The Olympics have finally ended, thank the Good Lord. Not that I don’t enjoy them, but they test my ability to concentrate. If find myself admiring those beautiful people, their miraculously healthy bodies and their enthusiasm. I also find myself casting back to the days when I had my brush with the world of athletic endeavor.
Let me make this clear. I was NEVER destined for physical greatness, but I did try to play. When I started high school, I joined two teams, basketball and track. In basketball I was doomed from the outset. I played on a remarkably terrible team, and I was the worst member of said team. I sat so far down the bench I didn’t even know what the coach’s voice sounded like. When I did occasionally get in the game, I spent half the time pulling up my socks and the other half accidentally fouling people in an attempt to rebound the ball. When the spring season rolled around, I looked forward to a team that allowed more independent activity. There was also the usefulness of the more mighty than fast. My specialties? Shot and discus. In those ancient days, each member of the team had to have a running event. The coaches tried to put me in a variety of sprints. Understand, most of the students in my high school were Native American–members of the Jemez and Zia tribes. They ran as smoothly as water. They ran for pleasure. They ran me into the ground. Nonetheless, they had to give me something to do, so I ended up on the mile relay team.
Our team had little possibility to do any major damage. The other three girls on the team preferred to run further out–the 800 and the individual mile. In the mile relay each of us made one circuit of the track. The coach tried to help us work things out, me especially. She spent a great deal of time talking about pacing and stride. She had me run lots of laps. What a joy that was! So, as the season progressed, we ran in a number of meets, and we lost every time. It was disheartening. I knew that our losses were largely due to my talents as a runner. Worse, the way high school meets worked, the last event of the show was the 4X400. That way I had ALL DAY to think about how we were going to lose. Losing my individual events wasn’t nearly the misery that losing with the team was. Finally, we were on the bus to the District meet, and in the near dawn twilight I made a decision. If we were ahead when I got the baton, I would DIE before I would lose that lead. I mentioned nothing about my resolve to anyone. It was my secret.
That day we were up against three other mile relay teams. It was a small district. We practiced our hand-offs several times. The other girls did fairly well in their events. I think I placed fifth in the shot-put. Woo-hoo. It was a warm, dry day in the high New Mexico desert. As the sun fell down the sky, I dreaded the release of the gun.
I ran third leg, the weakest leg. Our first runner was a wiry girl who looked like she needed a sandwich and was made of mostly leg bones. When she came around the last turn, she was about two yards ahead of the “field.” Our second girl, a shy junior, loped away. I watched in horror as she held the slim lead ALL THE WAY AROUND THE FIELD. I knew the last runner, our only Senior girl, was looking at her last chance to win. I cast my eyes over my shoulder, began to trot then extended my right hand behind my hip. When I felt it touch my palm, I clenched my hand shut, threw my hand back and exploded away. I could hear my coach screaming, “Slow down! SLOW DOWN!” In my head I yelled back, “SCREW YOU! I’m doing it MY WAY. SCREW PACING. Who needs pace? I need a lead, as big a lead as I can build.” Here’s the thing. I don’t think anyone in that entire stadium had every seen a chubby little white girl move like that. I imagine all the terror of my meager fourteen years was making my legs feel springy and light. The other teams were totally devastated. I think my biggest lead was thirty yards. It was the miracle of my life for the first three hundred yards. That’s when I hit the wall.
I hit the wall every time I ran 400 yards. The first three hundred felt like a rational activity, something anyone might do for the fun of it, and the last hundred yards felt like somebody had turned the air into a combination of wet clay and old honey. Why would anyone run 400 yards? On that fateful day, when I hit the wall, my lungs started trying to leave my body, via my throat. I kept moving, but the lane lines were squiggly and reminded me of bones. The other teams began to reel me in, oh so predictably. I just kept moving toward my team mate, her dark, surprised eyes watching me, so that she could change her easy gallop into a walk-speed trot for the hand-off. My ears are ringing; the light in my peripheral vision is warped; there is D., the fourth leg. She is at the end of my arm, and the bar comes forward of its own accord and drops into her waiting palm. I stagger after her and then I am across the curb that surrounds the field and I am kneeling on the field. I feel the other members patting my back and I know they are saying things and the coach is smiling at me. I don’t care if we win. I am just thankful, with all my heart, with all my soul, I didn’t lose it for us. When my vision clears, I turn my eyes to the tape stretched across the lanes.
That evening, after getting off the bus at the turn-off of the road that led our house, I ran home. My parents were there and one of their friends, Mr. English. They expected my usual story of woe. Imagine their surprise. Mr. English was so proud he gave me a kiss on the cheek. Very continental was Fred English.
As I watched the 2012 Olympics, with the world cheering, I realized, that day, so very long ago, it seemed my whole world was proud of me and loved me. So it is with triumph, short lived and dear.
To all who seek to run the good race, keep the faith. Triumph awaits.