by Dawn Ellerbe
There are times when I feel as though I’ve grown up larger than life. Since I can remember, my size was always the topic of someone else’s conversation. I remember being with my mom in the grocery store and her friends pointing out how tall I was or trying out for a dance team and always being placed with older girls. (Hey, 6-year-old conversations and 10-year-old conversations are not the same conversations.) I get it now, and usually those types of interactions were positive for the most part or, at the very least, inquisitive and they never made me feel bad.
The first time someone told me I was “too big” to do something (as in “big” as a bad word) was when I was seven years old. I overheard a woman (I now refer to her as a mean, nasty, ugly woman) looking my way saying, “Now she’s too big to be jumping around in there.” There we were, half a dozen kids around 7 or 8 years old in a bounce house, jumping around enjoying life, defying gravity and being kids, at a church picnic. And then there I was, looking at this lady through the fisherman’s net type window of the bounce house, feeling sad, and like I didn’t belong in the bounce house, like being a “big” kid at the church picnic bouncing around is the wrong thing to do.
Let me remind you, I was only seven. Yes, I should let go now, but I don’t want another seven-year-old to have to listen to ugly, mean, nasty ladies. I know I should not refer to this nice “church lady” as mean, nasty and ugly, but that’s what my seven-year-old self wanted to say, so be it. It’s a little better than what my 40+ year old self would tell her if I overheard her saying that about kids today. Looking back on it, I am glad I kept those thoughts to myself because had I said it out loud, my backside would have sure felt it. Y’all know I couldn’t be rude to the “church” ladies or any adults for that matter. My mama didn’t play.
My feelings were hurt, and I was a little embarrassed that I was having so much fun bouncing around defying gravity with my friends. That was the first moment I felt “too big” but it wouldn’t be the last.
I know kids tease each other all the time, it’s part of growing up, we’ve all had to deal with bullies. But then the funny part is, I recall very few instances where my neighborhood friends poked fun at me or made me feel “too big,” it was always some small minded “ugly nasty adult” …go figure.
Needless to say, I went on with my life and enjoyed all that elementary school had to offer, the band, sometimes making first flute first chair; the choir, singing loud and wrong, but giving it my all; dance classes; making the most of my layups in gym class, (never making it to the top of the 20 ft. high knotted rope therefore missing out on the President’s Physical Fitness award); amazing friends and teachers; puberty; another growth spurt; and I even survived Junior High.
Awkward as it may seem, I survived. About a foot taller than my closest friends, and a head taller than the boys, I survived. It was in High School that I found my love for sports, and it changed the course of my life. The first day of ninth grade, I walked into Central Islip Senior High School, standing over 6ft tall. Taller than most of the teachers and basically all of the students in my class.
God bless my sweet mother for insisting my dad drive from one end of Long Island to the other in search of Sam and Libby ballet flats in size 12 because that’s what everyone had, and I needed a pair too. On the other hand, Pumas and Adidas with fat laces were also in style so the time it took to find the Sam and Libby flats was not as bad as it could have been. Pumas and Adidas were a little easier to find in my size.
Not only was I tall, I was a size 18W! The “W” stood for Women’s sizes. There was no Forever 21 (Plus), no Charlotte Russe (Plus), no online anything. When did we get the internet again? My options were Macy’s Women’s Department, the JCPenney Women’s department, Lane Bryant (the 1990’s Lane Bryant is not the fly LB of today) and the Roaman’s Catalog, whom by the way, provided the answer for the search of the Sam and Libby Flats. They weren’t actually Sam and Libby, but they were still ballet flats and my sweet momma ordered me two pairs!
Can you imagine my fashion life? Thankfully long sweaters, legging, ballet flats and big hair were in. And on the other days, Pumas, fat laces, and dark rinsed Levi’s were in full effect.
I tried out for the basketball team my freshman year and I made the varsity squad. I was elated until both I and the coach realized the uniforms at the time would not fit me. Now, I was not yet a fan of daisy dukes, but my basketball shorts seemed to be just that. The top resembled more of a halter than a jersey, but we made it work. I played in shorts and t-shirts that were in our school’s colors and I took my t-shirt to the kiosk in the mall to screen my number on the back. I didn’t mind, the basketball coach didn’t seem to mind, and our opponents didn’t complain, so for two years it was ok.
