The Gift of Movement

I was once asked, "How did a non-athlete become a sports bra expert?" Well, it was an unlikely trajectory.

When I was growing up, I was the least athletic kid you could possibly meet. I was, quite literally, the person always picked last for the team. I didn't have an athletic bone in my body. I dreaded the annual "Presidential Physical Fitness Test" where every year during the required run, I’d barely make it over the finish line, huffing and puffing eons behind everyone else. In the fifth grade, my gym teacher broke my arm. She might have had it out for me because on the first day of school I (innocently) mistook her for a man, but why is that a reason to hold a grudge? One day she threw a ball at me so hard it caused me to trip and break my arm. The upside? I didn't need to attend gym class for the rest of the year.

My two lowest grades in high school were in the two required physical education classes. There's a theme here. For me, sports were no bueno. And if I'm 100% honest, I'll admit I had some resentment toward athletes because I didn't understand why it was such a big deal that someone could expertly shoot a basket or run fast. Those were skills I neither possessed nor appreciated. I didn't watch sports. I didn't participate in sports. I couldn't care less about sports.

As an adult, I'd occasionally take a class at the gym or go for a run, but not consistently. I started experiencing some knee pain in my late twenties and after a series of knee surgeries, I developed a rare condition called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD). RSD is a chronic pain condition so painful that it ranks higher than natural childbirth on the McGill Pain Index. My left leg swelled and turned purple. It became so stiff that I couldn't use it. The pain was excruciating. I spent hours a day in rehab in a swimming pool as I tried to regain my use of my leg. My doctors told me few people ever fully recover from RSD, but I was determined to be one of few who did.

It took a decade of physical therapy for me to regain full functionality in my leg and to do something as mundane as go for a two-mile hike on a paved path. A decade of physical therapy to be able to do that. During those years I realized all the things I'd taken for granted before RSD. Something as simple as going to the grocery store and pushing a cart or holding a shopping basket became overwhelming tasks because doing those things with crutches is nearly impossible. I thought of all the times before RSD when I went for a walk or hike without ever considering how lucky I was to be able to do that without pain or limitation. I also thought of all the remarkable people in the world who are disabled, physically or mentally, who don't let those disabilities impede them. They continue to be a source of inspiration for me.

Another unlikely thing happened during that decade. I got a job at the world's largest athletic apparel and shoe manufacturer, Nike. This was a shocking development for those closest to me because I'd been working in fashion, women's ready-to-wear and dresses, and I was the antithesis of all things sports related. Why on earth would I get a job at Nike—a non-athlete who could barely walk? Although the circumstances that led me to Nike are a story for another time, I'll admit I was clueless about sports compared to my co-workers. My manager knew he had his work cut out for him when he asked me to educate myself about sports by watching Sports Center twice a week and I asked him, "What channel is that on?"

But there was something that stood out to me during my very first week on the job. During orientation, we learned about one of Nike's founders, Bill Bowerman, and one of his well-known quotes: If you have a body, you are an athlete. It resonated with me. I'd never considered myself an athlete, and still didn't especially given my physical limitations, but I had learned the hard way to appreciate the gift of movement. As I started to recover and heal I found myself parking farther and farther from the front entrance and saying to my friends, “I can walk--that's a gift!” Or taking the stairs because I knew what it felt like to be unable to use them and again declaring, "Taking the stairs is a gift!" I had a body and I was going to honor that body by being as "athletic" as my body would allow me to be.

The reason I ended up becoming a sports bra expert was also related to my experiences with my leg. I worked in Nike's apparel innovation department and was assigned to a sports bra project. I was immediately fascinated with the complexities and science behind the product. When I sat in focus groups and heard women speak of the inability to run because of pain from their breasts, I empathized. But I was also outraged for them. Not being able to run because of leg pain makes sense but not being able to run because of breast pain?! That should be a solvable problem. How could I sit by idly and let other women bear the burden of pain and exclusion when I knew exactly how that felt? I decided to dedicate my career to solving this problem!

It has been 14 years since I was diagnosed with RSD. Although I still can't run or participate in intense activities, I go to the gym regularly and lift weights. I walk five miles a day. I keep gratitude journal and express thanks daily for my ability to move pain-free. If you got up out of bed this morning and could stand up and move around without pain or limitation, I'd like to ask you a favor. Please have a moment of appreciation for that gift. If you don't have time to work out, look for other opportunities to incorporate more movement in your life. Walk around the block, take the stairs whenever you can, park far away from the entrance to the grocery store. Especially as we get older, the ability to move pain-free is something we must work at. It is a use or lose it kind of thing. Instead of taking it for granted, appreciate the gift you've been given. I'll reiterate Bill Bowerman's words: If you have a body, you are an athlete.

Laura Tempesta