An everyday athlete is still an athlete

While managing the Duke women's basketball team, Risa Isard searched for her own sporting niche. Megan Morr, Duke Magazine/Duke Photography

You might not know me, but chances are you know someone like me. I'm that girl who grew up playing hoops in the driveway with my dad and brother every night after dinner. The one who played rec soccer for 10 years, starting out on a boys' team. The one who persuaded her middle school gym teacher to let her run the monthly timed mile against boys, then wrote her target time on her arm -- in permanent marker. The one who took field day just a little too seriously.

The one who is thankful every day for Title IX.

Growing up, I wasn't an elite athlete, but I had passion to spare. I ran, jumped, threw and kicked on a daily basis, and eventually I found my calling in high school track and cross country. I was good (I earned seven varsity letters), but not good enough for the next level.

So when I arrived at Duke nearly four years ago, I found myself wondering something that had never crossed my mind before: Was I still an athlete?

Answering that question was no easy task. As I read about various elite athletes, I recognized our shared pasts. Like gymnast Jordyn Wieber, I used to pull old cushions into the middle of the family room and do cartwheels, somersaults and front handsprings. Like many WNBA stars, I was the only girl in neighborhood basketball games. I lacked their natural ability, but I came to realize that we are connected through dreams and experiences. We all began by thinking of ourselves as athletes and scheduling our lives around sports at a young age. That doesn't just go away.

And yet it seemed to be slipping away in college. I joined the Duke women's basketball team as a manager, embarking on an incredible four-year experience. Still, I longed for that connection you can only feel with your teammate and your coach. In search of that sense of community, and another chance to satisfy my unfulfilled athletic goals, I walked onto the varsity rowing team as a sophomore. But with a petite 5-foot-4 frame, I wasn't built for crew, and coxing didn't fill my needs (or the team's). Even though I stuck it out for a year, in the end I was simply a "nov" -- a novice, in crew speak. I still didn't feel as if I could call myself an athlete.

In fact, I felt a long, long way from high school, where I would prep for track meets as if they were the Olympics. I ran thousands of miles, spent countless hours visualizing my races, forced myself to drink a gallon of water each day, and even convinced myself that I needed to carbo-load for a 5K. Running challenged me physically and mentally, provided me with a support system and taught me discipline, leadership and self-respect. It remains one of the defining experiences of my life.

Now I am about to graduate from Duke, and I still have a hard time answering when people ask me whether I am an athlete. Yes, I want to tell them, I am an athlete. It is in my blood and in my heart; it's who I am. So instead of focusing on what I'm not -- an elite performer competing on nationally ranked teams -- I've turned to the words of Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, who said, "If you have a body, you are an athlete."

He's right. I don't perform in front of thousands, but I've created my own stage. I continue to run and now train for triathlons. I've found strength, both physical and mental, through lifting weights. My past and present have been defined by sports, and hopefully my future will be, too.

Being an athlete is a source of confidence and empowerment and provides women like myself with a positive image of our bodies. It's hard to feel badly about yourself after a five-mile run, even if you end up short of your target time and panting at the finish. It's hard to feel as if there is an obstacle out of your reach after running mile repeats in blistering heat. It's hard to feel alone when you are surrounded by teammates and connected to every other female athlete in an invisible, but powerful, way.

And that's why Title IX didn't just change the law. It changed the culture. It created a life for me that made it OK to play sports and to race my heart out during gym class. Most important, it gave rise to teams that helped girls like me to find ourselves.

So what if I didn't get an athletic scholarship? So what if I haven't traveled the world as part of a team, representing my country? I am still an athlete, and sports are still central to my identity.

And because of that, Title IX is mine.