I’m Plus Size and I’m an Athlete

Leah Gilbert is a Fitness Trainer, Triathlete, Half Marathon Runner and Proud Plus Size Endurance Athlete.

Leah Gilbert is a Fitness Trainer, Triathlete, Half Marathon Runner and Proud Plus Size Endurance Athlete. Photo: Nicole Spears

Plus Size Models, Plus Size Actors, Plus Size Body Advocates…but Plus Size Endurance Athletes?

Really?

Yes. Really.

In fact in Australia there are tens of thousands of us. We can be found in an array of environments such as your local pool, running track or cycling paths. Like every other athlete we can be seen staring down at our gadgets looking for split times, heart rate or cadence feedback. The only difference is, we’re larger than most people’s perception of an ‘athlete’ so you probably think we’re out there just trying to lose weight. And that’s OK – some of us may well be training down to a race weight – just like other athletes do.

"most of us don’t even acknowledge ourselves as athletes because we know that physically we don’t fit the mould of what society believes an ‘athlete’ looks like." Photo: Nicole Spears

“most of us don’t even acknowledge ourselves as athletes because we know that physically we don’t fit the mould of what society believes an ‘athlete’ looks like.”
Photo: Nicole Spears

The truth of the matter is that the sports of Triathlon and Running have long recognised plus size endurance athletes through their Clydesdale (Males 99kg plus) and Athena (Females 74kg plus) race categories. In the late 1980’s a Baltimore based statistician, Joe Laws collated data on over 10,000 male runners and established that once a male runner exceeded 170 pounds (or 90kg), their times were no longer competitive despite their effort and performance levels matching those of the lighter competitors. A weight division allowed for a level playing field amongst heavier competitors and the Clydesdale category was born. Although over recent years these categories have started to be foregone in favour of age-groups, one of Australia’s most iconic Triathlons, the Noosa Triathlon and Multisport Festival still recognises these categories. In 2014 USA Triathlon held their first National Clydesdale and Athena Championships – a sure sign that the plus size endurance athlete community is not only strong in numbers, but extremely strong in competition.

So why is it that I am in a rather unique position when I present myself as a Plus Size Endurance Athlete? Why aren’t we all out there seeking sponsorship or promoting our roles as athletes? It’s easy – most of us don’t even acknowledge ourselves as athletes because we know that physically we don’t fit the mould of what society believes an ‘athlete’ looks like. We have a tendency to what I call ‘cheapen’ or ‘discount’ our athletic or fitness pursuits because people can’t seem to marry the fitness with the body shape. So instead of saying “I just finished a tempo run where I worked at 1km race pace intervals for 11km with a 2km warm up and 2km cool down”, we may mention quickly that we had ‘just been for a run’, usually adding “but I’m not very fast” or “oh I just plod along!”

I believe it’s time things changed. My saying is that if you train like an athlete, nurture your body like an athlete, and you’re passionate about your chosen sport like an athlete, then guess what – I believe you’re an athlete no matter what your shape or size is. I also believe that the female fitness and athletic community has the greatest potential to make changes in this area.

I made the decision to put myself out there and promote my role as a Plus Size Endurance Athlete because as a big child I never had any sporting role models I could relate to. I have always loved sport but never felt I could pursue it aggressively because I was aware of the comments I would garner about my belly wobbling, or my shorts riding up, or my excessive sweat. Had there been someone for me to look at and say ‘Wow, look at her, she’s big and strong and fit and she doesn’t care what people think of her’, I can confidently say that things may be different.

Just recently I had a conversation with my youngest client, where I asked her “whatever you do, please make sure you never stop trying your best because you’re worried about what you might look like doing it.”. This is a powerful message that we need to get through to our younger generations – that it’s ok to female and be big, strong, and aggressive in the sports you are passionate about. We need to have a variety of real, relatable role models for our younger females. Women who embrace their bodies for the functions they perform, not what they look like in a bikini. Give them more Anna Meares’ and fewer Kardashians.

Fitness Trainer, Triathlete and Endurance Runner Leah Gilbert. Photo: Nicole Spears.

Fitness Trainer, Triathlete and Endurance Runner Leah Gilbert. Photo: Nicole Spears.

This can be further achieved by changing the message about what ‘fit’ looks like. Female sporting labels need to stop pushing models in their clothing and start putting female athletes in their gear. And let’s forget the staged, photoshopped, ‘pretty as a picture’ portrayal of the garments – show us what they function like in full flight. Show us how they absorb sweat and moisture, or how they support our breasts during movement. The day that 2XU Australia featured an image of me running in one of their tri-suits was a really positive step in this direction. Within an hour or so of launching the image on social media, there were women heading down to their local stockists to purchase products in confidence that they were not only going to fit into them, but they were now able to perform in them.

The plus size fitness movement is very strong in the US and Canada, with many plus size apparel brands boasting sponsorship programs for athletes and training sites solely dedicated to plus size fitness. Australia is unfortunately lagging behind in these areas, but it doesn’t have to. As more plus size males and females stand tall, hold their heads high and say “I am an athlete”, the greater the movement will become and the more relatable role models our younger generations will have. Then we might see more larger children actively pursuing sports without fear of judgement, which may in turn start and see an improvement in health statistics for our future generations.

It’s a big goal, but it’s a great one to have.

 

Leah is a Plus Size Endurance Athlete, Founder of Body Positive Athletes, Specialist Fitness Trainer, 2XU Australia Elite Sponsorship Program, Triathlete. You can follow her on Instagram @leebee2321 . Follow Sportette sportette_au

 

 

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