The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Underdog Powers: Activate!

How to build inner-strength and grit.

On Sunday, September 18, 2011 Jamie Rodemeyer of Williamsville, NY committed suicide. Jamie was only 14 years old but had endured enough cyber bullying to push him over the edge and take his own life.

As a gay teenager, I was pushed to the brink of suicide. I know first hand the isolation and self-loathing that goes along with being marginalized.  I know how much the name calling of being a freak, faggot or sissy hurts. I have spent most of my life trying to overcome the paralyzing pain of feeling like a 2nd class citizen.

Daily Physical Activity Makes You More Resilient

The daily process of working out has helped me become stronger and better able to cope. The insecurity and self-doubt never completely goes away; it is a work in progress for me...but, I keep fighting and working hard to deal with the pain of bigotry and homophobia. Regular physical activity reshapes your brain to be more resilient and builds inner and outer strength. Through working out you fortify your mental toughness and innate ability to snap out of the hopeless victim mindset.

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Running turned my life around when I was 17. My daily workouts pulled me out of a black hole and allowed me to transform myself from being a self-destructive, depressed and apathetic ne'er-do-well into an optimistic, ambitious go-getter. This metamorphosis is an individual process that is universally accessible. Physical activity has the power to make your body and mind stronger and it is something that is available to everybody right here, right now no matter where you live or how stuck in a rut you feel.

There are no easy 'add-water-and-stir' recipes for life that will 'fix it' or make the fact that I was born part of the LGBT community any easier—but that's OK, I'd rather be David than Goliath. I find power in being an underdog. The essence of life is in the struggle and how each of us copes with the adversity and insecurity we face depending on the body and mind we are born with.

As a gay teenager trapped in a stuffy boarding school, I glommed on to the coming-of-age movies of the 80s and there were lots of them – Breaking Away, Flashdance, Visionquest...I identify with the classic archetype of being the scrappy kid who did a whole lot better than anyone in the neighborhood thought he would. So, I bought the soundtracks and pounded these and lots of Madonna songs into my head when I ran. I visualized and romanticized the mythic transformation of going from being the underestimated underdog to becoming a champion and local hero.

Feeling like an underdog has been a part of my psyche since the day I was born. Even though I look privileged on the outside and like my current life was handed to me on a silver platter, it wasn't. And I am happy about that. I'm glad that I am gay because it forced me to be vulnerable, strong, loving and resilient all at the same time. I'm not sure that if I were born a straight, white, rich male American that I would have pushed myself as hard in sports and competition. Feeling 'less than' made me work harder to become better.

As an adolescent, I learned how to use music, smells, imagery and 'character work' like a method actor to build an indomitable alter ego-and you can, too.  I can still click into this idealized athletic persona with a simple lift of my chin, straightening of my shoulders and shifting of my arches. A spritz of classic POLO cologne on my wrist takes every cell in my body right back to the innocence and virility of being 17 and makes me feel young again. You can create your own 'Superhero' alter-ego triggers and stay young at heart and eternally optimistic with the proper mindset and use of your imagination.

I guess as a "Stock Character" in a play you would call me the "eiron" who is up against a "braggart" in an archetypal way.  I will always embrace being an Eiron. I would hate to be the braggart. Being the 98-pound weakling who constantly gets sand kicked in his face but rises like a Phoenix is the mindset I embrace. Even when I was at the top of my game and returning to defend my Triple Ironman title for the third time I avoided having an ounce of hubris or over-confidence. I knew that humility and tenacity were the key to victory ultimately-not bravado.  The "I'm better than you" bully mentality does not build lifelong champions—it creates pathetic long-term losers.

Strength Lined With Tenderness Is an Unbeatable Combo

You have the power to create a Kevlar coated bulletproof alter-ego that appears intrepid on the outside but is still sensitive and gentle on the inside-I think many gay people have learned how to maintain these co-existing opposites as we move through daily life. As Maya Angelou said, "The quality of strength lined with tenderness is an unbeatable combination." I agree.

Physical activity combined with talk-therapy has always been my salvation for building my inner-strength and grit without becoming numb or shutting down. The paradoxes abound, I know-learning how to stay gritty, sensitive and a fully feeling human being all at the same time are tough to master. If you consciously focus on being compassionate and ferocious in competition and in life, you will become a force to be reckoned with.

I realized early on as an athlete that my most threatening rivals didn't feel the need to trash-talk or cut me down through name-calling. It was the weaklings and scaredy cats who wanted to undermine me to make themselves look better. I don't know many successful adults who waste their time gossiping, spreading rumors or bullying people. There is no need.

Gandhi said: "Be truthful, gentle and fearless." That is the winning triad--but being those three things simultaneously is tricky. It takes some practice to master. But trust me, if you focus on being truthful, gentle and fearless in every situation you face you will be better off and you will succeed. I know when you are being called names or physically beaten up that it is difficult to turn the other cheek or to think of the perpetrator of all this pain as being 'weaker' than you...but, spiritually he or she is ultimately a coward and the weakling.      

