athletes · fitness

Are there any elite female athlete-doctors? Yes, but they’re not easy to find

Today I was listening to an NPR radio show I like called Only a Game. I like it because it covers lots of different sports and lots of athletes of different ages, dis/abilities, competition levels, etc.  This week’s show included a segment on US National Football League players who went to medical school during their playing careers.  This May,  Canadian Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, an offensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs, graduated from medical school with his MD. He’s gotten a lot of press for this impressive accomplishment, but it turns out he’s not the first NFL player to combine an athletic career with medical school.  If you’d like to hear more about it, check out the podcast.

When a male pro athlete does anything else in addition to working as a pro athlete, it’s big news. John Urschel (also Canadian) played pro football for several years while working on a PhD in mathematics at MIT.  He retired from football in 2017, partly because of a JAMA study on CTE, a degenerative brain condition linked to multiple concussions. He’s now a full-time graduate student.

These stories got me wondering: there must be women pro and elite athletes who have done the same thing. I got to work, googling here and googling there.  These women are not easy to find.  But they are out there.

American diver Abby Johnston won a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics and was a medical student at Duke university while competing at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Canadian Caroline Park trained for and competed with the South Korean women’s Olympic Hockey team while she was medical school at Columbia University. She’s had to juggle her schedule and take some time off, but has support from her family, the hockey team and school officials.

I found information about a handful of  mostly Olympic women athletes who then went on to become physicians. All of them were Canadian or American.  There was nothing– NO-THING– out there (that I could find) about female athletes from other countries who combined training and competition with medical studies.

The reason why I’m writing about my failure to find relatively easy access to this straightforward question— which female athletes trained and competed during medical school– is that there could be a number of reasons why I can’t find anything.  And none of them bode well for female athletes who have ambitious educational plans. Here are some possibilities to explain.

Except for tennis, women pro athletes’ salaries are much smaller than male athletes’ salaries.  Want some figures?  There’s very nice (and graphically pleasing) information by Adelphi University. Since women athletes have less money to begin with, they may not be able to afford medical school during training and competition.

Olympic female athletes often come up through secondary and university systems, or government-sponsored sports organizations. The time and commitment requirements are enormous.  The male athletes who talked about combining sports and study had to overcome significant objections, and play down their scholarly activities. Women athletes likely faced even more hurdles and had less support. So it may be the case that there are fewer women who were able to pursue such a combined program.

Or, maybe there are many examples all over the world of women athlete/doctors, but they get no press.  Google doesn’t care about them because the media doesn’t think it worthwhile. Yes, that’s a cynical view.  I mean, it’s possible that I just did some lousy searching.  But I don’t think so.  After all, in the course of my online searching, I did find this:

Former pro basketball player Shaquille O'Neal, receiving his doctorate in education from Barry University.
Former pro basketball player Shaquille O’Neal, receiving his doctorate in education from Barry University.

It’s cool that pro basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal graduated with a doctorate in education. But I want to know about the women, too.  Why?

Frankly, it’s a thrill for me to see high-profile women who excel in athletics and academics at the same time.  It motivates me to do my best to continue down those dual tracks in my own life. And I can use some motivation. It’s hard to push through inertia, time constraints, injuries and/or other limitations, and other wild cards that life throws at us.

No, I’m not planning on pursuing another degree and taking up a new sport or amping up one I already do. But it’s nice to see superlative achievers out there. And I want to see those women. I’ll keep looking.  If you know of any cases, please let us know in the comments.




athletes · feminism · fitness

How To Run Like A Girl

running legs in wildflowers
Woman’s feet running through a field of wildflowers

A big hello to Fit Is A Feminist Issue readers! I know that some of you may have heard from me before about mountain biking, compare-despair or the fraught issue of women’s wear and tennis, but this is my official “introduce-myself” post. I’ll be posting regularly on the first Saturday of the month for a while. And in between, when stories like Serena’s catsuit and Alizé’s sports bra are too provocative not to comment. I’m thrilled to be a small part of this thoughtful and inspiring community.

