Awe Injection via Powerful Women: Channeling Athletes to Generate Awe

Written by Lyssa Menard

June 22, 2022

As I declared last week, awe is easy to generate, readily available, and a viable mental health intervention that can be self-administered. It is also the most underrated and unacknowledged happiness emotion. Next week, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of self-generated awe, but today I want to provide another window into my own practice.

One of my most reliable awe-generators involves engaging with female athletes – watching them play/perform, YouTubing highlight reels, and listening to them speak about their attitudes and activist perspectives. This week, I’ve been heavily dosing basketball phenom Sue Bird, but many other women have inspired me. Two immediately come to mind: my first Spin teacher, JJ, and my most recent virtual trainer, Peloton’s Robin Arzón.

Sometimes Sue Bird’s gleeful grin in the midst of the onrush of the opposing team is enough to give me a jolt. With JJ, it’s witnessing her grit that reliably does the trick. And Arzón’s audacious attitude, tough love compassion, and indefatigable strength of character lift me up when I’m down. Come meet a few of my heroes and learn how they generate awe.

Sue Bird: Tough People Last

Tough times don’t last but tough people do.

– Sue Bird

I’ll play until my knees fall off.

– Sue Bird

A week ago, WNBA superstar Sue Bird announced her decision to retire at the close of the 2022 season. During her press conference, she spoke tearfully of her love of the sport and her team, and also acknowledged the toll the game is taking. At 41, she’s conscious of the intense demands seasonal play places on her body and the difficulty of maintaining wellness as she ages. To put her age in context, the average NBA retirement age is 34! She’s had a long and storied career.

I’m impressed with Ms. Bird’s decision to put her well-being and the success of her team ahead of her own competitive compulsions. Many athletes must be pried away from their sport by managers or by their own failing bodies. Instead, Bird is retiring at the top of her game. She’s choosing to stop before her knees fall off.

A little background on this inspiring athlete and why she’s so awe-some…

Ms. Bird was drafted into the WNBA in 2000, three years after its inception. Since then her reign has been ground-breaking. She is a 12-time All-Star (the most All-Star Games for any WNBA player in history) and has taken home 10 Olympic and World Cup medals including nine gold (more medals than any other basketball player in history – male or female). These are just two of her historic accomplishments.

All of these facts are amazing and may even strike awe in some. But my own body is vibrating recalling so many clinch shots and brave moves over the years on the courts. Have you ever had a jaw-drop moment when watching sports? If you watch sports at all, you have. And if you’ve followed Bird, you know she’s delivered too many of those moments to count. 

Here’s a 7-minute film by Mark Handberg that conveys highlights of Bird’s career, life, and persona, capturing her awe-generating commitment, determination, and joy. If you’d prefer a shorter shocker, watch this 2-minute All-Star highlight reel.

Every time I see Bird’s smile – an embodiment of passion, joy, and camaraderie more expressive than words – it gives me a shot of awe. It’s there, on-demand, in my mind, and on YouTube! 

Bird reminds me of another athlete, closer to home – someone who won’t appear on your own radar. 

JJ: Dreams begin with an Inspirational Teacher who Believes in You

It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.

– Edmund Hillary

JJ was my first Spin teacher, at a low-cost, low-quality, and dilapidated X-Sport Fitness. I mean, seriously, bike peddles would go flying off and across the room mid-class while the sound system simultaneously sputtered out. This was no high-end experience. 

But JJ was such a find that I stayed. She taught me how to bike at an age where the coordination required was no small feat. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to stay put on the thing even though it was stationary, how to pop up and down from seated to standing without falling over, or how to develop endurance. Coordination is not my forté 😂

From day one, JJ motivated me with her combo of compassion, tough love, and technique-studded teaching. The inspiration she provided morphed into awe, as I watched her belly visibly grow – stuffed, as it was, with twins. My commitment doubled down on a weekly basis. I mean, if this doubly-pregnant mom-to-be could do it, so could I. There was also something about her comfort and ease in her body as it expanded, that often sent me into a reverie as I observed.

This is what watching a fine athlete does for me.  I tense when I’m pushing myself to the brink unless I’m pretty damn focused on not doing so. A true athlete relaxes into it. In slow motion, you can watch their flesh flap around their lax muscles. The point is that an athlete’s body is their instrument and performance is so ingrained that it looks easy on the outside even when it most definitely is not. 

