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Bodies Of Women - Sylvia Woodham

Saturday night is the best time for training. No competition with juniors or masters teams crowding us out, making us feel like maybe two hours was too long to be taking up “their space.” Mike is queuing up his playlist from his phone as it started blaring “Saturday night. It’s alright” over the speakers. No ballads. That was the rule. No one wants that slow pace to drag you down when you are up against the wall.

His sponsorship banner hangs above the radio. “World Rowing Championship 2016” is splashed over his athlete photo with all of the sponsor logos in rows at the bottom. Walls are strewn with frames of the champions Coach has produced. Mostly women going back to the 90s. My picture is on a plaque there from 2015. I only placed fourth. He is going to Rotterdam in a few months. I have to sit out this season.

“That’s right!” I shimmy my way up to a barbell platform and start stretching. Not allowed to workout until my hands can lay flat on the floor, I repeat my mantra. I feel my hips strain against the resistance. I notice a big difference with the right stretches that actually address the problem in my side. Hours of weight training help too.

“We’re gonna crush this!” Michael starts on his warm-up snatch reps. “No slacking this week, Helen!” He gives a crooked smile. His weightlifting shoes are worn and cracked. He doesn’t replace them - because ‘luck.’

We always want to quit on the 5th round. We never will. He gets it. It was the best partnership. Organic. No one assigned it. We just clicked. It was better not to do the workout alone. I always wanted to show I was as strong as men, and we weren’t in competition for a spot on the team. It was fun. He gave me space. I felt safe.

“You got squats today?” I ask, pulling the pin from the squat rack.

“Nah. All you.” He drops the bar and starts loading plates.

My clean rounds fly by. The power surges through my legs as the bar launches through the air and lands on my chest. Through the squats with a core break between. Then Bulgarian step-ups mixed with a military press. This is when I can feel the wall. The bench is in front of the windows so I can look out at the river. That was the motivation. The speed across the surface.

“These suck.” Air explodes out of my lungs as my joke echoes off the walls.

“Not as much as dying.” He shoots back.

I laugh. I should not laugh. His jokes are always the most inappropriate. I love it. It breaks the pressure.

“Done!” I slam the dumbbells on the bench with a satisfying thud. I feel the power coarse through my legs. They quiver. Not to exhaustion yet. No pain in my side.

“Bust this out, Mike.” He is at the high benches for his jerk isolation, the bar strains and bends from the mass on each end. He falters.

“You beat the bar. The bar doesn’t beat you!” This was a personal record for him. It mattered.

He shoots it above his head and corrects his stance. “YEAH!” he screams. I reciprocate his high five as the bar drops.

“You came to slay!” I scream back. It was mental. Controlling your body. Not letting a simple thing like matter have the power.

Long days of summer meant finishing while it was still light, and everyone actually wanting to host social events. The sun low in the sky paints the walk with a moving pattern thrown through the leaves of the trees. I can breathe. Better than the long dark winter. My body could relax more in the sun and warm. I could hear it. The boatclub houses are quiet, like the river, as I lock the door behind me. I hop on my bike. Maybe the lower gear. My legs don’t want to push. Muscles in my quads bulge against my jeans.

It’s a short ride up the river to the party up the river. My flat is on the east side of town, with easier access to the food markets. About the same distance from the boatclub.

“This is not what I think of when I hear ‘houseboat.’” I shout as I pass the kitchen and grab a bottle. “These hardwood floors are gorgeous.” I tug on a drawer labeled ‘kitchenware.’ “Hey, can you unlock this for me so I can get a bottle opener?”

Jasmine comes in from the patio. “Sorry, we had nephews over today we wanted to shield from sharp objects” She releases the latch.

