The fact that she'd been a Wilhelmina model since age 14 wasn't the fun tidbit Erica Schenk decided to share with her Pepperdine University classmates at a back-to-school roundtable in August. The 18-year-old freshman had something bigger to brag about.
"I won a Teen Choice Award for courage," said Schenk, who was recently honored for promoting body confidence as the first plus-size model to grace the cover of Women's Running. A runner for 10 years, the size 18 California native is proud to remind the often narrow-minded fitness world that athletes comes in all shapes and sizes.
"It was an easy decision to put Erica on the August cover," says Women's Running editor-in-chief Jessica Sebor. "There's a stigma in our society that runners should look a certain way -- and that's just not true. Athletes come in so many different beautiful forms, and we feel it's important to celebrate that."
We recently caught up with Schenk, who became an Internet sensation overnight, and she talked about what it was like to land the history-making cover, what her next running goals are and how she hopes to continue to spread the word about positive body image.
Some people look at me and say, "You don't exercise." I totally do! There are so many women who've been runners their entire lives and they have never been given credit for it. It's nice to see women get real recognition now. Even runners who are a size 2 will tell you that at 5Ks, marathons and other road races, you will see female runners from size 0 to size 24 on the course. It doesn't matter where you fall on the spectrum, you can still be a runner.
Running is not a means to an end. I've been a competitive beach and court volleyball player since age 8. I was on my school and club team, and I taught volleyball as an assistant coach for a while. So I always ran to stay in shape for my sport. I hated running when I first started because I always felt like I was forced to do it. But when I started doing it on my own, it became a form of self-preservation and way to gain mental clarity. It's also an excuse to get out and enjoy the beautiful California weather.
"Why can't she be on the cover?" That's what editors started saying behind the scenes during my photo shoot with photographer James Farrell, who had recommended me for this five-page spread on how to dress as a plus-size runner. It wasn't until we started shooting that they decided to make a statement with my photo. I really hope this wasn't a one-off. I would love to be on the cover of another women's fitness publication. And even if it's not me, I hope it's another plus-size model that gets the cover. Runners are not all one size and we need to be represented in the media.
If I could have given a speech at the Teen Choice Awards, I would have said... Friends will come and go, but you need to learn to really love yourself and be your own best friend.
I'm still on the path to body acceptance. When I was younger, I was pudgy and short, I had super-thick glasses, big braces and acne. It didn't help that I gave myself Hannah Montana bangs that didn't work out so well. When I turned 13 or 14, I grew six or seven inches in one year, I got rid of the glasses and braces, my hair grew out and my mom took me to a dermatologist (thanks, Mom).
It turned out that I wasn't the awkward duckling that I thought I was. But mentally I still felt that way. My mom wanted to help me see otherwise, so she secretly scored me a two-year contract with Wilhelmina Models. At 14, we moved to NYC and I began modeling. It still took a while and a lot of photo shoots to gain confidence. I don't think there's an end to this self-acceptance path. It's a bunch of hills that go up and down. We're always going to have good and bad days. On the bad ones, I just tell myself, "Tomorrow will be better."
I never track my distance when I run. How far I go each day depends so much on where I'm running (track, hills, or beach), the weather (I'll go for longer when its cooler out) and how much sleep I got the night before. So I choose to just feel it out and see how my body is responding to the exercise I'm doing. I'll usually go out for an hour or hour and a half at least twice a week.
I'm not into racing, but I am doing my first 5K this fall. Women's Running invited me to participate in the Rock 'n' Roll Los Angeles 5K this October. I'm open to making this a yearly event to support the cause, meet other runners and enjoy the amazing community.
From first-time yogis to veteran triathletes, each body in motion is a successful one. We created the My Body Can movement to celebrate that notion, and now we want to hear from you. Tag a photo or video with #MyBodyCan, and share with the espnW community what amazing things your body can do!