Suszynski: I can’t, but I might |

Suszynski: I can’t, but I might

As a female athlete, the first time you think you can’t do something is when you start slipping. When you’re staring down an intimidating slope — skis the only point of reference over a steep face — if you say you can’t, then suddenly everything shifts, but only for you.

I am not much of an athlete anymore. The closest I get to competition is board games, but I like to be active. I ski to challenge myself. I hike mountains because I want to get to the top or spend time with friends. I still play soccer because I miss moving the ball around with my feet. But when I was younger, athletics were my life.

If you’ve been keeping up with Naomi Osaka’s recent withdrawal from the French Open, perhaps you’ve been thinking about this, too. Maybe you have thought back to your own competitive sports days, or to your daughter’s or son’s.

I don’t pretend to know what it’s like deal with press conferences and the media as a young woman of color who has suffered long bouts of depression after a year that was difficult on everyone. And while I do not deal with depression or anxiety, I do relate to Osaka’s actions. I bet a lot of female athletes do.

To this day, I still struggle in ski shops. I struggle to state exactly what I need to an often all-male staff, and this frustrates me beyond belief. When I need to try new boots or I want to demo a pair of men’s skis, I know I am going to have to explain why.

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Why do I have to go the extra lengths to prove myself? Why do I have to explain I am strong enough to get the skis around, I am quick enough to carve them down a slope. I have created my own set of sentences to prove I know what I am talking about, to circumvent a growing knot of exasperation. I have created a checklist to demonstrate I know the lingo; I can push aside the gate and compete. Then I have to ask myself, is there another way? I have to be here, to be there, on the slopes.

Roxane Gay in her book “Bad Feminism” says, “I believe feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves.”

I love this line. When I flex a boot to the ground, but the guy helping me says I’m probably not strong enough to try something stiffer; when I know I need this type of binding to go with this hybrid boot, and they tell me, no, you have it wrong; in my head, I repeat “This is my choice. I’m doing this for my turns.”

And I am citing just one obstacle. Gay points out, “For years, I decided feminism wasn’t for me as a Black woman … because feminism has, historically, been far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women to the detriment of all others.”

Osaka must face the press conferences to be on the courts. And she said no, and she should be able to say it. Think about Michelle Wie West, the prodigy golfer who started at age 10, recently reduced to a skirt by Rudy Giuliani. Or big mountain skier Elyse Saugstad who released a film titled “On My Own Terms” in January about the difficulties of pursuing filming as a skier and a woman. These women are allowed to say no, they are allowed to not have to explain themselves. They don’t need to go those extra lengths. They are allowed to make a choice, and we are allowed to accept it.

Gay says: “In response to these limited ways in which we talk, write, and think about gender, these vacuums in which we hold cultural conversations, no matter how good our intentions, no matter how finely crafted our approach, I cannot help but think, This is how we all lose. I’m not sure how we can get better at having these conversations, but I do know we need to overcome our deeply entrenched positions and resistance to nuance. We have to be more interested in making things better than just being right, or interesting, or funny.”

What aggravates me the most is that I tell myself I can’t all the time. Something is difficult, I can’t do it. This chute is too narrow, I can’t check my speed. This topic is too difficult to address, I can’t write it.

But these “I can’ts” are all for me. When I say I can’t inside my head, I know there is a possibility that I can. And I do. There is an equal chance I don’t. But when we say “I can’t” to the world, I am a female athlete again, not just an athlete. Your talent becomes smaller than your context.

There is a difference between saying “I can’t” and saying “no.” When we say, “I can’t,” we’re trying to wake ourselves up. The final push. “I can’t” still leaves room for choice. A woman’s history with the word “no” is complicated, as is her history with the word “choice.” But the world seems to be realizing their power.

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