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I liken my high school career as a sprinter to eating a mediocre meal at a four-star restaurant. It's supposed to be stellar -- you've read rave reviews -- but it doesn't quite deliver. That's not to say I lacked talent. During track practice, I'd put up the fastest 100-meter qualifying times in my age group. The starting line is where I lost it. Sounds of blaring sirens would play in my ears; my jaw would tense; hot and cold sensations would tingle through my scalp; I'd feel the sudden urge to pee. Before I had taken one step, I'd already choked.
A psychologist would label it an anxiety attack. My track coaches called it a demon fit, a telltale indication that I was spoiled by my parents and missed too much church.
After I retired my track shoes, my pluck remained in question. There were things I longed to try -- amateur boxing, auditioning to be a contestant on the TV show American Gladiators -- but never followed through with for fear I'd wither on opening night. As I've gotten older, I've sought imaginative ways to walk the plank. Every year on my birthday, I skydive. I've redlined my motorcycle on the freeway to the tune of 160 miles per hour. And five days a week I tread the stairclimber until my heels turn numb. How much does it take to prove that I'm not a wimp? I wonder.
A couple of months before my 30th birthday, I decided it was time to reconcile the athlete I never was with the woman I am today. I drew up a list of four physical dares that would once and for all test my mettle. If I could accomplish these feats, I figured, I'd finally be absolved from past failures.
My "bucket list" was composed of nail-biting activities I'd never tried. First up, wall climbing. My arms are like taffy and my hands are Smurf-size, not to mention that heights make my knees knock together; conquering this task would be a one-punch knockout against the bigger guy.
Challenge number two: caving, chosen to confront my fear of darkness, bats, graves, and other images reminiscent of the living dead (I still sleep with a light on). Next on the list was white-water rafting. At age 9, I nearly drowned. Enough said. For a grand finale I settled on hang gliding.
True, I already skydive. But with diving, the adventure is over in eight blinks of an eye, before rational thinking sets in. Hang gliding leaves you dangling in the atmosphere hundreds of feet above the ground, with at least 15 minutes to muse about what you're doing. A smidge wackier than free-falling, I'd say.
As serendipity would have it, soon after making my list I was invited on a sporting excursion to Chattanooga, Tennessee, a veritable fertile crescent for all things outdoorsy and athletic. My bucket list would soon come to life.
"You're joking, right?" I ask aloud, looking up at a 30-foot-high monstrosity that juts this way and that. I'm certain the footholds aren't strong enough for a woman of my stature.
"Just chalk up good so your hands won't slip," my instructor, Jonathan, assures me, tightening the belay rope that will, he swears, keep me from plummeting to the earth.
I look over and see a boy no older than 6 swiftly ascending a 24-footer, his dad cheering below. Not to be outmatched by the squirt, I grit my teeth and frog-leg up the wall in less than four minutes, feeling like Lady Tarzan.
"Women are more natural climbers than guys," Jonathan explains, deflating my ego. "They instinctively know how to shift their hips and move their bodies at different angles. We dudes just try to muscle it." Here's what I hear: You're not special; you just have a chromosomal advantage. So, ha!
My scrawny arms set out to prove him wrong, and I heave myself up three more walls, each climb quicker than the last, until my body starts to crumble as I reach the halfway point on the fourth wall. An overwhelming ache creeps across my shoulders; heat shoots up my calves. In the past this would be the moment when I panic and throw in the towel. Today I write a new narrative. "I'm...not...stopping!" I scream to no one in particular.
With my fingers clinging to the purple handgrip, and my two big toes stacked atop a crevice no wider than my BlackBerry, I spring desperately toward the next foothold. Snatch! After another 20 excruciating minutes of clutching and self-goading, I finally reach the summit.
"Who's your mama?" I exclaim, raising both fists in the air. One down on my bucket list, three to go.
Before I Twizzler my body through a mile's worth of Raccoon Mountain's naturally formed rock, I wonder if it hurts to be buried alive.
"Hope you're not afraid of getting dirty," says my guide, Patty, chuckling, as we stand at the cave's entrance. "Hold on tightly to this rope. The drop is about 15 feet." Swell.
Caving provokes your mental stamina as much as your physical agility: You operate on all planes of motion in poor lighting. Fight-or-flight impulses are futile; you're enclosed in a jagged tomb that's eerily quiet, New England chilly, and black as anthracite. The only way out is to conform your body to the rocks around you, patiently feeling your way forward and trusting your instincts. If you have to crawl, you crawl. Shimmying on my belly in a space 12 inches high is a lesson in acquiescence. When I relax, it gets easier.
"Sidestep the ledge. Slide on your back. Quick, down on your knees. Watch your head!" Patty instructs. Once I relinquish my adult worries (What time is it? I'll never be able to scrub these grimy stains out of my shorts!), I'm like a child again, crouching behind boulders, splashing in mud. I raise a fuss when we finally find daylight, wishing I could stay and play another game of hide-and-seek.
Maybe it's because I was born under the astrological fire sign Leo, or because my Aquarian mother still obsessively attempts to protect me from exposure to rain, sprinklers, and spilled seltzer on my kitchen floor, that I am hydrophobic. I cannot swim. Nor do I surf, snorkel, or eat seafood. In no way do I expect to change my colors by white-water rafting on the Ocoee River. I hope simply to survive. I arrive at the dock in jeans and a cotton tank top.
"What are you wearing? You're going to get soaked!" my instructor, Ashlee, says. "Is this your first time?" I nod. A few minutes later I'm clad in spandex, water shoes, and goggles. Properly suited up, my life vest strapped snugly, I perch at the front of the boat to lead the rhythmic rowing action of our all-female crew (it's like beatboxing with oars instead of your mouth). Soon we're headed toward our first "encounter": a small waterfall plunging into two whirlpools. I squint and stop breathing. Whish, crash, splat! Somehow the raft stays upright. I shout "Bring it on, baby!" This is...fun?
Later, when Ashlee asks who would like to jump into the water, my hand shoots up, as if by reflex. Hugging my life vest to my chest, I plunge into the deep, all 30 feet of it. My crewmates chant, "Go, Chee! Go, Chee!" I spin around on my belly and peer through the abyss, blow a few bubbles and flip over to coast on my back. All I'm missing is a poolside mojito, ukulele music, and swaying palm trees. Sometimes our fears are rooted solely in ignorance.The Big Picture
Hang gliding -- the omega of my checklist. After a weekend of yelps and occasional four-letter exclamations, at 1,400 feet I'm finally speechless. The Swiss instructor strapped to my back steers the wings and chats away in my ear, spitting every third word. "That's Raccoon sp-Mountain. Oooh, there's a sp-eagle to your sp-right! The sun -- sp-sparkling!" I ignore the spit and take in the view. Suspended high in the air, I thought I'd feel voltaic and omnipotent. Strangely I feel sober, delicate, transient, like a snowflake. Next thing I know, the noise in my head evaporates, and my body becomes a conduit for every sensation, from ecstasy to panic. It was a purifying eureka moment: Do nothing; absorb everything.
When I was a competitive athlete, my physical potential became my affliction. I collapsed under the pressure to be the best; I was afraid to push myself to the limit. Completing my bucket list taught me that fear is acceptable. Vulnerability can be an advantage, keeping you sensitive and open to new adventures and skills to master. I went to Chattanooga seeking finality; instead I launched my second act as an athlete. I no longer need to validate myself, and I can't wait to try my next feat. First place won't be on the agenda -- winning is overrated. My plan: kick back and relish the ride.BRAVE WOMEN UNITE!
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, February 2010.