Carol is a dear friend of mine. She and I met several years ago when she became my personal training client. We connected as friends and I continue to train her once a week at her home. This article was inspired by our latest conversation. While we’ve had many conversations over the years, for some reason something stuck in my brain this time. At 84 years old Carol is still motivated and energetic when it comes to exercise. This started somewhere, so I had to go back. Growing up in the 40s, times were certainly different for women in sports. In fact, it was unheard of. A woman like Carol in her own little way broke out of the norm and pursued the sport she loved. It doesn’t take a ton of awards or notoriety to break the barrier.
Carol grew up during a time where women were pushed to become secretaries or teachers. Girls were not pushed into sports for fear it would affect their ability to reproduce. Carol grew up with active parents. Her dad was involved in track and field and her mom was a swimmer. I was surprised when she told me her favorite sport of all was doing the hurdles in track and field. “It was approximately the same distance from one crack in the sidewalk to the next as it was from one hurdle to the next. So, I’d run the distance to practice my footing so I’d get it right for the hurdles. People must’ve thought I was nuts.”
Although she was considered one of the fastest runners in her school, she didn’t pursue Olympic training. Between her home life and school work, she felt as if she couldn’t dedicate her time. “Having to deal with my home life and school work, it was just too much.” Although Carol’s dream of pursuing her favorite sport didn’t come to fruition it didn’t stop her from leading an active life. Carol ran fitness classes for many years. She ran a volleyball program for other women in her neighborhood as well. Often these women were housewives who wanted to make friends and become more active. She’s still friends with the women in this group. Her success has been influencing other females to become more active by being active herself. It just goes to show that you don’t need to be a professional in order to be a positive influence. Hers is just one of many stories.
Tracy: The Mountain Biker
I first spoke to Tracy a few weeks ago. A mother of two boys who’s love of mountain biking is apparent. Tracy started mountain biking twelve years ago when her husband brought a bike home for her 38th birthday. “I found my sport later in life. I just fell in love with it.”
Before that she was actively involved in marathon running. The transition from one sport to the other was pretty smooth. She trains regularly and definitely enjoys going as fast as she can! As someone who is unfamiliar with the sport, she explained to me the difference between single track and double track. Single track is a mountain biking trail wide enough for one rider. Double track has two paths that are approximately parallel. Either track involves natural obstacles such as logs, rocks and other drop offs. Either way it sounds terrifying to me! Males and females ride together so it goes by who is the fastest. Etiquette is certainly important. “It’s the rare male rider who won’t let me pass. That hasn’t happened much. I’m glad to say in general all the men I ride with are so supportive and encouraging.” One of her greatest memories is, “The same year the pan am games were on I was able to run the race on the same track (Hardwood Hills) that my idol Emily Battey rode.” It’s been a very positive experience and a joy in Tracy’s life.
With life’s joy there is also pain. Tracy has a setback when she broke her knee. “When you fall in love with a sport, nothing motivates you more than the threat of losing it.” She was determined to get back to the sport she loved. Tracy put in the time going through physiotherapy in order to get back on the bike. “I made myself go over the obstacles because I was afraid. I wanted to fight it.” Her motivation, ‘’Instead of being ready for the beach, I wanted to be ready for adventure. It’s not about what you look like. You stop caring about the mirror and focus on performance.” It’s obvious what her focus is about. She wants to enjoy more adventures with her family and live a healthy and active life.
Tracy is about pushing herself but also knowing her limitations. She certainly hasn’t let fear get in the way of pursuing the sport she loves. If you’re a female reading this, here’s what she wants you to know, ‘’Leave your ego at home and enjoy what your body is capable of doing. Set small goals and work to achieve them. Surround yourself with positive people. Sometimes people want to hold you back and you have to step outside of that and keep moving forward.’’ If you want to meet Tracy, I guess you’ll have to try and catch her!
Renee: The Professional Show Jumper
‘‘People thought I was just dreaming. It is very hard to be successful in this industry, it’s not an easy lifestyle. I had a girl scoff at me when I said I wanted to be a grand prix rider. She then turned around and said she wanted to be a Rockstar. People have always found my career fascinating because it not a common one, I found most people admire someone pursuing their dreams.’’ This fierce determination is how Renee’ and I forged a friendship. I admire her forthright and often brazen attitude. The more I learned about her profession, the more I realized how you needed the stones to compete. You need to be fierce and determined if you want to be the best.
She started out riding and competing as a junior rider. “I was already competing nationally as a junior when I became an amateur. I put my career path into motion becoming a working student for a show and sales barn in Uxbridge.” Renee was being trained for a career in show horses. For 5 years she was a working student. She trained 6 or 7 days a week riding anywhere up to 12 horses a day on top of stable management tasks under mentorship. “I did this for 5 years before I was ready to become a young professional and start getting paid for my riding skills. I then continued to train 6 or 7 days a week depending on the competition schedule.”
After 14 years with that stable she moved to Europe to continue her education and experience for 2 years. I met her after she came back from Europe. She was a member at our gym. Her life fascinated me as it read like an adventure novel. I was intrigued and sought to learn more about her experience. She lived in 3 different countries in Europe gaining knowledge and experience from 3 different European trainers. “I returned to Canada and became the pro rider for a stable with 15 plus show horses. Competing in Canada and the USA training 6 or 7 days a week.” On top of the training with the horses, she also had a workout schedule on top of that. “I have to be fitter than the riding requires, I can’t give any less than 100% even at the end of a busy show day and 15 horses later. I need to always ride at my best.”
