The One Where They Learn About Belonging

The following post was written by a member who chose to share their experience training with us in Rotterdam. It tells the story of identity and struggle within a sports community that’s known to be inclusive, but as you’ll read, that inclusivity also has its limitations.

***

It was a Tuesday evening in late June when I first met Will and Bárbara… and I was drenched. The rain had hit without any warning.

My socks sloshed around in rain-soaked Vans with each step I took to their door. Adding to my disheveled first impression, I was late, and when Will opened for me he had to look past beads of sweat and rain to make eye contact.

My impression must have communicated carelessness.

I did care, but I showed up without too many expectations.

I was on the hunt for a new powerlifting coach. But, by the time I arrived at Barbell Strength, I had already tentatively linked up with someone based elsewhere.

I was kind of looking for a closer place to train, but it wasn’t urgent. A lifting gym in Rotterdam East had my loyalty already, as expressed in the membership fees I had continued to pay all throughout lockdown.

So I was at Barbell Strength that Tuesday partly to meet potential coaches, and partly just to get a good training session in. (I say “good”: the metaphorical bar had been lowered substantially after a couple months during which my workouts consisted mainly of wobbling a skateboard around my block and dismounting ungracefully at every sidewalk crack.)

Either way, in a matter of minutes, it became pretty clear that Tuesday’s session, and the rest of the summer I would train with Will and Bárbara, would be about a bit more than that. (I realize I’ve made this sound like the first scene of a coming-of-age movie, but that’s fine. Excellent genre).

***

Searching for a coach is always tough.

For those of us on the marginally more serious side of the athlete spectrum, the relationship with your coach is pretty intimate.

Your coach is the guardian of your gains.

When you entrust them with your training, you entrust them with a key source of your joy and, for better or for worse (usually for worse, let’s be honest), self-worth.

For the relationship to be effective – which is in everybody’s interest – they need to know your goals. Not just what you say you want as you play down how high your hopes are: but what you really want. They need to know what makes you tick, what you’re in it for.

But they also need to see you fail. They’ll be there to heave the bar off your back, of course: but they will need to scrutinize the moment, understand why it happened and how you cope with it. They will probably be thinking about your body along with you; they’ll be attuned to how it changes, what it responds to. It’s a big deal.

I didn’t expect looking for a new coach to be easy. But my most recent search for a coach was a little tougher than I expected.

Before I met Will and Bárbara, I got a name from someone. We messaged a bit, and he said he’d check his availability.

Meanwhile I checked his Instagram.

He was strong as hell, well-decorated as a powerlifter.

But I stumbled over two posts.

In one, he was clasping his (male) trainer’s hands mockingly. The caption read “#nohomo.” With a sinking stomach, and glued eyes, I scrolled all the way to the comments. The gym I went to – the one that had my loyalty all throughout lockdown – commented with laughter. They said they were going to hang the picture on the wall.

I didn’t give myself the time to stop and ask why being #homo was so funny.

In another post, this guy was seeing someone off on a flight to Thailand. Cushioned in between jokes: “watch out for the shemales!”

I didn’t give myself the time to stop and wonder why it was so threatening to be trans.

I didn’t give myself the time, because I didn’t need to.

In my experience, homo- and transphobia work from the inside out. Like a parasite, they need a host: a warm, cosy comforter of shame in order to make their bed. That’s where they get their power.

#Nohomo hurts, but not because it’s a particularly sophisticated insult.

It’s not sophisticated.

The punchline is being gay – it’s as unoriginal as they come. Especially in some parts of the lifting community.

I was watching a Youtube video recently where Mark Bell invites Ed Coan to give squat tips. I was eagerly taking note of Ed’s cues (spread your taint!) when Ed and one of the lifters with whom he was demonstrating got too close for Mark’s comfort. A joke about being gay, followed by the laughing reassurance: “we don’t have that in our gym.”

What?

Where do they go?

#Nohomo is effective, because it’s unoriginal.

Most of us are used to feeling embarrassed.

Most of us have spent years carving out a corner for ourselves, making a home out of the “homo” space to which we’ve been assigned, only to find entitled men on Instagram mosey in and out of it, excluding us from our own space. I can’t get out of it with a hashtag like he can.

I wondered whether I should tell that coach that I was no longer interested. And if I did, I wondered whether the reason would be political – in defense of the Thai “shemales” and the male gay couples – or personal.

Probably the latter.

Because, how do you entrust someone with helping nourish your sense of joy and self-worth when you can’t even trust their Instagram page not to harm it? How can you let someone see you fail when you’re too afraid to let them see you at all?

***

Barbell Strength is a women’s gym.

That’s the main reason I was visiting them on a Tuesday in late June 2020, instead of the year before, when I first moved to Rotterdam.

By that time, I didn’t feel particularly included in the word ‘women’.

When I cut my hair and started shopping in men’s departments, the signals that I didn’t belong had started coming in.

Some of them were subtle, like being called ‘sir’ accidentally while waiting for an elevator – the awkwardness of the elevator ride that ensued.

Some of the signals were not so subtle, like the girl who approached me in a women’s bathroom in a bar in Delft to tell me she “understood why some people wouldn’t want me there” (but “no offense!” as if offense is an ingredient that you can hold when you order someone’s opinion).

So, by the time I moved to Rotterdam, I had picked myself up and headed away from the word ‘women’ – toward the grey space between and beyond gender where I express myself more freely. I ask new friends to use ‘they’ pronouns.