So without further ado, who am I? I’m always tempted to say, “Nobody” in honour of Richard Wright’s haiku or Elizabeth Dickinson’s short poem. Maybe that’s because I’m a writer (though I hesitate to say that after mentioning such giants). I write non-fiction, fiction, poetry (for friends only) and plays. I’ve performed a couple of solo shows I’ve written and I’m working on an ensemble play. I’ve also ghostwritten other people’s books and edited a lot more besides. Recently, I’ve been translating 17th century French fables and wrapping them in commentary. Before all that I was a lawyer.

I made the switch from lawyer to writer when I contracted what I call adult-onset athleticism. That’s my way of describing a person, like me, who may participate in none or some sports when young, but does not identify as or take ownership of their athlete-self until they are an adult (something which is true for a lot of women). As an aside, for me, in my 40s I did perhaps contract a related case of mid-life extreme athleticism, but I’ll talk about that in another post. It was at twenty-eight that I discovered the thrill of running (and then swimming and cycling and later cross-country skiing and other things). I started to understand how to train to get faster and how to go longer distances than I imagined possible.

This shift in my self-perception was profound enough to spin my life off in a whole new direction. I quit being a lawyer. After a short detour through human rights work, I restarted my career at the bottom, working in publishing jobs. Eventually I went out on my own as a freelance editor and writer (Devil-Wears-Prada style assistantship was not my cup of tea). All of which was really a return to what I’d always loved as a kid.

Quite a few years later, I wrote a book about the transformative impact of sports on women’s lives (I’m working on a second, related one). I interviewed more than one hundred women for Run Like A Girl: How Strong Women Make Happy Lives—ordinary women who had experienced the way their physical strength became psychological strength.

Our sports are a mirror and microscope. Whenever we test the limit of what we thought we could do (whether that’s a first step or 100 miles, on our feet, our bike, our skis or however), we see more deeply into who we are. We also have the opportunity to experience in our bodies and minds how we respond to the challenges life throws at us: to practice our grit and grace; to practice our resilience; to practice ease and flow.

In other words, I’m a believer. Fit is a feminist issue. And I’m a feminist who wants to keep running like a girl as long as I can. As you can tell, I love that expression. There’s so much juiciness in the idea. A couple years back Always did a whole campaign around it. For me, running like a girl captures that ageless girl-spirit that powers so much of the lightness we are capable of in life. The clean-slate optimism of “let’s go” meets the seasoned wisdom of “I can.” Up for the challenge and wise enough to find balance in the effort. Oh, and in case it’s not obvious, when I say running, I mean it as a proxy for any active physical engagement you fancy, however you like to move.

If that isn’t feminist, then what is?

Castle Peak with sunburst
Running into a sunburst sky at the summit of Castle Peak in the Sierra Mountains, California
athletes · blogging · fitness · injury · monthly check in · motivation · sailing · weight loss

Sam’s monthly check-in: What’s up, what’s down, the July version (CW: long, some sad bits, some discussion of weight loss)

Down, is of course, my knee

Saw the surgeon and his team on Monday. I’ve been crying on and off since.

The easy bits are that I got another shot of synvisc under my kneecap. What is it and what’s it for? “SYNVISC is a viscosupplement injection that supplements the fluid in your knee to help lubricate and cushion the joint. SYNVISC is for people with knee osteoarthritis who have not received enough pain relief from diet, exercise and over-the-counter pain medication.”

Read more here.

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Knee injection

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I’m also still wearing the knee brace and it’s helping on days when I’m on my feet a lot. I spent the weekend in New York and even though I took the subway more than usual and hopped in a few taxis for good measure, I still got 13,000 steps in on Sunday including a walk through Central Park. Thanks knee brace. I did some shopping for more leggings for under the brace and for short skirts and dresses to wear over the leggings. The brace presents some fashion challenges and I’m warmer than usual with black leggings on no matter what.

Image description: A photo of Sam just outside Central Park. I’m wearing black leggings, sandals, a sleeveless black jumper and a purse over my shoulder. Also, a knee brace. I’m smiling and the sun is shining.

I’m still going to physio and doing lots of knee-supporting exercises.

I still meet the conditions for knee replacement surgery (in both knees actually though only the left hurts) but neither of the surgeons I saw recommend it. I’m too young and I’m too active. The surgeons made me laugh, which is something, given the general message they had to deliver.