In show jumping, men and women compete together. ‘’Women have nothing coming easier to them. It is not a disadvantage being a woman versus a man in this sport as riding is not about brute strength. It is about feel and skill.”
Having been involved with this sport for many years has made Renee one tough competitor. Although in this sport it can be assumed that women can be more emotional, she was trained not to let emotion cloud her judgment. ‘’I had to have more drive, hard work, discipline and sheer grit. I had to grind and adapt and constantly work on my skills to keep bettering myself.” Due to her hard work ethic, she is highly respected as a professional and even trains other riders. Her desire is to keep getting better! Renee’s next career goal is with a grand prix mare that she competes with currently. She is getting ready to start competing FEI (international) this coming season. “I am very excited to see how far this mare goes and continue to have fun and success partnered with her.”
She is proud of being able to pass along her knowledge to other riders. Being able to compete nationally and internationally has allowed Renee to broaden her expertise. As long as I’ve known Renee, she works long hours and is truly dedicated to her job. This is why we get along so well. Renee isn’t afraid to put in the time to get better. “Advice I would give to a young woman in my sport is keep pushing. Keep driving, adapting and working hard. Train outside of the stable as well in, you can always add to your fitness level which will only aid your skills and balance on the horse. You must be fitter than your job requires in that moment.”
Anne Ottenbrite-Muylaert: Olympic Champion in Swimming
When I reached out to women in my community, I never thought I’d hear from an Olympic champion! Turns out Anne lives in my small town and was briefly a member at our gym. Who knew? I had the pleasure of talking to her for an hour and I could have gone longer. If you know her name, then you know her accomplishments. She is a three-time Olympic medalist in the 1984 Olympics. She was the first Canadian swimmer to win gold. She also won silver and bronze at the same Olympics. While I can’t go over all the details of her extensive career, it was a thrill to be able to discuss her experience.
It surprised me to know that Anne didn’t know which sport she wanted to pursue intially. She was only ten years old when she watched Natalie Comaneci complete a perfect ten in the 1976 Olympics. “That’s when I decided I wanted to win an Olympic gold. I was unsure as to what sport I wanted to pursue. I tried a few different things before I decided.”
Her dad wanted Anne to pursue tennis and her mother wanted her to pursue figure skating. At twelve years old, she began swimming. She was a member at the Oshawa Swim Club. Anne had always loved being in the water. She naturally did a very strange version of the breaststroke which made her very efficient in the water. “I trained two hours before school and two hours after. I was probably eating 10,000 calories!”
It was incredibly demanding physically and mentally. If you know Anne, you know how focused she is on her goal.
“She attended Henry Street High School in Whitby, studied at the University of Southern California (USC) where she swam for the USC Trojans, transferred to Wilfred Laurier in 1987, and graduated in 1990.”(Anne Ottenbrite-Muylaert – Team Canada – Official Olympic Team Website) Anne was fortunate enough to have a great coach who encouraged her. At the time, there was a lot of pressure on females to take on a certain body type. “My coach never did that.” She watched other coaches who weighed in their female competitors. Obviously, the sport requires a low body weight. Anne was never subjected to that but rather focused on the task at hand, “My desire was to win an Olympic medal and I didn’t want to get involved with all that. I was focused on my goal.’’
Dedication to sport and a focus on a dream is what drove Anne. It was clear from speaking to her that nothing was going to stand in her way. When I first spoke to Anne, she had told me she was the first Canadian to win gold in swimming. After encouraging me to do an internet search, I learned that Anne not only won gold, but she also won silver and bronze. My mind was officially blown! Her goal was to win an Olympic medal and she won three.
She was chosen to compete with team Canada in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. At the time, East Germany boycotted the Olympic games. I can only imagine the pressure of competition. I remember her telling me when she won the gold, “I couldn’t see the standings because of the sun in my eyes. When I looked over and saw, I put my arm up in celebration. I never did that. In that moment someone took a picture of me which perfectly captured all the emotion.”
Her career certainly didn’t end there. After retiring from competitive swimming, she became a coach. She has other tremendous accomplishments which round out a stunning career:
It’s easy to go on about Anne Ottenbrite-Muylaert. I could have spent all day speaking with her. The most surprising fact is that she lives up the street from me! She is still a committed coach and mentor. Any student who has the chance to work with her is very lucky indeed. I consider myself grateful to have spoken to her. The end of our conversation bore a poignant piece of advice, ‘’Be true to who you are. Don’t alter yourself for someone. Ever. Any kind of goals you set for yourself, will be failures. Part of those failures will lead to your success.” What I learned from our conversation is that a dream is possible when you’re willing to work for it. I hope that inspires you as much as it inspires me.
Inside each of us there may be a Carol, Tracy, Renee or Anne. You may see yourself in any one of these stories and feel a connection. Each woman broke away from the norm and followed their passion. Whether you are an amateur, professional or an Olympic Champion. Each woman started with a dream. Although times have changed, we still have to jump hurdles in order to make our dreams happen. Regardless of age, accolades or success, sometimes breaking the barrier means pursuing what we love without fear.