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Atsuko on Swimming, Running, and the Transformative Power of Athletics

Atsuko on Swimming, Running, and the Transformative Power of Athletics

Feb 17, 2018

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HC: Alright AT, let’s start at the beginning, how did you get started in sports?

AT: Well, I was a child of reluctant immigrants. I didn’t start speaking English until I started kindergarten. I was a painfully shy, smiley child and we were actually the first Asian family in my neighborhood. The pool manager of our community club told my mom they were taking new members and it would be a great place for us to learn how to swim and make friends.

When I think back, I remember not really being able to understand what he was saying, so I’d just flounder down the pool just to get to the other side as he would walk along saying something like: “you got it! you can do it tiger!” What I remember most is how much I just loved being in the water to play – to float around, kick, move in the water, playing basketball, marco polo, sharks and minnows, trying crazy moves off the diving board. Being shy, it was fun to be able to play and not have to ‘speak’ or get into super long conversations.

After swim lessons were complete, the next level was swim team. I was 7 when I first joined swim team, and even though I was absolutely terrible, I liked it. The following summer, I got to experience what a huge difference one year of swimming made when I went back to my summer league team. I could do a pretty fast butterfly, and it was, and still is, my favorite stroke. People tend to say: ugh, that’s so hard! It's secondary to me, because I love butterfly for the feeling of synchronicity and rhythm; I felt like I was like dancing in the water.

So, I guess age 7 is when you could say I “started” my athlete career as a swimmer, and I swam through my freshman year of college. Like many swimmer athletes who started at a young age and went year around, I lost my love and joy of it. It began to feel more like a job or an obligation. I could no longer swim from the heart, practice became tedious and dreadful – especially jumping in the cold pool every morning at 5:30, and then back again for evening practice at 4pm. While it certainly allowed me to consume more snacks than ever, and it meant saying good-bye to many close friends and a way of life I was accustomed to, I knew when it was time to hang up my suit, cap and goggles. It was bittersweet – but more sweet. I felt relieved. 

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HC: Don’t you actually have a record at the View Ridge Pool? We’ve seen it a couple times when we had photoshoots there!

AT: Oohhh it got broken last year! It was fun when it happened because I was volunteering at the meet, and got to congratulate the relay team on the spot. I’m actually glad they are all wiped out now – the record was around for 37 years, so now I’ll always be forever 30. Ha!

HC: I know that we originally asked you to explain your identity as an athlete and you came back to us with saying “well that’s a broad question!” Yes, yes it is. But could you try to break that down?

AT: I grew up in a time where I wasn’t really aware of the word “athlete.” It was more like I am a “swimmer”, so I identified with the sport I did. Growing up with that, you stereotype or get stereotyped into so many descriptors that come with a sport activity: the body shapes, personality styles, and tendencies, etc. As a flyer, it was growing up with huge shoulders - Incredible Hulk muscles around your neck, broad back, and being self-conscious about baring arms away from the pool deck, and actually being more comfortable wearing guys’ shirts because women’s apparel didn’t fit my shoulders well.

Even though the days of spending hours immersed in swimming are done, the lessons I learned from being a competitive athlete permeate everything I do, really – professionally, personally, creatively, and in staying active and engaged in my life. Life lessons are how to win graciously, how to lose, accepting and working through my own disappointments and disappointing other people, dealing with pressure, and especially, being a big-time fan and encourager of others with their life pursuits.

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HC: What lessons did athletics teach you in your professional life?

AT: It really taught me discipline and focus. To punch through the mundane things, and having the confidence that there is an “end”, even though there is immediately a “next”. Life is all a series of starts, flip turns, finishes, and getting back on the block for the next race, hoping it’ll build on the previous one. It also taught me life and sports performance, are not linear. Swimming really helped me live that.

I am blessed with the kind of involvement my parents had in my life: with school, swimming, my work and personal life. Being a first generation born here, with the belief that we would always “move back”, created an upbringing of dual cultures and dual languages – which makes it especially interesting during teenage brat years. Ugh, I was a pain! By my parents – despite the language barrier for my mother in particular, instilled solid values of being strong, kind, respectful, and ‘get things done’. My dad inspires me with his childlike curiosity and quest for staying current and he is quite visionary and creative in his thinking. I appreciate them more and more each day, actually.

