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This is the fourteenth profile in our Society Nine Storytellers series where badass female fighters across all sports, media and culture in our community share their definitions of femininity, strength and empowerment and discuss what they fight for.
Have a story to tell? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org – tell us who you are, a little bit about your journey and what you fight for – in life and sport.
Picture two bloody knees scraped mercilessly by unforgiving pavement. Scabbed elbows punctuated by bits of gravel. Shins discolored by deep purple and blue bruises so numerous you could draw a constellation by connecting the dots. Atop this body is a jaw set firm and teeth grit steadily, unwilling to give up. This was me in the first grade.
No, I was not in fistfight. I was playing basketball with the fourth grade boys.
At home, my dad would wrestle with my two sisters and me, often letting us overpower him after putting up a good fight. He made me feel invincible.I came home from school one day, my little body battered and bruised, but satisfied that I played a good, scrappy game during recess. My mom on the other hand was concerned. She set an appointment with my teacher to see what was really going on at school, thinking perhaps I had been bullied or fighting. “She’s a big person trapped in a little body,” my teacher informed my mom.
Stepping on the basketball court at recess, I carried the same confidence. Sure I was barely 3 feet tall and 40 pounds soaking wet, but I could mow down my dad no problem. These fourth grade boys stood no chance.
Eventually, I earned the nickname “Sonic boom,” after the popular videogame character Sonic the Hedgehog, who plowed through and jumped over anything standing in his way.
I didn’t comprehend it then, but on that court, I was fighting. My fight was to be me.
On another basketball court, this time with high school girls, I was told that freshmen (me) would probably not make it on the varsity team’s starting lineup. I took that as a personal attack. Leading up to tryouts, I woke early each morning to run sprints, drill shots, and hone my ball handling skills. When the starting lineup was announced, my name was called.
I graduated college in three years with a degree in English and set my sights on the next goal: become an officer in the United States Air Force.
My own presumptions made me believe that I was not smart enough or talented enough to be selected for Officer Training School (OTS) in the Air Force. My parents challenged me that if my mindset was the only thing holding me back from applying for the Air Force, I should go for it. I did.
When I arrived at the facility to take their standardized test, I was asked what my college degree was. “I don’t think we take English majors,” was the officer’s response. “Let me know if you get in,” he directed, casually. About an hour after I received the call, I sent him an email informing him I was indeed selected.
Again, I had done what many thought was not possible. And it felt very satisfying.
About a month later, I opened a letter from the Surgeon General communicating the news, “You are disqualified for medical reasons.” I was crushed. I thought about all the hard work I had put into this career and how unfair it felt that despite my physical and mental fitness, I was disqualified. I knew I could out-soldier even some of the guys in my class but I was not given that chance. I applied for a waiver and that was denied.
A million questions and regrets hit me. “If I was just a little taller, then maybe I would not have been disqualified.” “If I had just not told them about it, I would be an officer by now.” Self-doubt and questions of “why” plagued me. The line: “You are disqualified,” in all its coldness and finality haunted me.
I’m not proud of my reaction, but it did set me on a journey that shook me deep. I realized that I had let other people, institutions, and even society label me. I was driven by a desire to prove that even though I was small and young, I was strong, quick, motivated, intelligent, focused, and whatever else was expected at the moment. I did it because I assumed that this is what people wanted from me, not because I believed that is who I am or what I could do.
The best family and friends helped me understand that putting my identity and future in society’s hands while pursing unfounded assumptions is tiring, unfulfilling, and no way to live. I needed to stop fighting who I was and start embracing it.
If I’d assumed that tiny first graders could not play basketball with the big boys, I would not have dared it. If I’d assumed that no freshmen started on the varsity basketball team, I would not have trained my butt off to get there. If I’d assumed that the Air Force did not select candidates who had a degree in English, I would not have applied. I am not defined by what someone says I can or cannot do.
A Surgeon General does not define me. A college degree does not define me.
What I do is not who I am. I have a brown belt in Krav Maga, but that is not who I am. My vocation at present is an executive secretary, but that is not who I am.
I am a fighter. I fight myself every day to be me. I fight to forget about who others say I should be and instead be comfortable with who I was designed to be.
In a few months, I’m reapplying for a medical waiver that will allow me to serve in the Air Force. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but I am determined that I will not let it dictate who I am and how I live.
My challenge to you is to do the same: refuse the labels put on you and embrace who you were made to be.
So what do you fight for?
Sanny Rider is passionate about fitness and has completed crazy challenges such as the GoRuck Challenge and Light, Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, and Phase A certification course from Krav Maga Worldwide. She was voted “Most likely to succeed” by her high school peers and has accepted that she doesn’t have to live up to their standards to be a success.
Photos by Sanny Rider