For Sarah Thomas, a 40-year-old veterinary recruiter from Conifer, Colorado, being an athlete isn’t something she thinks about. She just enjoys swimming, and that passion has taken her far.
She was the first person to swim the English Channel four ways nonstop, an 84-mile trek she accomplished in 2019 in 54 hours and 10 minutes, all without the aid of a wetsuit or any breaks on the accompanying guide boat. She completed this staggering feat of human endurance mere months after finishing treatment for an aggressive form of breast cancer.
As remarkable as her story is, Thomas – who was also the first person to complete a grueling 42.9-mile double crossing of the jellyfish-riddled and extremely cold North Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland – doesn’t necessarily think of herself as an athlete. “I’m not sure I was born to be an athlete,” she says. “I just like to swim.”
But for the rest of us, there’s no doubt that Thomas is an athlete, and perhaps the greatest endurance athlete to ever traverse open water.
What Is an Athlete?
“The dictionary definition of an athlete is someone who participates in sport or other forms of physical exercise,” says Dr. George Eldayrie, a sports medicine physician at Orlando Health Jewett Orthopedic Institute in Florida. “In my opinion, this could be simplified to anyone who participates in an activity that requires physical demands to achieve a goal.”
For Thomas, who started swimming at age 7, many of the signs of being an athlete came naturally when she was young. While not everyone automatically taps into that innate ability early on, you may well have an athlete lurking inside you.
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“I’m extremely challenged when it comes to gravity-based endeavors,” Thomas jokes. In the pool and open water, gravity has far less influence over her body, and she can just cruise.
Every athlete has a sport that they’re just more drawn to or that comes more easily.
“From endurance to strength and combinations of the two,” Eldayrie says, athletes span a spectrum of abilities, body types and pursuits. “Athletes include professional football players but also weekend golfers, pickle ballers or beer league hockey players.”
Eldayrie says that “typically, an athlete focuses on the development of physical skills and abilities and applies this to sport, competition or art. I include art since many forms of dance, such as ballet, are not considered sport but require elite athleticism. Athletes also range from amateur weekend warriors to elite Olympic and professional athletes.”
This dedication is a hallmark of athletes, regardless of skill level – and you may only improve over time.
Most athletes – professional and recreational – have always had an instinct to move, says J. Timothy Lightfoot, professor of kinesiology and sport management and executive director at the Huffines Institute for Sports Medicine and Human Performance at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.
As a result, sports and other physical activities become a natural outlet in which those with energy, agility and skill can thrive.
“Early on, (family) ends up being a really important factor” in kids’ activity levels, says Vincent Granito, a psychology professor and women’s basketball coach at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio, who played college football. Case in point: His mom was a fitness instructor.
Granito grew up near Cleveland – an all-around sports-crazed town. His dad was a huge sports fan, so he and his three brothers latched on. “That aspect drove my interest in sports,” he says.
Living in a city where it’s easy to be active – such as Arlington, Virginia, Madison, Wisconsin and Minneapolis, which are ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the American College of Sports Medicine’s report of fittest cities – makes a difference too.
While your family plays a big role in your physical activity as a kid, other people, including coaches, peers and sporting role models, can make a big difference in how much you exercise as you age, Granito says. A good coach can inspire you to achieve levels you wouldn’t on your own.
This kind of training and support, however, is rarely free.
“There is often also the financial cost to being an athlete,” Eldayrie says.
Athletics are a leisure pursuit, and having more money and time to engage with these efforts, which typically don’t lead to income for the average person, is an investment you make in yourself. But not everyone can afford that.
Eldayrie notes that “both genetics and the environment help develop an athlete’s potential and skills.” And while factors like supportive parents, access to training and a great coach can all help, “elite athletes are typically unable to be simply created from hard work and practice alone. They must have certain genetic predispositions that allow them to compete at the highest level,” he says.
