fitness culture unsuccessfully, Chris’ very existence filled me with a new sense of possibility. Seeing one single representation of a body like mine had the power to change my mindset for good.

Chris became a major influence in my life. She trained me though that 5K clinic and several more. Throughout that year, I underwent a complete, life-changing transformation: I became an athlete, and as I did, I grew confident, healthy, and unstoppable. And I did it while losing exactly zero pounds. Turns out, I didn't have to lose weight to become the athlete I always wanted to be. With Chris’ guidance, I kept putting one foot in front of the other, and I built the confidence to do a 10K. After completing a few 10K races, I was invited to assist in leading others. I, who had once stood apart from the "real runners," had become a leader among them. It was my time to be seen.

I started training my first 10K group, and over 13 weeks, I built my skills as a leader. As I crossed the finish line with my 37 participants, I realised that I had arrived, and that this role was my calling. I soon left my successful career in the film and television industry to pursue fitness leadership full-time.

After having my son (I then weighed 240 pounds), I signed up to become a fully-certified fitness professional. Pursuing certification in my big body, I certainly turned some heads. Honestly, it was part of my quest to be seen and to represent athletic diversity while gaining my credentials. After completing my certifications, I opened a fitness business dedicated to plus size women. There, I could coach them to reach their highest athletic potential — without focusing on reducing their body size. I call it the “winning without losing model,” and it invited women to hone their physical power while abandoning diet culture. That was the only way I’d been able to claim my own athleticism, so I figured it could work for others, too.

Over the past decade, I’ve continued on the path I started that night at the running clinic. I’ve taken my runs to the half-marathon distance, participated in many long-distance cycling events, and now compete in triathlon races. Each day, I work toward new heights and goals, never losing, but always winning.

Chris helped me see the importance of visibility and size diversity in athletics. Simply showing up in my body is a power move, pushing back against an ideal many of us struggle to obtain. Seeing larger bodies achieving athletic feats allows us to see ourselves in those moments. Right now, there are plus size athletes competing at Ironman, in the Olympics, in marathons, and in most races across the nation. Yet we seldom see them.

Until fitness media and advertising dare to show these bodies, it’s up to you and I.

Being seen as a plus size athlete isn’t just about inspiring people of size. It’s also about showing society that body diversity exists in athleticism. It broadens the scope of what it means to be an athlete. What we see at those finish lines changes our very concept of the athletic ideal.

I began as a woman full of fear, outside the running club. Now, I'm leading others to their own athletic glory. There’s one thing I know for sure: Seeing big bodies in our visual landscape has the power to profoundly change lives. I will never stop encouraging women to be bold and show up in their bigger bodies. Owning who you are and surrendering the fight for thinness at any cost is the best thing you can do for yourself. It's certainly the best thing I've ever done for myself.

Two years ago, I flew to San Francisco to run my first half marathon. Excited by the race buzz, I approached the registration tables to get my race package. This event hosted both a 5K and a half marathon. When I gave my name to the young man behind the table, he immediately reached for the 5K race packages. My body size spoke volumes to him, and he felt confident in assuming I was running the shorter distance. It wasn't his fault. Moments like this happen to me often. I get surprised reactions — the “good for you” call-outs reserved only for big people. That day, I ran hard, conquering 13.1 miles. When I crossed that finish line, I did it for myself and for those who wait on the sidelines, wishing they could participate, too.

The truth is, you can participate. Every body has the right to sweat, to endorphins, and to victory.