When I was ten years old, we moved to India. At that time, around 2006, most of the families that made up the Indian family friend circle in Portland’s Beaverton district had started to relocate, some to other cities, and some to the other side of the world. Parents moved away and, consequently, do did their children. With each friend that departed, I was more ready to pack up and leave as well.
My parents had actually been thinking about it for a while themselves. My dad had never really lived in India, being the child of a diplomat, and my mom was ready for us to connect to our Indian roots. My brother and I knew that going home meant we’d finally get to see some of our friends again, and that we’d most likely have household help. In other words, we wanted a dog. My dad promised that when we’d move, we’d bring home a dog.
At the age of ten, I was a very active child. In the states, my mom worked for Nike, so I participated in sports camps during any vacation we weren’t traveling. I did basketball, tennis, soccer, swimming, you name it. I even met the Harlem Globetrotters. During the school year I swam, took Taekwondo classes, learned Bharatnatyam, and attempted to play piano. I did a lot.
I remember my mom telling me that students in India didn’t always do as many extracurriculars. School was going to be harder; I’d have to take exams even though I was in elementary school. I don’t think it ever really struck me that this would be an actual problem. If exams were the worst that could happen, I’d be fine.
We’d been in India for just over a month when I started getting sick. I would throw up after meals that were a little too heavy and feel tightness around my abdomen suddenly during the day. I was already going to school at this point, and I remember having to go to the nurse more often than other kids. I didn’t pay much attention to it, until my mom decided we needed to talk to a doctor.
At first it seemed like food poisoning, which was pretty common for a young child moving to India — my stomach might have just been taking its time to develop the microbiome I needed to eat and drink in a new country. Then came the decision to conduct a precautionary ultrasound. Then came the cold gel and the smooth plastic on my tummy. Then the pause and hurried clicks on the keyboard. The doctor pulled my mom aside. There was a cyst on my left ovary, and it needed to come out soon.
Over the next month I was pricked and prodded in preparation for surgery. We flew out to Delhi, where we had family connections to the surgery department of a reputed hospital, and had an impromptu family gathering. I think I was the only one who wasn’t really scared. I was also the only one who didn’t really understand the gravity of the situation. In my head, it was simple: I lay on a bed, get poked with another needle, fall asleep, wake up, rest, and then I’d be fine. That’s how the surgeon had explained it to me, and I was satisfied.
I had to fast just before the surgery. When we drove into the hospital I was cranky from hunger, but also oddly exhilarated by what was going to happen. I was changed into a hospital gown and wheeled over to the theater. There was something about being wheeled around the hospital that made me feel so important. It was like I was on a mission.
When we got into the theater, I was laid down. I was asked to focus on the light above my head as the anaesthesia knocked me out. When I came to, there was a mask over my mouth. Tubes surrounded me. I wasn’t allowed to eat for a while, and I was only granted some water every now and then to wet my lips. When I could finally eat, to prevent me from puking, I was injected with one of the biggest needles I’d ever seen, just above my butt.
The worst thing about the hospital was going to the bathroom. I could opt to take the drip out when I went, but then they’d have to reinsert it. Often while hooking it up again, blood would clot in the valve, so they’d have to flush it — that was one of the most painful things I’d ever experienced. My alternative was to have the nurse walk with me and watch me pee. This happened more often than I’d like to admit. I almost wished I’d left the catheter in.
I was on soup for a while when we went back to my grandparents’ house. “Light” food and a lot of meds made up my entire diet. Not too long after, we flew back to Bengaluru and I was ready to go back to school. This was around the time when the school was starting to prepare for sports day. There was so much buzz in the air. Who would be house captain? Who would run in which race? The suspense was electric. Only problem? I wasn’t allowed to play sports for 3 months.
This didn’t just hit me on the sports front. We had a school play, and the only role I was allowed to audition for was “narrator”. No dancing for me.
During the P.E. period at school, I walked down to the library and stuck my nose into books. I spent a lot of time in that library. Initially it was kind of cool, having special privileges, not having to sweat outside in the hot sun. But it got old really fast. I lost a lot of momentum.
Post age ten, I can’t really remember a time when I was really into sports. Throughout middle school I played whatever sports we played in P.E., and though I wasn’t awful I was easily disheartened by not being great. I was never particularly athletic, but there was a certain lethargy that overcame my mind when it came to anything measured or competitive. I never tried out for any school teams. I only ran in sports events when I absolutely had to. Even when I did run, I never gave it my all. I was convinced that I couldn’t win. I was so sure that I never really tried.
