When most people think of "athlete", they only think of someone that is actually playing a sport. I am going to dispute that. I don't think that being an athlete has anything to do with physical activity. I believe it is a mentality. Stick with me for a second here.
I know people (one is on my rec league team) that play sports but I don't consider them athletes. Take my friend here as an example. He doesn't really know or love the game. He's a good skater and a decent player. That makes him athletic, but not necessarily an athlete.
On the flip side, I know people that used to play sports but don't any more for various reasons. But, they watch sports and understand them. They can figure out what teams should be doing (whether they are right or wrong is subject to discussion). But, they can think logically about the game. Some of them still want to play but are unable (time constraints, other priorities, injuries).
At a coaching clinic I was at, there was a guy offering to speak to our respective organizations. His topic was "Once an athlete, always an athlete". Now, I never did hear his complete presentation. But, that title stuck with me. The more I think about it, the more I like it. If you are an athlete, you are an athlete for life regardless when you stop playing or if you ever played.
An athlete watches sports with an understanding that a spectator will never understand. Watching a sport makes them want to play it. They will watch their sport(s) even if their favorite team isn't playing. They will give props to players that make great plays...even if that player is on the other team. They get a joy out of knowing what is going to happen a second before it actually happens because they aren't just watching the puck.
Being an athlete goes beyond physical constraints. It is a mentality, a mindset. It is wanting to play, wanting to coach, wanting your kids to love sports as much as you do. Being an athlete is being a student of the game. Wanting to know the ins and outs of it. Understanding the rules. Knowing plays. Seeing your team as if you were the owner and dictating how you would run it.
I still play in rec leagues. I have never played at a high level. I'm not going to be drafted #1 this year by the Hawks. I'm closer to Chelios in age than Crosby. But, I am an athlete. Even when I can no longer play, I will always be an athlete.