For some sports, this means having the ability to maximize “fast-twitch muscle fibers, reaction time, balance and strength potential,” Eldayrie says. Fast-twitch muscle fibers are the ones that your body relies on to generate explosive and fast movement. Slow-twitch fibers are the ones your body uses to complete endurance activities.
In others, it’s about being able to maintain a very high aerobic output for a long period of time and even endure sleep deprivation, such as in Thomas’ case.
“We’re just naturally good at staying awake,” Thomas says of herself and her family. She doesn’t use much caffeine but is able to maintain wakefulness for days when needed, and she’s convinced it’s a genetic predisposition.
In all cases, Eldayrie says that “no matter how much time is spent practicing in the gym or on the field, elite athleticism is partly inherent.”
Genetics will only take you so far. You’ve also got to have drive – the motivation to work hard and achieve. For Thomas, that drive comes from a passion for swimming and just knowing she’s in the right place at the right time. Many athletes are also high achievers in other areas of their life.
“The mind of the athlete is often complex,” Eldayrie says. “Different types of athletes have different personality traits that seem to support their specific role in sport.” But, he adds, “all athletes must be mentally strong to handle the demands of life and sport. All athletes must be able to handle adversity, from the weekend warrior to the professional. Typically, those who are the most mentally strong can make it through the rigors of training and competing at the highest levels.”
Granito sees strong work ethics in the players he coaches too.
“Somebody who’s highly competitive, somebody who has a high need to achieve – those are personality characteristics we’d probably see for people who want to be athletes,” he says.
It makes sense that naturally gravitating toward eating a healthy diet will aid your athletic performance. But diet is a tangential element of being an athlete.
Eldayrie likens diet to gas in the car. “Like premium gasoline for sports cars, a high-functioning athlete needs to be supplied with the right type of fuel to reach their potential. This usually requires careful attention to protein and carbohydrate intake, depending on the type of athletic activity they participate in.”
Nevertheless, he adds, “an athlete cannot be made simply on good diet alone, but an athlete’s ability to perform their best depends on their nutrition, preparation and recovery.”
A key to sticking with exercise is finding something you enjoy doing, whether it’s walking to work, gardening or playing an organized sport. Especially for those who enjoy group workouts or team sports, the social element of the sport can keep you coming back for more, even on the days when you might feel tired or would like to sleep in.
Eldayrie notes that some people are more suited for team sports. “Team sport athletes must be able to work with others, often depending on them for their own success and ability to grow their skills,” he says.
Thomas and other consummate athletes have an inner drive to compete that also propels them forward. However, being competitive can have some downsides if you beat yourself up if you don’t perform as well as you think you should have. You have to temper the need to win by finding the joy of movement to keep you in your sport long term and avoid burning out.
In the end, you’re only as good as you believe you can be.
“You have to be focused and determined to be better,” says Kisha Carr, a CrossFit Level 2 Trainer with CrossFit Invictus in San Diego.
Eldayrie adds that anyone can be an athlete. While some may be more naturally inclined, anyone who dedicates time and effort to physical activity is an athlete.
“The athletes we see in the mainstream of entertainment sports are at an elite status because of their ability to perform physically, the environment that polished and supported their skills and their mental strength,” says Eldayrie.
But these are the vast minority of athletes, he notes. “I see athletes every day in my practice, some are 70 years old and playing pickleball. Others are 50 years old and golfing. And some are in youth sports.”
In short, if you really want to be an athlete, you can, even if your genetics or environment were stacked against you from the start. “Someone who demonstrates dedication and is motivated and is not afraid of failure (is an athlete),” Carr says. “You have to be resilient when you fail – we all do – but you have to be able to bounce back from that and keep going forward.”
And it’s an endeavor worth pursuing, Eldayrie concludes.
“The benefits of athletics generally outweigh the cons, and it is never too late to participate in athletics,” he says. “While the body ages, the demands of some sports may prove too much, (but) there is usually a sport for everyone at any age.”