From Wimp to Workout Queen

One of the questions people most frequently ask me about The Rise, Fall, and Return of Sarah Mandelbaum is how much is fact and how much is fiction. After all, Sarah and I are an awful lot alike. But we’re pretty different, too. While I don’t want to spill all my secrets, since a little mystery keeps things interesting, I will reveal one key event in the book that is true to life.

When I was in junior high school (and maybe when you were too), gym class was an unrelenting nightmare. First off,  the “popular” girls were catty and critical of everyone’s changing bodies—a phenomenon that was frightening in and of itself. I have hair where? Juniors’ clothes don’t fit anymore? Secondly, I was the last person picked for every team, and everyone jeered at me for my all-around un-athleticism. I’m a lover, not a fighter. And then there was my 7th-grade gym teacher, Ms. L,  who added another flaming log to the misery fire by sneering and shrieking at all of us, especially at we non-jocks.

Things came to a head during our track and field unit when she set up hurdles for us to jump over. I got a running start to try and clear them but stopped short at the first one. They were just too damn high for 4ft9 me.

Like Sarah, I was going to have my bat-mitzvah that coming weekend, and I knew my mother would kill me if I fell and knocked out a tooth. My parents had just spent a fortune on braces. So even though I was terrified of  Ms. L and of going to the vice-principal’s office, where she threatened to send me if I didn’t jump, I stood my ground.

When I got to Mr. M’s office, I was shaking and crying because he had a scary reputation, but he couldn’t have been any nicer. He thought it was utterly ridiculous that Ms. L tried to punish me for being afraid of jumping over the hurdles because I was too short to clear them. He merely sent me on to my next class, which was typing. I know I am dating myself. Halfway through the period, Ms. L appeared, apologized in front of everyone, and took me outside for a chat.

At first, I was scared she was going to yell at me again, but instead, she said, “Listen, I don’t like you being afraid of anything. So how about you come after school, I lower the hurdles, and we try again?” So, I did, she did, and low and behold, I landed each one free and clear.

My Three Trainers

Can you believe I was lucky enough to have three trainers? Here, I am pictured with my dream team of Bartley Gilliard, Malick Diop, and Kappel Clarke for the Elle Article in 2012.

When I became the beauty and fitness director of YM magazine, I realized it was time to get physical and get fit. How could I write about fitness if I spent most of my life avoiding it? So, I started to hit the gym and was fortunate enough to have a whole group of experts to advise me. At one time, I even had three trainers. Lo and behold, I got stronger, more capable, and more self-confident both in and out of the gym. I could do three pull-ups and actual “boy” push-ups. I wrote about the whole experience when I was Elle magazine’s beauty and fitness director. You can read the article here.

Injuries and arthritis have now taken their toll on my 57-year-old body and tamed my workouts. And while I won’t be jumping over any hurdles any time soon, I still love being active instead of being afraid of it like I was in junior high school. And in the end, I guess Sarah and I have Ms. L to thank for that.

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