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Helen Yang / Senior Staff Illustrator

I love being an athlete. This love affair isn’t new. I played tennis from the age of four, going with my mom to the courts every day for at least two hours. Then came swimming, getting up early before school and going back to the pool at night. At my sister’s suggestion, I joined my high school’s rowing team and ended up here, as a Division I rower.

Everything about rowing still fascinates me—the beauty of the technique, the weird masochism, the rush of racing. It is where I feel most myself and most self-assured. It has made me more courageous. It has given me a home at Columbia.

Despite this, I find myself fixated on how athletics have altered my body and my relationship to my physical self.

As a collegiate athlete, my well-being is so tied to my physical health. Injury is devastating. My first year began with a hip surgery that left me deeply unhappy and out of a boat until the following February. Last weekend, I didn’t row at our scrimmage because my back had been acting up. I ended up lying on the floor trying not to cry as my teammate urged me to take it easy. On the flip side, when I’m immersed in a practice, I love being strong. The first time I erged 25 kilometers (over 100 minutes on the indoor rowing machine), I biked home grinning, telling my mom before I was even through the back door. My body is my tool. Taking care of it is essential to the best parts of my day.

An illustration of my day: I get up at 5:43 a.m., make coffee, get dressed, and go to practice. I get back to campus for my 10:10, feeling hungry and gross. After class, I eat more than I probably should. I drink a bottle of water almost every hour. I feel guilty, wondering if my lunch was healthy or if I trained hard enough. I study in Milstein. Then around 4, I go to Dodge and workout for another 60 to 80 minutes. I eat dinner, debating again if I’m making the right choices. During the season, I don’t drink. By 10 p.m., I’m in bed. This is a normal, pretty good day for me. Yet, I have grown accustomed to pestering myself with guilt and my own high expectations.

I want to be as good at rowing as I possibly can. Somehow in my head, that requires something more than what I have. Last Friday, my teammate and I were in Duane Reade after practice, acting like buffoons, when someone asked if we were runners. We exchanged a wide-eyed look. Runners? What a compliment. I was thrilled at being perceived as part of a group whose physical traits I idealize, despite knowing our bodies are specialized to our sports.

I’m absolutely certain that all athletes have preconceived notions of strength and inadequacy. Female athletes especially can get caught up with these ideals. We are taught to be constantly improving, getting stronger, faster—but all of this self-striving easily blurs into detrimental self-criticism. At what point would my current physicality be enough?

Really, never. The fact is I will never have a perfect body for rowing, nor do I have the body of a “normal” woman. The pressure to be perfect has carried over from Columbia’s academic culture to the way we feel about our bodies. I push myself to be better at my sport, and then feel huge all the time—not at all “pretty.” An insidious voice tells me a real athlete has less fat, more muscle, and doesn’t eat that. The even meaner part of me says I should keep my head down, not take up so much space, and lose some weight.

The line between self-care and self-criticism is blurry. The internal tug-of-war comes out in even the smallest choices—should I burn more calories and build my cardio base? Or if I lift like my coach wants me to, “pretty” says eat less. An athlete’s body is developed for the purpose of excellence. How can I see my body as an imperfect vessel that also allows me to row? How can we promote healthy behaviors in athletes who are molded by Ivy League perfectionist culture, but still so earnestly desire to perform to the best of our abilities?

I don’t know. I know my mind plays just as much into my performance as my body. Keeping my mental health strong is equally as important as keeping my body injury-free. It's just difficult to execute in real time.

One of my non-athlete friends asked me to get dinner at Five Guys recently. That terrified me. I kept imagining how no real athlete would ever go there. She told me to stop. We sat on Low Steps watching the sunset. I had a milkshake. She said I should see my body as an expression of my activity, and this sounded good, almost convincing. So I told that voice inside of me to quiet down for the evening. Like when I’m deadlifting or practicing catch placement, I can’t expect immediate change. It needs practice, and that I can do.

Sabina Maurer is a senior on the Columbia women’s rowing team. Her column, The Art of Unset, runs alternate Fridays.

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athlete self-image rowing perfectionism sports
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