There was actually one day, sports day in eighth grade, where they really needed a second runner for a 4x100 metre relay. I was pulled in. At some point, while we were walking onto the track, it occurred to me that our team could actually win. I decided I was going to run, fast. When the baton came to me, I took it and sprinted like I’d never sprinted before. I handed it off to the third runner, and then felt my heart sink as the distance between her and the others got longer and longer. We came last out of the four teams. I kicked myself for hoping.
In high school, after changing schools, I had a brief stint on the girls’ basketball team, but would constantly shortchange myself. I played defense, and never asked to move up the court. I could shoot, but was convinced that I’d never really be able to under pressure.
With the next change in schools, my sports participation slipped closer to zero. To complete my Action hours for the IB CAS program, I took up kickboxing with my dad on the weekends. I also had a P.E. requirement, so I took a personal fitness class. That was just about it.
College wasn’t much better. I met more and more friends that really liked working out; a lot of them were athletes in high school. I joined them at the gym, trying to do what my dad had showed me. I actually showed up a lot, but I never really did it because I wanted to, it was always a social thing. I think I envied people who WANTED to get up and run in the mornings — I would often see them on the way to class.
Walking between classes and around the city was my exercise in college. For a long time that felt like enough. When it didn’t, I’d go on a month-long exercise-apade, picking up weights, jogging for a few minutes at a time. I even ordered a set of dumbbells for myself. Actually, the peak of my fitness in college was probably senior spring. I took a yoga mini and did an hour of yoga three times a week. It was challenging, but oddly fun.
Then, I injured myself during Spring Break of that semester, and had to stay light on my ankle for a few weeks. My momentum disappeared again. I extended the few weeks to a few months.
When I got back home to India I ate better, mostly because it was all home cooked food. Eating better gave me the energy to try a little harder at picking up my momentum again. My dad’s pretty into fitness, so I felt inspired to give my yoga another shot. It was the only exercise I knew I could do alone and enjoy. I dove back in and did it almost every day.
When my cousin came to visit, we went to the gym together, and he helped me build up strength in my arms and shoulders. When he left, it was time for me to go to Thailand. The first month, during Orientation, I got lazy, but we were constantly on our feet. When I got to province, I flipped open my laptop and got back on my mat. I decided to try jogging in the mornings, and after 4 iterations decided that I needed my mornings to JUST wake up, let alone go exercise. I took up intermittent fasting a few months ago, and added HIIT and light lifting to my yoga regimen.
As a teacher, I was also on my feet a lot during the day. I walked to and from school every day, ran between classes, and constantly paced between student desks. When I went into the city, I walked, A LOT, and when I traveled around I also walked, A LOT.
I found the will to stop buying snacks that make me feel awful, and to start making myself some damn omelettes and boiled eggs every now and then. I figured out how to make boiled eggs that I liked. I started buying apples instead of cookies and eating almonds and peanuts instead of chips. I was doing everything that every health blog on the planet was preaching. I felt good. Sure, I still got sick (especially since I interacted with so many kids every day) but so far I’ve been good about getting back on track. I was finally feeling good and enjoying the process of getting there. Fitness finally stopped feeling like a competition. It was mine to claim.
Before my second and final semester was in full swing, the Fulbright ETA at my placement two years ago asked me if I was excited about Sports Day. I hadn’t heard about it, so I asked around and heard that it most likely wasn’t happening because of all the changes happening around school. Two weeks later I heard the school marching band practicing outside my window during a last period class.
“Why are they practicing NOW?” I asked a teacher. My class had been a mess, and my throat was messed up from shouting over the drums.
“Oh, the director decided we’re having Sports Day, August 1st and 2nd.”
For the next month, periods were shortened so that the band would not be practicing during classes and athletes could get some practice in before the big day. Some team sport competitions were held during the second halves of school days, and the school cheer teams practiced almost everyday during last period. Teachers and students were randomly sorted into teams. I got to choose mine. I chose purple.
We wore track pants and t-shirts to school for a month. I sometimes deviated because track pants catch a lot more chalk than my skirts do.
Midway through July I got a message from my host teacher asking me if I’d like to run in the teacher’s 30 m sprint. My heart thumped.
Not wanting to be annoying, I of course said yes.
A week later, I was asked to run as a part of the 8x50 metre relay instead.
I said yes again.