They said they like to make people happy. The person they make the most happy through knee replacement is somebody who arrives in their office, sad and older. Someone who just wants to walk to the grocery store without pain, the kind of person who says they want to lead a normal life, get a decent night’s sleep, and not suffer all the time. Knee replacement apparently makes that person very happy but they said for someone like me it wouldn’t make me happy.

Why not? Because I want to regain function and their line on knee replacement is that you shouldn’t do it to regain function, you should do it to lose pain. Also, knee replacements don’t last very long maybe 20 years and I’m young. I want to do things like ride my bike and some patients after knee replacement have difficulty bike riding because they don’t have the full range of motion back necessary for riding a bike.

So, no.

Instead they discussed a different surgery called high tibial osteotomy. That surgery involves breaking bones and resetting them so I have a bigger gap in my knee cap on the side that’s in a lot of pain. It’s a good sign that the brace helps because this does surgically what the brace does mechanically. But it’s not a permanent fix. There’s a chance the other side of my knee will become painful as arthritis advances. So it’s good for 2-10 years maybe. Also, it’s big deal surgery. Like knee replacement it’s months and months of recovery. I’d trade off 10 years of active living without pain for six months painful time consuming recovery but I’m not sure about 2 years. There are no magic globes I can peer in to see the future.

I’m trying to decide. See them again in three months.

In the meantime my fit feminist friend Sarah is having that same surgery. Wishing her well.

But the other depressing piece of news from the surgeons was the strong recommendation of weight loss, both as a way of avoiding surgery and as essential to recovering from it. Either way I should lose a lot of weight. It will definitely, they say, help with pain relief. The pain is all about weight bearing. That’s why downstairs is harder than up. It’s all about force on the kneecap. And as far as motivation goes this is pretty horrible pain. Like pain that makes hard to think about other things.

Now as I’ve said before I wish that it were the case that medical reasons for weight loss changed the facts. But that’s not so. Your body doesn’t care how good, how “pure” your motivation is. It’s still tough. It’s tough losing weight and tough keeping it off.

I don’t have any choice but to try. The worse case scenario is that I lose it, gain it back, and more and need knee replacement surgery. But that’s the same worst case scenario I face now. I’ve lost significant amounts of weight in my life, 70 lbs in grad school, 60 when I turned 40. The trick, the hard part, is keeping it off. This time, if I actually lose weight, I’ll be unicorn training, learning the habits of people who actually keep weight off.

Don’t worry. This won’t become a weight loss blog. Likely I’ll save any angst, any updates, to my monthly check in posts. I’ll also add content warnings.

I thought about leaving blogging but making this pain manageable and movement possible is a big part of my life right now. And I’m very much still a fit, feminist just one who is coping with injury and aging and hoping to keep in moving.

Wish me luck.

Up, still Snipe racing

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Our Snipe!

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It can be tricky moving around in a small boat in ways that don’t hurt my knee but I’m learning how to do it. I haven’t raced a small sailboat ever. All of my sailboat racing experience is on relatively big boats so this is new to me. With all the knee misery, see above, it’s good to have something new to focus on. It’s fun and exciting and lots to learn.

athletes · competition · fitness · Guest Post · race report · racing · running

Grapes of Wrath – What did I do?!? (Guest Post)

Sunday was the Grapes of Wrath Niagara 2018 5K mud and obstacle run raising funds for the Canadian Cancer Society’s Wheels of Hope. I have posted before on my participation in the Merchant Ale House run club (here and here). We go out every Sunday morning and have been signing up for cool races. One Sunday the group talked about it as I was busy with someone and then when I came back they said: “Christine, we are doing this!” “Ok,” I said, “I will sign up!” And so I did, without realizing what I was getting into.

This may have been the toughest thing I ever did. We were a team of 8, 3 men and 5 women, of various ages and abilities. The point of the event is not to win but to “finish together.” Honestly, I do not know how I could have finished by myself. The first serious obstacle required hanging from a rope, quite a few feet up in the air, and crossing a certain distance (don’t ask, I don’t know, all I know is it was long) pulling yourself with your arms and legs to cross. I think I may have gone halfway only before I fell in the hay below. But I gave it my all to get as far as I could.