We step onto the patio and she introduces me to her girlfriend, a pretty blond woman who is an award-winning author in the Lit Department. Not an athlete. I can tell. She comes to our shoulders, and the tank top shows skinny chest and arms. Her pointy elbows contrast with the dark skin of Jasmine’s championship-winning arms, which are the size of the girlfriend’s legs. Jasmine’s partner is there, showing off her well-built shoulders with a purple strapless top. They have been very successful. I don’t trust her. Because I had an injury, she has been trying to push me out, keep me from being included. I can’t tell Jasmine. She has been supportive. Jasmine is gorgeous with her long, svelt body, and I’m glad she’s happy.

“Helen, are you entering time trials next month?”

I exhale. That feels like a lot. Race-ready? “I think it would be a lot to prep my body for the strain of competition.”

“You should do it.” She nudges my elbow.

Not if your partner has anything to say about it. Jasmine’s face says she believes in me.

“Ok, I’ll start practicing race starts and see if my body holds up,” I answer.

I didn’t want to jeopardize my recovery to push too fast. I did beat Jasmine’s partner in practice last week. I heard Coach giving her a good tongue lashing after. I thought about how my body had broken in October from that kind of full-pressure work. “Overuse injury” they called it. But the causes why I missed the signs seemed deeper.

“Helen, have you heard the rumors about Dr. Marsden.” She breaks my train of thought.

“Yes, all the women are uncomfortable going to see him, but we do not have any other option. He’s the team doctor. I’ve heard that he has done inappropriate things,” I say. I feel a hand brush my ass and swivel to see who it belongs to, only to realize I’ve just backed into a large fern in the corner under the eave.

“I was saying I don’t seem to notice if the medical team touches me in a strange way. I don’t think about my body that way,” she answers. “What do you think encourages him to pick the women he tries to make advances?”

“Why should we have to worry about whether we send the wrong signals that would ‘encourage’ him? Shouldn’t we be able to trust our medical team?” I glance around. I wonder how many other women here have had it happen. Are we all afraid to speak up, worried about being judged for trying to get favors?

“Did something happen?”.

“I mean, he is creepy. I switched and found my own support, and they actually identify the injury correctly, too.” I fidget, wanting to leave the conversation.

“Some of us are discussing doing something if you’re interested,“ she says. “One of the new board members said they had to deal with it in the past.”

“Sure, let me know,“ I say, flippantly. “There’s that guy I’ve wanted to chat up. Thanks for having us. Wish me luck.”

Monday, I am in front of the mirror in the changing room. Trying to apply some foundation. It’s always difficult when my body temp hasn’t come down yet after a workout and a shower. It melts on my face. I can still feel the heat underneath my skin.

Jasmine sits down to apply lotion. So her skin doesn’t turn ashy. I wonder if my skin gets ashy, and I just can’t see it.

“Your eyebrows look good. Do you go anywhere to have them done?” She asks.

“No, I do it myself.” My mother doesn’t have eyebrows. She has to pencil them in. She always criticizes me for shaping mine. She envies the thick curves of hair over my eyes. I look at our bare bodies. When I was young climbing trees, I would never imagine the things my body can do now. I admire the definition in my chest and arms. My mother criticizes those too. “Bulky,” she says. Men will not be interested, she says.

“How did it go with that guy?” Jasmine asks.

“He said he had wanted to talk to me, but when he sees me I’m not smiling,”

She chortles. “What does he expect? Clearly, he doesn’t work hard enough if he thinks you have energy to smile all the time.”

“Why can’t he just come talk to me about my workout or something? Why do I have to smile to be approachable? Mike doesn’t seem to have a problem,” I ask. “Your girlfriend seems sweet. Will she be writing about rowing at all?“

She is applying lotion to her legs now. They are similar size to mine. I think about why I don’t go to normal gyms, the staff always reminding me they are bigger than the men in the room. “Thanks! I think she’s a keeper. I’ll ask her. Hey look, your vein is bulging.” She points to my arm, pride in her voice. “That’s the result of hard work.”

Why do I feel like everyone tries to make me small? I think, looking at our bodies, which are not.

“We‘re going to….“ she starts.

Curtis knocks on the door. “Helen. Your therapy timeslot is now.” He glances at the wall clock, a minute past eight.

