I've been a professional dancer for 13 years. I was on pointe at 8 years old, just one year after I started dancing, because my ballet teacher thought I was strong for my age. She told me never to pamper my feet. A lot of dancers tape their toes, but she said I shouldn't: If I was ever without tape, I wouldn't be able to dance. It's amazing what you can get used to when you're driven to do what you love. I sweat for 13 hours a day. It's repetitive: My feet swell, and my blisters bleed. I used to wear closed-toe shoes and not let anyone see my feet. I have a lot of friends who aren't dancers, and they can't get over what mine look like. But as I got older, I accepted them: This is what I do. Besides, my short, fat, stubby, awful toes make me keep a sense of humor about my body!
Of the roughly 11,500 firefighters in New York City, only 31 are women. My first year, I ran up 13 flights of stairs wondering how I'd get to the top. But I made sure I stayed right behind the officer, while the other guys straggled behind. Now, six years later, I'm the only woman in my firehouse, along with 11 men. My team carries the hoses: When a 50-foot-long hose is filled with water, it can be extremely heavy. I do pull-ups, push-ups, and bicep curls to tone. But I don't want to be built like a guy. Fifty percent of my job is muscular strength; the rest is cardiovascular endurance and technique. Firefighting is about practice and training. I knew a guy from the military who thought he would ace the physical test just because he had huge muscles--and he had to retake it twice! The first thing female recruits say is that they're not strong enough to be firefighters. But how do they know? We train for three months, working as hard as our male counterparts. If the men do 30 push-ups, we do them, too. My position wasn't handed to me; I worked for it. When I look at my body, I see years of training.
My friends always comment on my back muscles: One says they're so sturdy, he could hang his clothes from them. I'm shaped like a V, so I have a narrow waist--when I see skinny girls in bathing suits, they look like skin and bones to me. My muscles are visible, and you can feel them. But I've made so many sacrifices to be this fit. I began swimming when I was 8, five times a week for two hours a day. I trained so often I never saw my family. I never played with friends or went to parties; instead, I competed. I won the national championship for my age group 20 times in my home country of Slovakia--I have two shoeboxes filled with medals! At 16, I switched to triathlons. Swimming 12 miles a day was mentally tiring, so I expanded to running and biking and earned six national titles. I finally left my family behind when I came to the States at age 24, and I didn't see my father for five years. But on the up side, I get to travel the world going to races. I'd have never seen South Africa or Madrid otherwise. I'm living my dream, and when I get old and lose my muscles, my bones will still be strong, so I'll always keep my shape!
I hold my bow with my right hand and my violin with my left. The fingers on my left hand are disgusting: The skin is dead, so they're very thick and padded. When I touch them, I don't feel a thing. On my right hand, my second and third fingers look glued together; they've grown this way because it's how I've held my instrument since I was 9. Sometimes, I feel abnormal. I don't ski because I can't risk hurting my hands. I don't cook, because I'm afraid I'll slice my fingers. I don't use hand cream, because I never know when I'll touch my violin, and I don't want the chemicals to ruin the wood finish: My violin is more than 300 years old! When I play, I can't help but be proud of my fast fingers and trained hands. I practice for three hours a day. I feel blessed to have hands that work so well. But when I think about how much I'll use them for the rest of my life, I'm afraid something awful will hap pen after investing so much in them. I want to be able to play forever.
I'm a very fit person, but belly dancing has taught me that it isn't about having the flattest abs in the room. I couldn't do some of the tricks I do if I didn't have the stomach to do them with! I am curvy but strong, because I isolate my stomach a lot in my dancing--when you belly dance, you work so much with your waist. All the movement originates from my core. My belly is my center. After learning to use my body in a beautiful way, I appreciate and understand it so much more. When I was young, I would never have worn a bikini or tight shirt. I hated my belly then! Society has told women to control their bodies, but in the classes I teach, I retrain my students to let go. I've been dancing professionally for three years now. When I dance, I don't focus on my shape, but on how it pleases others. I'm a size 10, and I don't hide the fact that I like to eat! But when people see me dance, they ask, "Where does it all go?"
I've been running for 13 years, cycling for three, and I taught myself to swim a year-and-a-half ago. This is my second year as an amateur-age-group triathlete. I'm training for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii this October--a 140.6-mile race that I hope to finish in under 11 hours. It's the ultimate goal for every triathlete. I don't value my legs for their physical appearance, but for how they function. I treat my body like a machine: I stretch to prevent injuries, eat organic foods, and get a lot of sleep. I recently competed in my first off-road triathlon, and I tripped on a root and fell on my knee. I'm still waiting to see how it will heal. With the Ironman coming up, it's heartbreaking to ice my leg instead of work it! In triathlons, the bigger a person's quads are, the more you know she's done her homework. Strong thighs translate to speed, a better time, and the pride that comes from finishing a race. When I first started training, I had the legs of a person who lifts and goes to the gym, but I'm beyond that now--they're bigger than ever, and they're the source of my strength.
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