Giving it your all: that is what this run required and I tried my best to give it. Some obstacles were just plain fun (water slide landing in a pool of mud) and climbing over wood structures. Others, were unpleasant: crawling through mud under a tarp or crossing a pool of icy water with blocks of ice floating in it! The toughest one by far was the last: climb and cross a wall helping yourself with a rope, cross a massive puddle of mud and jump over 3 logs while holding for dear life on a rope (it felt like sinking in quick sand) and then climb the last mud hill. You can see us in the background climbing the mud hill in the picture below. The other two pictures are in the “before and after” spirit.

I barely made it up that mud hill. I slid two thirds of the way and held on to the rope and was trying to pry myself up under the cheers of my team and thought “this is it, can’t do it. I can’t!” But then I did. I managed to crawl with friends cheering and then grabbing me and pulling me up. I cried from exhaustion.

I was pulled, pushed, lifted, both physically and mentally through this run with friends. What an adventure. To say we were dirty is an understatement, as you can tell from the pictures. After two showers and a bath I still felt like I smelled of manure. We were all exhausted but proud and happy we did it and finished together!

Now I am told we are doing this again! I will have to work on my upper body strength for next year to help myself and others. I read about Tracy’s chin-ups and pull-ups the other day. Guess what I will be starting to do this week?

athletes · martial arts

Grooming, Coaching, and Toxic Relationships: Some (Guest) Conversations

In the last few years, there have been some high profile sexual assault and abuse cases in American sports. Larry Nassar, former US Gymnastics team doctor, was convicted earlier this year of sexually abusing many girls and young women in his role as a physician for the team. The Lopez brothers, Steven and Jean, a three-time Olympic medalist and US Olympic coach, respectively, are accused of sexually abusing and assaulting several girls and young women. While the former is still under investigation, the latter has been permanently banned from Olympic activities as a result of findings by SafeSport. USA Swimming has also had several people speak out about what has been called a “culture of sexual abuse.”

Sexual abuse is obviously a feminist issue. It’s actually something I write about in my day job as a feminist philosopher. But given that philosophy is my professional training, not journalism, I’m going to leave discussion of the details of individual cases to people who report such things for a living.

Instead, I want to do something a bit different, and think about the background conditions and relationships that make abusive situations possible. To help me do that, I’m going to have several conversations with people who have had a variety of experiences with taekwondo coaching and competition. That’s not because I think it’s more important than other cases, but it’s my sport, and I feel much better positioned to talk about it. But just so you know, I’m not going to ask anyone to weigh in on particular cases, individuals or allegations. It’s just that in order to get a better understanding of the stakes and context of some of these cases, I think it’s important to understand the nature of the relationships in question.

So just keep an eye out for an occasional series with me and guest views. I’m going to talk to people about their gendered experiences in sports, as well as their views about power and mentorship, and how it works in these kinds of contexts.  A coach, after all, will get you to do a lot of things you don’t want to do. They’ll get you to push through a hard training session when you’re tired or don’t feel like working out. And over time, you’ll do a lot of things that might feel counterintuitive because you trust them to know what’s best for you – sometimes more than you trust yourself. Make that happen in the context of a sport whose traditional roots value discipline and deference to authority, and it seems as though the potential for abuse is high.

Also, I think that a lot of people who haven’t been competitive athletes can easily underestimate the power that someone highly positioned in the sport can have over you – especially when you’re still young and trying to find your place. So hopefully one thing that we’ll get out of these conversations are some useful ideas about how to understand power and relationships better, so we can work to make ourselves better and improve the situation of future generations of athletes.

athletes · Guest Post · race report · running

Lessons learned from a first half marathon (Guest post)

Sunday morning, after five months of training. I ran the Ottawa Half Marathon, my very first timed race, ever. I had a fantastic time. Here are some things I learned during the race itself.