JJ taught me how to Spin and from there, I jumped to a real bike, into the world of triathlons. She opened a door to athleticism – something this bookworm never expected. And she inspired awe that I can return to with ease: I just picture her, prego in her 9th month, gleefully prompting me to “push in 3rd” and I’m there.

My first Spin teacher – my personal secret treasure – falls on one end of the fame spectrum, while my most recent trainer extraordinaire, Robin Arzón, falls on the other. It seems like everyone knows Robin, and everyone has one of her quotes at the ready when inspiration flags.

Robin Arzón: Riding with a Queen who Only Rides with Queens

Around here, the queen saves herself.

– Robin Arzón

I love this quote – Arzón’s rewrite of the fairytale cliché. She’s all about helping people access their own power and she provides the scaffolding to make that possible – lessons she learned through her own trauma and recovery. Her confidence never waivers – in herself or her peeps. She exemplifies the phrase, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Her story, in and of itself, generates awe for me. Let me tell you a bit about her. 

First, a few of her accomplishments. She began her career as a successful litigator, while simultaneously becoming a seasoned athlete. She’s a Vice President and Head Instructor at  Peloton, a beloved fitness entertainer and ultramarathoner, and the star of her own ‘Mental Strength’ MasterClass. Oh, and she’s a two-time NY Times Bestseller with Shut Up and Run and Strong Mama. Did I mention that she’s only just turned 40?

All that’s been accomplished despite some trials that would have derailed most people. 

In 2002, when Arzón was 20, she was at a NY City bar when a gunman, armed with three pistols, kerosene, and a samurai sword entered and held the bar hostage. The gunman doused everyone in kerosene, flicked his lighter as he spoke, and held Arzón at gunpoint as a human shield. The standoff ended when a hostage (another courageous woman) jumped the gunman from behind. 

When Arzón describes the aftermath of this event, she states that the trauma lived in her body – as trauma always does – and running was the force that healed her. One year post-trauma, she was doing “ok, on paper” but her physical sensations told her otherwise. She describes the experience as “walking through life wearing a weight vest,” which is such an apt description of the burden trauma survivors bear. Up till that point, she’d never been athletic, but one day she threw on some sneakers, hoping some movement might help. From there, “the journey was intuitive.”

By her description, running forced her to face her inner monologue. Her thoughts turned from survivor’s guilt to existential questions about life purpose, finding agency, and learning to stop living in fear. Her runs helped her translate that fear into personal power. 

There’s much more to her story, but I tell you this piece of background because this is what she brings to her fans and clientele: Teaching people to gain or regain their power through embodiment and a positive attitude is her jam

It doesn’t get easier. You get stronger.

– Robin Arzón

I met Robin Arzón through the Peloton app in April 2020, when my body was broken from COVID, my muscles were flaccid from a month of laying about motionless, my mood was scuttled in the gutter, and my recovery felt like a pipedream. 

I’d arrived in Chicago on March 23rd after a harrowing 35-hour escape. I’d managed to board one of the last flights out of New Zealand before the entire country shut down. COVID had been a stowaway on that flight, taking root in my body while in transit. A week prior, I’d been on a spiritual quest, teaching meditation in Thailand. The mental rollercoaster from spiritual teacher to pandemic panic to extended illness and isolation had been…a bit much. 

And then…I discovered Arzón on the Peloton app. Little by little, through her audacious attitude and her own tough-love concoction of no-compromise demands and loving compassion, she built me up. “You’ve made it through 100 percent of your bad days,” she’d remind me as I struggled to shoulder a 5-pound weight. And I believed her. She’d fought her own battles and won. In time, so did I.

I’m awestruck every time I watch her compete, move in rhythm with her Peloton Spin escapades, or listen to her encouraging others. She is the embodiment of awe and I find it easy to join her in that space. 

Who Inspires You?

Witnessing female athletes in action is one of my awe-generating pathways. These women are also resources I can return to – in my mind or by viewing online videos – to generate Awe Experiences on demand. 

Sometimes, watching gameplay flips my awe switch on. But, as I’ve described, other elements like personal characteristics, joy in motion, and inspirational messaging are just as effective for me. How do you feel having heard these stories? Does any of this resonate with you? 

I’d love to know who inspires your own Awe Experiences.

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