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HC: When did you go from swimming to running?

AT: I actually grew up hating running because it wasn’t really part of our swim training program. But then one day, my coach decided “we are going to add running to our training. So, go out and run this loop.” I was so mad! I thought – well, I’ll show you! So, I took a shortcut on the trail, fell into a hole and sprained my ankle badly. 

Well after that unhappy start with running, I picked it up when two friends invited me to try it out, as a response to my whining about “I need to do ‘something’ to be active – so I can eat those hostess pies!” It was about health and vanity, initially as I never thought of myself as a “runner” – I was a burned out swimmer. The idea of “athlete” didn’t enter my mind.

I had an inconsistent relationship with running from that point on. Sporadic moments where I would run for a few months, do a fun run, and then stop. The typical story, probably!

HC: So when did you really start to love running?

HC: This colleague of mine at REI we decided we would have running meetings on the treadmill. It was our time to have our weekly touch base on business, catch up on life, while being active. We decided one day to sign up for a half-marathon – why not?! So we bought a book on how non-runners train for a marathon and trained regularly on these treadmills while we talked or watched movies. We watched Stuart Little for our long run! And why indoors? Because we ran in the wee hours of the morning and it was scary outside where we worked. Our weekend runs were outside – and were so much more awesome. We did our first half-marathon together – the Seattle Half Marathon. I loved that we trained, finished it, and it was really fun!

I then got an opportunity to try a full marathon when I received an entry from Asics for the NY City Marathon. I got one of the entries where I worked for being the “first time marathon person”. I trained, but popped my knee during the last long run. I was SO disappointed! I still went to the event, though, because I had friends running in it and wanted to experience it. What’s super cool about this? It was the 2008 NYC marathon, when Kara Goucher debuted her marathon!  My husband and I were watching the race in our hotel room, heard Kara’s story, and I said “ Let’s go down and watch this girl finish! We got this amazing spot, right as they headed into Central Park, and right when we saw Paula Radcliffe come by, then another runner, and then we heard a roar as we saw Kara coming down and was like “Yeaahhh!! There she is!  There’s the one we were cheering for!” We ended up staying all day and cheering on runner after runner – so inspiring to be there. I didn’t run, but I loved the experience of being a fan of every person who came through.

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HC: How has working at Oiselle influenced your running?

AT: Working at Oiselle has helped me remove the identity that often comes with specific sport stereotypes.  When I met Sally, I was immediately drawn to her open spirit, her complex mind of being so thoughtful, insightful, strong, gentle and kind – and freaking hilarious. I thought “I could hang this this woman!” When I came to the Nest for my first visit, I was honestly intimidated. You could said the air was “thick” with an intensity that came from a group of incredibly smart, deep, focused, serious and ‘get s**t done’ women. I remember Mac saying “hey, we can be a salty bunch”, and thinking “but it’s great that there is a balance of strong, caring women who are fierce yet friendly, passionate and driven, yet willing to be lead, servants and queens." Initial yikes of intimidation turned quickly into respect and admiration for what had been created at Oiselle.

Having been here now, the chance to work with each of these women and fellow bro-birds – is so humbling and gratifying for me.  To get to fly alongside Sally – a leader who is accomplished in her professional career, her running and as a mother, and a friend, and a human being - not merely by her accolades, but because at the heart, she is a person who is congruent to who she is inside and out.  Being invited to be a part of this multi-dimensional person and company, and seeing the role that running plays for each person here, and that each has their OWN relationship and attitudes towards/with it, is truly a gift.

It doesn’t matter how fast you are or what you look like, or how new you are. At the core of Oiselle is a genuine love of running, an authentic love and “we got you” kind of support for women in all their pursuits, dreams, challenges and troubles, and the integration of running in all that it is, is the belief that it is fundamentally good for everyone and anyone can do it. Athletic pursuits do transform you.  

HC: So wrapping it up: swimming or running?

AT: “Both!” And I feel lucky to still be able to be active at a time when multi-sport is accessible, encouraged, and supported.

Thank you Oiselle! 

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