Artists use many tools to inspire creativity; looking to other art forms or artists they admire, continually practicing their technique until inspiration happens upon them, or in many cases, employing physical activity.
In fact, physical exercise has been scientifically proven to boost creativity. So it’s no surprise artists find it to be a useful tactic while searching for their next great idea. This week we ask, what happens when the athlete becomes the artist? We talked with triathlete Emily Berlin to find out how her dedication to the physical revealed a creative side, inspiring her short story, “A Tribute to Donner.”
Tell us a little about your background as an athlete?
My physical journey started professionally after I had a scare where I almost lost my physicality. I was in a bike accident in college and I went through an entire summer of not knowing if I’d ever run again, or get on a snowboard or wakeboard or play tennis, things that were very defining of who I was. I didn’t realize how defining until there was a chance I would never be able to do those things again. The craziest thing about that experience is it wasn’t just losing the physical; it was what it did to me mentally. I had this shift in awareness of how important physicality was in my life, in expressing myself, taking risks and sorting through my thoughts. When I started college back up I couldn’t run, play tennis, or a lot of those things I used to do but I had a friend who took me to yoga. My obsession grew from there. What I noticed after a while was yoga didn’t just heal me physically, it healed a big part of my soul and mental state that had been so bruised after that accident. All the pieces came together. I was laying in savasana, tears streaming down my cheeks and realized, all of these things are interconnected; our physical lives, mental lives, creative lives, and soulful lives. So that was my big start into physicality as something deeper in my life.
Do you believe artistic expression is attainable through physical movement?
I believe physical movement gives us the space to be creative people. Some of my best ideas and inspiration have occurred at the balcony of a big climb, during an ocean swim, or in savasana at the end of a yoga class. I believe physical exertion, because of its demands, frees our minds of our normal thought processes so that we have new space for creativity.
What inspired you to write this piece?
It’s such a vivid memory. The story is non-fiction; it’s a true story, the words are what were said in the car. The idea came after the experience. We were out riding (cycling) on the road at Donner Lake and my friend Mackenzie and I were trailing behind her mom, Heidi, and her mom’s best friend, Stephanie. We had a few minutes of silence as we were working up this hill and I could see Heidi and Stephanie ahead, they were just kicking it. They’ve been riding partners for over 20 years and couldn’t be better friends. They don’t see each other very often, but every time they are together they’re like two kids. I noticed this concept of the bond, the friendship that’s created. In terms of training with women, I don’t see as much person-on-person competition as much as I see women pushing each other, building each other up and supporting each other in our pursuits. I’ve done plenty of riding with men and it feels like it’s almost always a race. But when I was watching Stephanie and Heidi I just loved this concept of this lasting bond that’s created. They won’t see each other for six months, but they get on a bike and it’s like they haven’t skipped a beat. And it was very much how I felt about my relationship with Mackenzie, we hadn’t known each other for very long, but we knew so much about each other. I think through physicality you learn so much about a person. And the time you spend, it’s different than going out to dinner or a bar, the conversations are different, or at least in our case, they always were. So that inspired me. My creativity in general mostly happens when I’m active, when my body is moving and my thoughts are flowing. We were on the road and I thought there’s such a beautiful story here of friendship, of women, of cycling, and I wanted to capture that piece of being physical. It wasn’t so much about the ride, as much as the bond, that’s what inspired me.
After reading your story it left me with a sense of camaraderie within these athletic communities, such as the cycling community, especially related to female relationships.
Is there a sense of community with other women within these groups, some of which seem to be heavily male-dominated?
The camaraderie is probably one of my favorite things about the female cycling community. I started my own cycling journey with a women's group ride put on by Jenn Hannon the founder of Machines For Freedom, a women's only cycling kit line. The mentality, friendships, and bonds formed during her rides is something extremely different from what I've experienced in any sport. It's a “no drop” ride meaning no one gets left behind, although not to be fooled by "no-drop" these women ride hard and fast. The difference is in the shared mentality that the best way to get to the top is through collaboration and support of each rider.
Do you find the participation in triathlons, cycling, or other forms of physical expression to be especially empowering for women?
I think any expression of physical accomplishment for women is especially empowering. It's undeniable that society continues to perpetuate the idea that a women's self worth is equivalent to her beauty. But that's the great thing about physicality, your success in any physical pursuit is a direct result of your commitment, your mindset, and your dedication. What's beautiful in physicality is watching a person fearlessly put it all out on the line again and again.
In the story you write about how the “intense physical experience” has the power to transform relationships. What is the biggest personal transformation you’ve undergone as a female athlete as a result of these intense physical experiences?
Because I've been involved in sport for so long it's hard to choose just one. I think one of my greatest transformations I could speak on recently would be openness to vulnerability and self love.
Read Emily's story, "A Tribute to Donner" below:
A Tribute to Donner My first time meeting Mack we were surrounded by 20 and 30 somethings slinging rum and dancing to wild cuban beats. Both intrigued by the novelty of this new Rum Bar in Downtown Los Angeles, and both knowing that we'd be much more comfortable doing anything else.
Our mutual friend Albina danced over to us and shouted about how we both did triathlon and must be friends. Even though very few things were remembered over those blaring speakers, Mack took my number and a week later we were hitting the trails like two friends who had known each other for years.
I believe that's what training with someone physically does. You go through an intense physical experience, and somehow this person that you've only known for a short period feels like a person you’ve known a lifetime.
Fast forward four months from Mack's family home in Reno to our drive to Donner Lake, CA. We had taken down rough driving directions from her mom Heidi, as well as her decades-long cycling/triathlon training partner Stephanie. We followed them as best as we could as they led the way to our big climb that day.
Heidi, Mack, and I were all signed up to race the Donner Lake Triathlon that July, so this was a first viewing and practice of the cycling portion of the race course for Mack and I. Heidi and Stephanie had scaled this nefarious climb several times over the years, and knowingly decided to let us make our own conclusions about its extreme elevations, steep climbs, and high altitude.
Windows down, we let the mountain air play with our senses while ambient music narrated our drive, and a visceral excitement and contemplation filled the car. Both absorbed in the ride ahead and also the swinging transitions life had in store for each of us: a new job opportunity for me and a prestigious law school on the east coast for Mack in the fall.
There was a brief silence between us, until Mack let out a big laugh and shook her head as we watched her mom and Stephanie duck and weave through traffic up ahead like two kids excited to get to their next adventure.
I turned to Mack grinning, "Do you think that will be us 20 years from now?"
She rolled her eyes, and let out sigh, "Ahhh…45? So old."
We both laughed, and yet the air was thick with questions of futures and friendships.
"You know how there are those friends that you feel really close to, but like at the end of your proximal relationship you get this feeling that you will probably never see each other again." I looked at Mack and realized, "You know, I'm not really worried about us"
This time, she smiled, "Not one bit."