By responding to bullies with sympathy, non-violence, and compassion you will deliver yourself to a higher plane and a peaceful place.  The easiest way to do this is to practice deep breathing, forgiveness and a realization that when people are mean to you that it is a reflection of self-hate and insecurity inside of them. Whenever you have a knee-jerk reaction to be impulsive or lash out take ten very deep, very slow breathes. As you exhale, relax every muscle in your body and close your eyes. You will feel the tension and rage melt away.

It takes self-love to want to keep yourself healthy but self-love alone is not enough; you need to be tough. You also have to have the fighting spirit.  I have always used feeling like a sissy-boy to my advantage. At Kiehl's the stock crew used to call me "Ironman Barbie" and I liked it. That 'slur' was an oxymoron with a wink that said that  they accepted me as being a not-so cliché effeminate gay person; that I was delicate but tough as nails and that they deeply respected me for it. The "Ironman Barbie" moniker broke stereotypes while making fun of them at the same time, so I embraced it.

Hammering and forging a fierce but happy-go-lucky persona into actual flesh and bone through really hard work and a sense of humor is what allowed me to win races. I created a vision of who I wanted to become and strived everyday to become it. I also turned it into a game and had fun with it. I put the Muhammad Ali quote: "If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can surely make something out of you" on my fridge. I talked to myself in the third person like a drill sergeant demanding that I become all that I could be and challenging my character to consist of all "the right stuff." I'm still pushing. I will never rest on my laurels and neither should you. As Madonna says, "Stay hungry."

Think Like a Spartan Youth

You need to think like a Spartan youth no matter how successful you become; embrace the pinch of hunger and stay brave in the face of adversity. One of the driving forces I see behind the obesity epidemic is the combination of trying to fill a 'god-sized' hole of emptiness with food combined with a lack of self-respect. There is a certain amount of self-loathing linked to treating yourself badly and being unhealthy. YOU have the power to turn it around and build your self-esteem. Working out is a great way to empower yourself. The time to do it is now-start today. All it takes is intention, commitment and determination.

One thing that was most disturbing about the recent suicide of Jamie Rodemeyer was that he had made a YouTube video for the "It Gets Better" project and seemed to be doing OK.  Suicide is so scary because when you are in the blackest of blackness you don't want to reach out for help. You don't think that there will ever be sunbeams in your soul again. I have been to the deepest depths of darkness and I am here to tell you that the sun will shine in your soul if you hold on-reach out, ask for help and do everything you can to fortify your human spirit.

I believe physical activity is the key to staying resilient – and that is why I am a zealot for encouraging you to start moving your body – connecting to your own biology and the biology (nature) all around you. But, creating and maintaining close-knit bonds with friends and family is always going to be the most powerful lifeline and safety net. If you are feeling depressed or suicidal reach out and ask for help. People will take care of you-let them.

I often wonder who I would be today if I wasn't born gay. Would I have broken a Guinness World Record by running 153.76 miles in 24-hours on a treadmill when I was 38? Or, would I have given up sports after college and settled down? Would I be obsessed with politics and fighting for equal rights? Or, would I be a hedge fund manager who was quite content with the status quo?

Get Off the Sidelines!

It's impossible to know how sexual orientation completely affects us - but, I'm very glad that I was born gay because I think it has made me more of a humanist. Being bullied and treated like a 2nd class citizen has impacted my development and the choices that I've made in a very positive way-so I am grateful for it. It has made me much more sympathetic to any person who is treated unequally. For example: even though I'm a man, I identify strongly with my femininity and am a strong advocate for the women's movement. I am a huge supporter of Kirsten Gillibrand's "Off the Sidelines" initiative. Being outspoken about who you are and fighting for other underdogs creates a win, win for everyone and builds a support network.

The bottom line is that a bully – or any adversity you face in daily life – can be as valuable as any mentor or role model who tries to support you. Turn the hate of all the naysayers, bullies, and under miners into passion and use it like rocket fuel to achieve your dreams and prove them wrong. A prime driving force in my life has always been to prove to anyone who underestimated my strength or intelligence-or tried to stop me from achieving my human potential or dreams-that I am fully capable. I am much stronger and smarter than outsiders can imagine and so are you. If anyone ever tries to tell you that you're not good enough to accomplish something say, 'watch me' and then work like hell to make it happen. 

You have the power to flip feeling like an underdog into a source of strength and feel that attitude readjustment transform your life. It takes time, energy, and self-belief — but I'm sure you can do it. Rome wasn't built in a day. Start slowly and gently nudge against your personal limits by walking, jogging and (if you can) running. Start lifting weights and stretching.  

I am rooting for you to maximize your full potential and daily physicality can help you do that. Be patient. Stick with it and build up gradually. Continue to challenge yourself everyday and I know you will succeed!

Are you in crisis and feeling suicidal? If so, reach out and ask for help right now by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-8255

For more information on bullying visit: www.stopbullying.gov

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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