I lay on the table and let him run his hands over my back. “Feels good so far. Flip.”

Now that I have the right prognosis, therapy is making more progress. Curtis had been great.

I flip over on my back. He loosens up my arms. “Oh, the problem area was here?” he starts on my obliques and works his way across my ribs. I watch his face. The higher his hands get, the slower he moves. Then they linger. I watch the second hand of the clock. They do not need to be there that long. His eyes are glazed over. I squirm, looking at the position of his hands. He appears to be totally checked out, like he’s fantasizing about this. I feel my body tense.

The same response I had at the appointment.

Doctor Marsden had approached me sitting on the examination bench swinging my legs in his office back in November. I had heard things, but never had to see him for a diagnosis before. “The tests were inconclusive, Helen. It’s not possible to have a stress fracture in your ribs.” Says no one who has ever had one. He put a hand on my thigh. “You work very hard.”

“Thanks, doctor.” I laughed. Why was my body failing me?

“A pretty girl like you.” He brushed my hair out of my face.

I smiled. “I just want the pain to stop and find a way to keep training.”

“Oh, you will. I know you will do great things.” He started rubbing my back. His hand came higher, to my head, and started massaging the back of my scalp. I laughed nervously. Not sure what to do.

He leaned forward and kissed me. I felt frozen. I did not kiss back. He didn’t notice. Could he make me lose my spot on the team?

His hand moved inside the waistband of my shorts. His other hand guided my hand to the front of his pants. He unfastened them, and pulled down my shorts.

I could feel the pain in my side as I breathe. I could feel the fear tightening my body like ice. It hurt.

Curtis is placing the electric stim pads along my side. “Well, now this feels tighter. You should be relaxed if you want this to work”

He looks up. Jasmine is at the door. “Helen, we’re all going to the director’s office. Can you join us?”

“Her stim will be finished in 10 minutes,” Curtis responds.

The chatter outside grows in volume. Usually, I like to nap with the soothing surges of electricity through my muscle.

“What’s that about?” I ask Jasmine.

“Marsden. We are all going to the Director’s office to demand something be done.” She says.

“All the women?” I ask

“No, the men are coming with us, too,” she says.

“We’re all here,” I hear Mike say.

Blood rushes to my face. I don’t want them to know. My muscle doesn’t feel like it is relaxing as much as it should with the treatment. It feels tighter now.

The buzzer rings the end of the treatment. I pull off the pads and pull on a sweater, climbing off the table. A large group is gathering in the next room. I am one of the last.

“Here, sign this letter.” Jasmine shoves a pen in my hand and puts a sheet against the wall. I glance over it quickly. She points to an older woman by the door, a look of earnest on her face, talking with Helen’s partner. “Don’t worry. She said the board will not penalize us for this. No one can tell the coach any lies about our dedication. She’s got our backs.”

“Ok, let’s go!” someone near the door shouts as the doors open and everyone files in behind the person leading the charge.

Will we all fit?

I crowd in the back of the office. How did we get this appointment? I cannot even see the Director’s desk, somewhere on the other side of a sea of bodies. The front row are women, I can see because they have all stripped down to their skivvies. There is paint across Jasmine’s shoulders that I can see. She turns her back as our friend next to her reads a letter.

“These are the bodies you exploit. These are the bodies your staff abuse. These are the bodies you hold with so little value. After countless complaints have been filed against certain members of your sports medicine staff, you have done nothing to remove the offending members. You have not protected these bodies or treated them with the same worth as the men here, standing together with us. Today you will make a choice. You will respond to our complaints, or we will all train somewhere else, and take all of our sponsorship funding with us.”

I am crying. I don’t want anyone to see.


Sylvia Woodham had a “fancy” education focused on life sciences with creative writing on the side before focusing on independently conducted graduate level study of literature, and a member of the international sports community. She is an executive level professional with over ten years experience in business and advising global leaders, particularly in leadership development of women of different generations, living in Germany with her dog.


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