After the end of my freshman season, I was walking down the hall and the Girls’ Track and Field Coach, Carl Hawker, saw me. He almost walked right into the door of the nurse’s office. He stumbled over to me, extended his hand, and the conversation went like:
“Hey, I’m Coach Hawker, and you’re coming out for the track team.”
“I’m Dawn Ellerbe and I like basketball, no thanks!”
“Well, you can do both, come out for the track team, you’d make a great thrower.”
And I did. That guy that stopped me in the hallway helped change my life. But what he did for me was so much bigger than inviting me to join the HS Track Team. He stopped me because I was over 6 ft. tall, he stopped me because I appeared strong and athletic, he stopped me because he saw a champion in me. For the first time since I was made aware of my “bigness” it was being recognize for good.
I survived High School, it was a little harder than Junior High, because you know…. I was grown, and I knew everything. I continued to play basketball for another year and spent all four years of high school on Coach Carl Hawkers Girls’ Track team…winning, losing, loving and learning. I made it to the State Championship meet twice and even placed third in the discus my senior year. I didn’t play basketball past my sophomore year, I got tired of the daisy dukes and halter tops and for some reason my mom didn’t take kindly to the coach’s “fat” reference to me. I also got tired of hearing “you’re pretty athletic for a big girl” each time I bounced up from diving out of bounds for the ball.
I survived sweet sixteen, my driver’s license, basketball, track, band, and band camp, student government, homecoming committee, a prom (near disaster), college applications and finally graduation.
I graduated from high school and three months later I was a freshman at the University of South Carolina. It would take a book to explain that four-year transformation, and we’ve all had one, so I’ll skip right to the part that made my life more than I ever dreamed it would be…college sports.
Track is set-up differently than most other sports and the scoring is quite different. To give you an idea of how much I progressed in 4 years, I scored 3 points at the Conference Championships in Feb 1993 and in Feb of 1996, I won the Commissioner’s Trophy for most points scored (26) of any athlete at the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Indoor Track and Field Championships, later earning the title of SEC Indoor Track and Field Athlete of the Year both the 1996 and 1997 indoor track seasons.
During my time at South Carolina I would go on to win 4 NCAA Titles, 5 SEC Titles, 5 USA Track and Field Titles and earn 6 All-American honors. I set new World Bests and American Records, was named the 1996 South Carolina Amateur Athlete of the year and was later inducted to the South Carolina Athletics Hall of Fame. AND I earned my degree in Journalism.
My gratitude for these opportunities is immeasurable and they pushed me to pursue more, to pursue the goal of becoming an Olympian.
After I graduated, I followed my college coach to the University of Wyoming to be his assistant and train for the 2000 Olympic games. And I did just that. I coached, I worked on my master’s degree, and I trained. This girl that was “too big” to jump in the bounce house at the church picnic was training for the Olympics.
But the thing is, I had an amazing coach who believed in me. He also helped change my life. In his vision I was everything BUT “too big.” Larry Judge was tough, he was hard, he took no mess, but he could bring the very best out of you.
Coach never told me I was “too big” for anything. Even when it was obvious the goal was for me to drop weight in order to get to the next level, he positioned it really positively. “Dawn, you know the more fit you become the quicker you will be, the stronger you will be and the further you can throw which will get you closer to your Olympic Dream! See how fit you can get, and how far you can push your body, I believe you will make the team.”
I listened, I got fit, I pushed, I broke records, I won titles, I made the Olympic team. I competed in the Olympics and was the first woman to compete in the hammer throw for the United States of America.
Sports changed my life. I have seen the sunset from the other side of the world because of sport. I have learned to say “Hello” in a dozen different languages because of sport, I have a passport full of stamps because of sport. I have friends all over the United States and in about 10 different countries because of sport.
I found coaches that celebrated my size and my greatness, I found a sport that embraced every inch of my bigness, I’ve made friends who have pushed me way beyond my limits. I would hesitate to tell someone they are “too” anything to do anything.
When you see a little girl that is big, small, short, or tall, your only goal should be to point out her greatness, encourage her uniqueness, and help polish her shine. If you hear someone tell her she is “too big” for anything, nip that in the bud and encourage that little kid to jump harder, bounce higher and defy gravity any way she can!
Here’s to being a great “big”, record breaking, standard setting, title winning, hall-of-faming, “big girl” that is not done winning yet!