Cheering really does help. There were spectators nearly the whole route, in crowds in some places, or just standing on corners by themselves, cheering. Posters (“This looks like a lot of work for a free banana”), noise-makers, boom-boxes, families, cheer teams, and even children holding hoses and spraying runners who asked for it. It was noisy and cheerful and overwhelmingly supportive. I must have high-fived a hundred little kids and it felt great. It’s true that cheering made me run faster, hurt less, smile more. I thought it would be weird and that I would be really self-conscious. But it was awesome and I felt like a hero. I even mugged for the race photographers, at kilometer 17, which tells you how much fun I was having.

Looking silly

Go through the mister but maybe pass on the electrolytes. I know I tend to overheat, and undersweat. I hit every mister I could. I also poured water over my hair, grabbing cups at every station, and I poured them over my back, too. I grabbed an orange at kilometer 11. I grabbed a sponge at kilometre 14 and doused myself thoroughly again. Honestly, it made me feel like a superhero of running to grab water from outstretched hands at the aid stations. And it’s really fun to run through all the dropped paper cups, like runner confetti. Crunchy and happy and chaotic. I felt like a badass. I did not try any electrolyte drink (hadn’t trained with it) nor any of the energy bites offered (again, hadn’t trained with it)—I didn’t want to risk any tummy upsets. I feel like I got full use of the aid stations (soaking myself) but didn’t throw my plan out the window (new food and drink).

10-and-1s are some kind of miracle. I was initially skeptical about training for an endurance race but taking, like, 13 one-minute walk breaks along the way. It seemed to kind of miss the point. And yet: I pulled a 6:44 pace overall with the walk breaks which is faster than I could run a continuous 10k in the fall before I broke my foot. Somehow the walk breaks (and I walked FAST) gave me enough of a mental break that it was very easy to run all of my longer intervals between 6:15-6:30, which, again, is not a pace I used to be able to sustain at all. Another unexpected benefit of the 10-and-1s is that everyone passes you while you’re walking, so you cease very quickly to be precious about it. You’ll just catch ‘em later.

Trust the training. My run club program had 90 runs in the training schedule. I did 88 of them. My coaches said that 2:20 was and eminently doable half marathon goal for me. Naturally, I didn’t believe them. So I started the race following the 2:30 pace bunny. After about 1km, though, that just felt way too slow, and so I basically sped up the whole rest of the race and wound up finishing in 2:21:44. So my coaches were right, after all, even if I didn’t trust them. Next time I will trust the training.

Some of it is hard, but then that passes. There was a chunk of time around kilometre 14 where I was questioning my pace, my preparation, my endurance, and my motivation. (There was a gentle hill involved.) I slowed down a wee bit for about a minute, and the feeling passed. There was a bigger chunk of time around kilometre 19, where I could see the finish line … on the other side of the canal, and then I had to run past it, and had to keep running away from it for like another 750m before finally crossing the canal and doubling back. I suddenly became overwhelmed with the idea I couldn’t do it any more. I slowed down for about 30 seconds, and then told myself that I had done tempo runs faster and longer than what I had left. By the time I passed the 20km marker, I forgot that I didn’t think I was going to finish, and I sped up even more. It surprised me that I could feel weak, or tired, or scared, and that if I just kept going for even another minute, the feeling would just … dissipate. And that I could be even stronger after.

Live your dreams of athletic glory. I placed in the bottom 40% no matter which way you slice the results. I am literally, statistically, well below average among finishers overall, in my age group, and in my gender. Nevertheless, I ended my race feeling like a gold-medal Olympian because a) I started in the right corral, and b) I started at the very back of my corral. Since I was reasonably conservative about where I lined up at the start line, and since I ran fast enough to almost have run one corral faster, I actually spent most of the race … passing people. I’m not going to lie: that was really great. I never pass anyone, like ever, in real life. I even found the energy for a kick right at the finish. Look at the photo: it seems like many others are happily ambling in, but I’m in full sprint mode, hilariously.

Looking super serious

I started all this nervous about the distance, the training, the race, whether I was a “real athlete” and whether I would just somehow fail at the last moment. But it turned out great, better than I could have hoped. I’m glad I didn’t let all my fears stop me from trying. So I finished my first half marathon, and it for sure is not going to be my last.