Because of all of this, when I came to Barbell Strength, drenched, and late, I also had my guard up a little bit.

A women’s gym.

Who’s women?

Whose women?

I imagined that I would have to ask them whether I counted in order to train there.

I imagined that I would have to say, “Hey, I know you are only for women, but I don’t really identify as a woman, do I still belong?”

But I didn’t end up doing that.

I didn’t have to.

There are a host of non-verbal ways to make someone feel included, and I’m pretty sure I learned most of them just by paying attention to how Will and Bárbara treated me.

As soon as I arrived, both of them not only came over to introduce themselves, but made a point of sitting down with me. A gesture that says: this space is yours to relax in. A gesture that says: you have my attention, and I have time.

We talked about life, a little; pretty quickly settled on some things we had in common. Will and my communication had been in Dutch, so I had assumed he was Dutch. In actuality, he is half-Mexican, half-English, and grew up in the Netherlands, while Bárbara was born in Brazil and moved to Canada as a kid.

I’m similar: half-American, half-Swedish, raised in the Netherlands.

I think growing up at the junction of different national and cultural realities offers benefits that go beyond being culturally sensitive.

It means being accustomed to inhabiting spaces where different norms and expectations and experiences meet.

It means being used to difference. Not just being ‘tolerant’ of difference, but expecting it and accommodating it.

No accent is the same, no set of expectations or experiences are the same, no body is the same.

We then talked about lifting; or I talked a lot about myself and my own experience and ambitions. They were engaged, and I was astonished. I think the gym that currently had my loyalty knew my bank account details better than they knew my name, let alone my hopes and desires as a lifter.

On top of that I felt respected.

The weight that I can touch pales in comparison to what either of them can move, and yet they didn’t talk down to me.

In fact, it would take some time before I fully grasped the enormous amount of knowledge both Will and Bárbara have about the science behind strength training just because they didn’t waste a moment bragging in our first conversation.

I ended up being so persuaded by Barbell Strength that my face probably visibly fell when they told me they were moving to Toronto in 3 months – even then we still found a way to make things work.

I ended up training with them for the summer, during which time I accumulated more knowledge about the biomechanics of the squat, bench and deadlift than I had in the previous three years combined.

I learned that my squat broke into two movements because I lost tightness at the bottom, that the bar path of my bench was inefficient, and that I didn’t engage my lats well on the deadlift – or actually, either of the other two lifts as well.

I have no doubt that when the covid situation improves and I can go to the gym again regularly, my numbers will shoot up, and that despite the short amount of time that we trained together, Will and Bárbara will be to thank as much as anyone who I’ve worked with for longer. I know this because I’ve personally watched them take someone from a 40kg to 100kg squat in a matter of months.

I can’t wait.

As important as lifting technique is to me, though – and that’s very – Barbell Strength gifted me something even more valuable, which was the feeling of belonging: not just in their gym, but with my own sport.

The more I trained with them, the more I noticed how much I needed that.

I hadn’t realized how much of an outsider I had felt like until I realized what it felt like to train with people that I didn’t feel like I had to impress.

Or what it felt like to feel safe giggling through silly warm-ups one moment and grinding through tough sets the next.

I didn’t realize how much worrying about having leg hair and wearing a sports bra impeded me from growing out my leg hair until I didn’t feel like I’d be judged for having it.

I didn’t realize how much of a number I had felt like at previous gyms until I finally felt like a name, and a face; or how important it was to share values with your community until I felt what it was like to wear a face mask that said ‘Black Lives Matter’ and not worry that I would be judged for having it.

With Will and Bárbara, I could look at the photos on their wall and not worry that there’d be one with a #nohomo caption. It felt amazing.

And the day they boarded their plane for Toronto, one thing I didn’t feel was the worry that they would joke about “watching out for the shemales”. That left me free to feel the rest of the emotions – like sadness that they were off and our time in the gym together was over for now.

The Toronto community is lucky to have them.

***

I would be lying if I said there were no roadblocks ahead.

I want to keep competing, and there’s no category for gender queer in the International Powerlifting Federation.

Most gyms don’t maintain as safe and inclusive of an environment as Barbell Strength did, and so the Rotterdam scene feels their absence pretty deeply.

But thanks to the platform they created, I’ve met fellow athletes that accept me for who I am – that will look past sweat, and rain, and queerness to make eye contact and connection. And I won’t give my loyalty anymore to a business that does anything less.

***

And that’s a wrap for scene 1 of the coming-of-age movie.

The second scene takes place in Toronto, and it’s up to you to write it.

So, for anyone who’s reading this:

If you’re out there looking for a place to work on yourself without feeling pressured to be someone you’re not…

If you’re looking for someone who will get you to your goals and who’ll be right there to spot you when your goals feel heavy as hell to unrack…

If you’re looking for a home in your body and in movement and in exercise and in strength…

Or if you’re serious about your sport, and not willing to compromise on expertise in order to feel included, I urge you to shoot Will and Bárbara a message, and join our big and now cross-continental family.

 

Because your goals matter.

unlock your full potential

Our training programs offer far more than just new and exciting workouts. We plan for your long-term success.

Built specifically for women.

unlock your full potential

Our training programs offer far more than just new and exciting workouts. We plan for your long-term success.

About The Author

Barbara M.

Since 2013, Barbara has helped women of all fitness backgrounds get stronger, leaner and more confident, both inside and outside the gym.

Her passion lies in educating, empowering and encouraging women to find out what they’re capable of, and more.

You may also like