What makes an athlete an athlete? Is it talent and ability, or is it something less overt—like what you put into it or what you get out of it? Some seemingly atypical athletes are working to make their sports more welcoming to people who don’t fit the stereotypical mold.
“An athlete is anyone who is trying to do something with their body and is willing to put in the time and the effort to make it happen,” said John Bingham, known as the leader of the “slow running" movement.
This year, one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year is Mirna Valerio, who recently ran her 10th marathon. She has also run 10 ultramarathons. She is an athlete by any definition, but she doesn’t look like a stereotypical distance runner. She has faced fat-shaming and sometimes hostile disbelief that she can do what she does with her body. “With running, there’s still this overwhelming perception that runners are thin, their legs are chiseled, and they run fast all the time,” Valerio said. “I think that’s very intimidating for a large percentage of the population.”
Valerio played lacrosse and field hockey in high school, fell away from sports in adulthood but took up running after a health scare. At first, she could manage only a mile at a time. She started the blog Fat Girl Running, and people told her that “seeing me gives them a little push to get themselves out there.” She also wrote a book, A Beautiful Work in Progress. “I wanted to share what it was like to be a larger athlete among thinner athletes in endurance sports,” she said.
Being named Adventurer of the Year “was a surprise,” Valerio said. “I’m not an extreme adventurer, I don’t do ice climbing, I haven’t climbed Everest—I haven’t done anything like that.” But she said that when athletes who don’t necessarily look the part “are presented in the media, it becomes more normal for people. If people see me out there running in the street, and they never even thought that they could do that, maybe they see me and say, ‘I might be able to do that.’”
And this kind of possibility extends beyond sports. In Iran, few women are paddle sport athletes. But one of them is Katayoon Ashraf, who won the first women’s canoe polo nationals in Iran and has also achieved third place in canoe polo in the Asian Canoe Championship and third place in the Australasian Rafting Championships. Now, she coaches kayaking, canoe polo, rafting, slalom, and swimming, and she aims to empower women through sports.
Ashraf started a program to train coaches and organize races for slalom kayaking, and the athletes have competed in world cups and Asian championships. She noted that in Iran, “being an athlete is not popular, especially for women and girls.” But athletes learn how to try hard, have discipline, “fall down and stand up and share their experiences, control their anger and stress, self-confidence—all these points, which exist in sport, can make them strong for real life,” she said.
Valerio noted that greater inclusiveness “has a tremendous positive effect on people who, in the past, have said to themselves, ‘Oh, I can’t do that.’ It makes it easier for people to believe and to try.”
Sharon Weiner swims and competes in a masters’ program, but she didn’t consider herself an athlete until recently. To her, an athlete was someone like Michael Phelps; she was simply exercising. But now she realizes that what she does makes her an athlete. “It’s about feeling powerful and strong in your own body,” she said.
Weiner swam in high school but didn’t pick it up again until a couple of years ago. “For someone like me, who’s 44, as I get older, I feel glad that I’ll be able to continue to swim,” she said, adding that she’s inspired by the women in the 70-plus category at the swim meets. The experience “has inspired me to try other things that I’d never thought about before,” she said. “Some women in my swimming community have asked me to do this tri sprint with them, and I’ve never done anything like that before. But I’m going to do it.”
Bingham also found possibility in sport, and he didn’t start running until he was in his 40s. “I was 25-year smoker, an overeater, and a drinker. Through running, I discovered I didn’t have to be those things. I could be something else,” he said.
Bingham has seen the running world shift to embrace people of various abilities. He started writing a column called “The Penguin Chronicles” in Runner’s World in 1996. Back then, “you weren’t a runner if you couldn’t maintain a 7-minute pace,” he said, but then the running community opened up “to people who are not necessarily talented but have the ambition and the drive.” He explained that, for him, running a sub-5-hour marathon took serious training and discipline.
Slower runners became more common when charity runs became more popular, Bingham said. He also pointed to the first Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in 1998: “It was the first bona fide event that didn’t have finishing as fast as you could as the only goal”—it included enjoying the bands along the course.
“Now, if you stand at the starting line of some of the big marathons and half marathons, you’ll see every shape, size, everything,” Bingham said. “It’s no longer possible to have sort of a monolithic definition of an athlete.”
Hikers and climbers who don’t fit their sport’s stereotypes have started groups to promote inclusion. They include Unlikely Hikers, which aims to change preconceptions about what an “outdoorsperson” looks like, as well as Fat Girls Hiking, Brown Girls Climb, Brothers of Climbing, and the Brown Ascenders.
Valerio noted, “I have witnessed a huge paradigm shift in the inclusivity of the athletic world in general. We’re not where we should be yet, but there definitely are more and more different types of people and bodies participating in sports, running in particular.” And this is good for both the people who get involved and the sports themselves, she said. “The more diversity we have, the better things get, because we have the contributions of all these different types of people.”
Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor based in metro Detroit. You can read more of her work here.