Outside of my endurance sport life, I’m a professor of Communication Studies at Rowan University, in Glassboro, NJ. (Read: Nerd.) In my research and teaching, I examine how communication creates meaning about “things” – people, places, objects, events, ideas.
I know what you are probably thinking: things exist, that can’t be changed no matter how we communicate or think about them. Of course people, places, and objects exist, and events happen. But, how we communicate about these things affects our interpretation of them–regardless of their tangible properties.
So, let’s say we’ve got this thing that is a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike, and a 26.2 mile run. How we think and talk about a triathlon affects the meaning we have for it, which in turn affects our behavior.
It begins with the name. Do we call it an ultra or full distance triathlon, an Ironman, or a really long day?
If we define an Ironman as crazy or impossible, we won’t attempt it. Alternatively, we might define an Ironman as empowering or fun. Each interpretation will lead to a different decision about whether we quit before we start, or we dream big and go for it.
So what gives with the theory lesson? Well, like all good theories, the theory of Symbolic Interaction (which I’ve been laying out generally here) helps explain stuff. For the purposes of this post, I want to talk about role models and their value in sport.
Role models help us construct meaning about things, like a triathlon. We observe what they do; we listen to what they say. Through this communication, we shape the realm of the possible for ourselves.
Our role models give meaning to the mantra that anything is possible if we believe it and we work for it. Role models don’t promise us that making our dreams come true will be easy – far from it. They show us, with their hard work, determination and grit, that the extraordinary can be ours if we step out of our ordinary routines and go for that extra.
Through the years that I’ve done triathlons, various people–some strangers, some friends–have helped shape my ideas about what is possible, by encouraging me to set big goals and to give everything I’ve got in the pursuit of those goals.
While I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time, my seemingly impossible dream about a slot on the big island began to take shape In October, 2009. I watched the stream of the Ironman World Championships as a petite professional triathlete ran her way into second place with one of the most amazing runs I had ever seen. It was her first Ironman ever, and her first marathon ever.
I was immediately in awe.
While Mirinda Carfrae’s run was kinetic beauty, she has inspired me beyond that. Through the years, I’ve felt somewhat shadowed (pun intended) by the taller female competitors. But, “Rinny” has shown me – year after year after year – that little bits can play too; little bits can be fierce scrappers.
When Rinny set the course record in 2013, a person, let’s call her Sally, said to me, “Until I saw Carfrae cross that finish line as tiny but as fast as she is, I didn’t think you could beat the bigger women in your age group.”