I’d been telling myself, since the beginning of that year, that I was going to say yes more often — especially to things that I normally shied away from. Yes to outings, yes to trips, and yes to activities around school. It was a part of my formula for getting involved in the communities around me, and so far it had been working.
Our school didn’t have as many male teachers as it had female, and so it was decided that this relay would be an all female teacher relay. I caught myself trying to assess the speed of teachers I interacted with everyday, and would scold myself for thinking so hard about the largely inconsequential relay. It was just for fun.
When sports day came around, the students put on a huge parade. There were costumes and colors, a marching band and Thai traditional clothes. It was gorgeous and loud. It got me so excited.
After the opening ceremony, the races began. They started with the kindergarteners, who were the cutest runners I’ve ever seen. These kids ran so hard they’d tumble over themselves, and fight back tears as they’d push through to the finish line, their faces carrying the intensity only professional athletes and focused children have.
As the runners got older, the prospect of my race became stronger. Almost all of the students ran without shoes. They painted their toes with a white chalky mixture, and some wore what looked like ankle braces. A lot of them had strategically bandaged up parts of their feet.
Watching them run was exhilarating. They threw their heads back and their chests forward, their legs pedalling through long strides, their eyes locked ahead of them.
The relays started soon after, and we got to see both elegant passes, and kids running before the baton had reached their hands, resulting in two runners approaching the finish line for a single team. There was even a kindergartener who handed her baton off to the wrong team. She was too far away for me to make out whether she realized or not.
The teachers I sat with were all having a good time. Our events weren’t until the day after. I pulled out my kindle and read between races, oohing and aahing when a student was fast, and cheering with my team when a purple shirt crossed the finish line first.
When Day 2 rolled around, I tensed up. I wore a sports bra to the track that day, and tied my hair back tight. Our race was at 11:30. There were some teacher races before that, but I almost couldn’t enjoy them, I was so nervous.
It was like eighth grade all over again. Four teams in a relay race. I was a last minute addition. Just one lap around the track. It was my only event. It would be over before I knew it.
The other teachers at school knew that I did a lot of yoga. I was also somewhat famous for having disproportionately long legs.
“You can be the winner,” a teacher said to me. “You can get the Gold medal.”
I then realized that I’d never won a gold medal for sports before. Not even one. In my entire life. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about it in a while, maybe because I didn’t think I’d ever have the opportunity to try again.
I was, in that moment, probably in the best shape I’d been in a while. I had the energy to teach through a whole day, dance during classes, and scale steps in between. I worked out at least five times a week, and had been eating a lot more mindfully. I felt stronger than I’d felt in a while.
At the back of my head, I was thinking of myself, comparing every move I made to the others around me. I could swim, but not fast. I could run, but not a half marathon. I could ski, but not down steep slopes.
Frankly, I was getting a little tired of putting an asterisk after every single one of my abilities. One of my New Years’ Resolutions was to try and be a little less competitive. This seemed like a good time to put it to the test. I was just going to run, as fast as I could.
When we went back to assemble as a team, I tightened my ponytail and sat down to stretch. The other teachers looked at me and giggled.
“Don’t run too fast, Apeksha!”
I smiled and reached for my toes.
When we got on the track, I did a few sets of high knees. I was trying to get my heart rate up, but the nerves were already doing that for me. The closer my time came, the more I was trying to find sensation in my legs.
“You just have to run, Apeksha. Just run.”
I didn’t watch for how fast the teachers before me were running, I just focused on the one who was going to pass it to me. My sight went to the baton. My eyes narrowed like the kindergartener I’d seen the day before, and then I shook it off. I smiled at my teammate and started pumping my legs to show her I was ready. I grasped the warm metal baton, and then — I think I blacked out.
When I was fully aware of my body again, I was heaving. My chest was tight, my legs were hot, and I was sitting on the ground. I quickly sat myself up and turned around to see what was going on. The students in the stands were screaming. I saw a purple shirt cross the line. The other colors followed. I almost cried.
I know the other teachers didn’t really care all that much because when it came time to collect the medals, they were busy doing actual things — getting the kids prepared for the next races, making sure everyone was eating and drinking, etc. They had just run for fun. They were all still smiling.
The teachers did comment on the fact that I ran faster than they thought I would.
“Wow, Apeksha wing reo, chaimai?” (Apeksha’s runs fast, right?) Teachers laughed to each other, pointing to my legs, motioning to me how long they were.
This blog, medium.com/@aatal, is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of Apeksha Atal and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations