We get plenty of chances to be inspired by professional athletes. But the media can create a stereotype of what an athlete is “supposed” to be. Yet athletes come in all bodies, ages, shapes and sizes, and everybody deserves to have role models that look like them. In this new series, we’ll introduce you to inspiring athletes who live outside those stereotypes.
In college, Bobbie Solomon’s coach would weigh her poolside each week. Solomon explained, “My whole life I weighed a whole lot more than the height/weight charts said I should weigh, yet I was doing gymnastics and diving. I loved those sports, but I was self-conscious about how big I was. In the end, I would win people over by my abilities, my knowledge and my bubbly personality.”
Bobbie Solomon was a high school gymnast and springboard diver. She continued diving in college, where, thanks to Title IX, she dove for the men’s team who nicknamed her “Bubbles” for her bubbly personality. After college, she gave birth to her daughter at age 25. Working full time while raising a child quickly took up the time she had previously dedicated to fitness.
As she entered her 30s, Solomon noticed a diving class being offered at a local junior college. Realizing that her daughter met the age requirement, she enrolled them both. Solomon turned out to be the only adult. The kids were “very supportive” of her goal to re-enter the sport. She ended up helping coach the class and, eventually, the team. As she entered her 40s, she felt that competitive drive return and began diving in masters competitions.
Working as a systems engineer, she suffered a freak accident on the job — herniating the disc between C5 and C6. It took three months to diagnose, and she ultimately had a surgery in which bone was taken from her hip and inserted into her neck for a fusion.
The surgeon accidentally severed a nerve in her hip, leaving her in excruciating pain. She added a pain management doctor to her physical therapy and relocated from Northern California to Southern Florida, where the weather was better for her recovery. She took to swimming with a snorkel because it allowed her to swim without moving her neck. Eventually, she started walking short distances and joined the local YMCA, adding treadmill walking and weightlifting to her recovery.
After a divorce, Solomon moved in with her daughter, who was involved in running and triathlon. She convinced her mom to enter her first triathlon — a challenging sport which includes swimming, biking and running — three days after her 50th birthday in 2007.
Challenges of a Plus-Sized Athlete
Being an older athlete was new to her, but being a plus-size athlete was not. Athletic clothing and gear made for larger athletes can be difficult or impossible to find, and she was forced to try to fit into a skin-tight wetsuit made to fit a man. Then there was her own self-doubt and concern about what people might say or think about her as a larger person in a fat-phobic world.
As Solomon would also learn, one of the great challenges for many triathletes is open water swimming. Not only are you swimming with the possibility of wildlife and foliage, and often with very limited ability to see in the water, but in a triathlon, many athletes start swimming in the same place at the same time. What was supposed to be a swim can rapidly start to feel like a cage match as the water froths with hundreds of amped up athletes kicking and stroking like their lives depend on their swim time.
Despite having the comfort in the ocean that comes from swimming your whole life, Bobbie’s first triathlon swim was, in her words, “a disaster.” She later learned that she had suffered an anxiety attack during the swim. Though it took over a year for her to fully understand what had happened and learn to control her anxiety during the swim, Solomon persevered. Not only did she go on to do 12 sprint distance triathlons (0.465 mi swim, 12.5 mi bike, 3.1 mi run) and one Olympic distance (0.93 mi swim, 24.8 mi bike, 6.2 m run), she was also the swimmer on several half-Ironman relay teams (a 1.2 mile open-water swim!).
Once a Coach, Always a Coach
She eventually earned her certification as a USA Triathlon Level I coach, “so that I could help people like me do what they wanted to do without any preconceived notions. Solomon’s coaching focus was primarily women, but “I helped many new triathletes overcome their fears, especially of open water. Many of the people I taught have gone on to do Ironman swims and they have paid it forward themselves.”
While still busy coaching, Solomon’s daughter, already an accomplished runner, decided to challenge her mom to join her in a half-marathon (13.1 miles) at 53. Solomon admits that she “detests running. I always have, and yet I did two half marathons that year. When I crossed the finish line of my first one, I realized for the first time in my life that anything is possible. I didn’t truly know that prior to that race. I have since made it my mission to teach young athletes — especially girls — this principle.”
Bobbie had another lifelong dream to fulfill. She wanted to take part in the Olympics. She hadn’t been able to make it to that level as an athlete, but she could go as an official, so she attended a clinic and passed the test to become a Technical Official for USAT, putting her in charge of enforcing rules at USAT-sanctioned triathlons. In 2011, she became certified as a Technical Official for the International Triathlon Union. She is currently working to get experience to qualify to work the Olympics. She achieved a major step in getting there when at age 61 she was chosen as an official for the 2024 Pan American Games in Paris.
Solomon hopes to make the sport more inclusive for larger athletes. She also encourages those who create events to have the mindset that sports are for “every body and every age.” She adds, “We must help people achieve what they desire and make them feel welcome.” Solomon also reminds more stereotypical athletes that participation in these events doesn’t need to come with a side of judgment. “Don’t assume that just because someone is bigger than what you normally see or older than what you normally see that they shouldn’t be there.”
Bobbie continues to fulfill her dreams as an athlete and an official. “I only have one tattoo. It says, ‘Protest Aliquid.'” She explains that’s Latin for anything is possible. “I don’t want to forget that. I don’t want to limit myself, and I truly hope that others will have that be their mantra as well. Never say can’t, but you can say that you don’t have the desire to.”
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Breaking Fitness Stereotypes: Plus-Size Triathlete Bobbie Solomon originally appeared on usnews.com