The first time someone called me ‘sporty’ I laughed in their face. Excuse me? Stephanie Case was the opposite of sporty. I tripped over cracks in sidewalks, let out high-pitched shrieks whenever someone threw a ball my way, and refused to do any activity that turned my face red. I used to beg my gym teacher to let me be a ‘cheerleader’ during soccer and baseball games at school just so that I could avoid the embarrassment of being last picked for the team. Sure, I took swimming and dance lessons growing up, but that was pretty much required of all young girls in the WASP-y town in which I raised. Instead of going away to summer camp, I went to band camp. Yes, it is true – I was a band camp geek. And before you ask, I played the flute.
Being ‘sporty’ was just not a part of my identity, nor was it in the realm of possibility. I was good at algebra, chemistry and physics, not soccer, baseball or basketball. Sports were for the cool kids, the confident ones, not for the awkward, shy nerds like me. Back then, I thought that you were either born sporty or you weren’t. And I fell into the latter category.
It wasn’t until years later when I started ultrarunning that I learned I had gotten it all wrong. The idea that I wasn’t sporty was idiotic… I just hadn’t found my sport yet. Once I did, there was no stopping me. Don’t get me wrong, I still shriek when someone throws me a ball. But I’ve found a sport I’m good at. More importantly, I’ve found a sport I absolutely love, which has allowed me to transform from a shy, awkward girl to an outgoing, sporty one (albeit still pretty darn awkward). I have learned that confidence doesn’t come before sports – it comes with it.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have been travelling around Afghanistan launching our projects through Free to Run. Having experienced first-hand the transformative power of sport, I am passionate about helping other women and girls to discover their ‘sporty’ selves. In my case, the only thing preventing me from coming out of my shell was my own shyness. In the case of the women we serve through Free to Run, the obstacles are much more tangible and intense. However, this is precisely why we have chosen to work in conflict-affected areas – this is where there is the most need for support, and in turn where sports can effect the most change.
In my first blog post for Free to Run, I talk about my experience hiking in Afghanistan with an unlikely group of female students, who showed up on the first day in high heels carrying their purses. Perhaps like me, they had never thought of themselves as sporty. Perhaps like me, they had never thought of themselves as capable of doing sports. But perhaps like me, they just needed the right environment in which to explore their athletic side.
After a few days of hiking and outdoor adventure, one of the girls on the hike said to me in Dari: “now I know I am capable. Now I know that sports aren’t just for boys. They are for girls too.” I tried to nod nonchalantly, but inside I was bursting with excitement. This is only just the start, I thought to myself…
Please take a few minutes to catch up on what we are doing with Free to Run. In Afghanistan, we are helping an Afghan university to set up a sports club for female students, which will have regular athletic activities throughout the year (skiing anyone?). We have also launched a shelter project in Kabul, which provides yoga, pilates and fitness classes to women who have survived gender-based violence. We have been incredibly lucky to get our initial funding through a generous donation from RacingThePlanet, but we need your support to continue our work! Whether you are in a position to donate directly or fundraise on our behalf through your own athletic endeavours, we can use all of the support we can get.
Finally, just a last note as a ‘life update’ as I know I’ve been off the blogosphere for quite some time. Usually when I go silent it means that something really good has happened, or something terrible. Luckily, this time, it was the former. I left South Sudan a month ago – despite having a really amazing last month in Juba with a good group of friends – to take up a new position with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Gaza. I arrived in Gaza today, flying in from Afghanistan this past weekend, and am launching into my new job. Having been in three different conflict zones over the past couple of weeks, I have to say, it is having a toll…. But while my body is tired, my heart is full of gratitude and excitement for what is to come.
Stay tuned for more adventures from Gaza.