Aimée Morrison is on sabbatical from professoring in new media studies in 2018 and trying to achieve some healthy ratio of words-written to miles-run.

athletes · injury · martial arts

Pennington vs Nunes vs Protecting Athletes (Guest Post)

At UFC 224 on Saturday, bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes defended her title yet again, this time against Raquel Pennington, whose biggest claim to fame was probably a decisive victory over her former Ultimate Fighter coach Miesha Tate in 2016. Pennington was clearly the underdog going into Saturday’s fight, and, while she remained in the game until her TKO in the fifth round, Nunes was obviously dominant.

two women wearing sports bras and shorts in a mixed martial arts match. The woman on the right is throwing a punch with her left hand at the woman on the right, who is facing her.
Nunes (left) throws a punch at Pennington (right) during Saturday’s UFC 224.

The controversy here came when, after taking some extremely effective knees during the fourth round, probably breaking her nose, Pennington told her corner that she wanted to be done. Instead of throwing in the towel, her corner told her to push through and throw everything she had at the match. While she stayed active through the beginning of the round, some strikes midway through reopened her bloodied nose. After she went to her knees, the referee stopped the match, giving the TKO victory to Nunes.

The MMA world is extremely divided over the corner’s decision to put Pennington back in the cage. Nunes, Pennington’s opponent, but also her friend, spoke out against the decision, saying that her coach had failed her. On the other hand, Miesha Tate (who has fought both of them) defended the corner, saying that it had allowed Pennington to lose with dignity. Pennington’s fiancee Tecia Torres, said more recently that both of them agreed with the corner’s choice as well. I admit that I, personally, feel some force from both sides of the debate. As a former athlete, I can appreciate being pushed not to quit, even when I might want to. But as a current coach, I don’t think I would be able to send an athlete back out if they really wanted to quit and were at risk of being seriously injured. Now, I don’t coach at nearly these levels, so that makes a difference. But in my experience, an athlete who doesn’t want to fight any more is at serious risk of being hurt or knocked out.

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#Forever I am extremely proud of my lady. You are a warrior babe. Fought every second you possibly could. You continue to amaze me daily. You motivate me to work hard and one day too receive the same opportunity to fight for a UFC championship. We are the 1%ers. Very few will ever know what we go thru as fighters and an even smaller percentage will ever earn the chance to fight on such a big stage and for a world title. #RideOrDie #AlwaysProud PS: Both us and our coaches agree with the decision made to go into the 5th round. We know Raquel more than anyone else and know if we let her give up on herself going into the last round she would have always regretted it. She fought with heart and grit until the end. PSS: Exactly one year ago today you asked me to marry you, I can't freaking wait to wife you! 💍 @raquel_pennington

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One thing I haven’t seen talked about that much, though, are the gender dynamics of what happened. Now, it is not at all unusual for fighters to be injured in the course of a match, and for decisions to be made about whether or not they can continue. Nor would it be the first time in which a fighter or coach has wanted a fight to be stopped midway through in order to concede. And I genuinely appreciate how well the UFC handles having a women’s division, without excessively sexualizing or patronizing the athletes, and with women headliners being a typical occurrence. But I think that bloodied and bruised women affect us more than bloodied and bruised men. I also think we are much more likely to automatically frame injured women as victims. So I wonder how much that gender dynamic and the idea that we need to protect women (even from other women) shapes the discussion of whether Pennington’s corner should have stopped the fight.

Noticing that the discussion might be gendered doesn’t really tell us what should have been done, though. Maybe as a sport, MMA needs to do a better job of protecting athletes, even from themselves. There are plenty of long time veteran fighters still active in competition who might be at risk of serious brain damage from knockouts. Maybe if we notice that our protective inclinations kick in more when we see women with bloodied faces, we should wonder why we don’t feel more protective of men in similar conditions.

It should be obvious at this point that I’m very much in favour of women competing in traditionally masculine sports, like combat sports. But maybe one side effect of that could be to question some of the taken-for-granted aspects of masculinity associated with these sports, and whether they’re really good for anyone. Persevering is good, but likely not when it causes major bodily harm. Do we want to treat going out on your shield (so to speak) as virtuous?

Readers, what do you think?