“Not to be a negative Nelly, but it almost seems like I may never be an Olympic athlete.”
That’s a quote from my friend Myndi. She’s 37, a financial analyst, and a former member of her high school’s marching band. Also, she has a slight case of agoraphobia.
I think we all get a bit of the Underachievement Blues when the Olympics circle around. I used to get them bad, wondering where I went wrong, pondering the difference between Me and Them. The chiseled athletes hefting all that ambition and training overseas, parading through the Opening Ceremonies on a float of pride and invincibility. And Me: the girl who added 13 full minutes to her Bridge Run time this year. 13. Minutes. (The wind was really strong. Anybody notice that?)
But I’m over it. I’m watching Women’s Gymnastics, Team Finals as I write this and McKayla Maroney just performed the most perfect vault I’ve ever seen. I gasped when she landed—it was flawless.
And I’m not watching, thinking “What if?” Mostly because, despite my family’s affinity for athletics detailed in my last blog, I have a long and distinguished list of reasons why no one ever dressed me in red, white, and blue and shipped me off to London or Beijing or even down the road to Atlanta. Among them:
1. My Brother, Patrick
I started gymnastics at an early age at a gym in Jacksonville, Florida, a 45-minute drive from my house. I was pretty good, too. I don’t know how old I was when I got yanked from the sport… Maybe 9 or 10, flipping my way to real Olympic greatness, when my mother did what she often did. She had a baby. My brother Patrick. Here's him 30 years later, doing mildly important things...
Last month, teaching my niece Maggie to skate.
A few years ago, fighting in Iraq.
Unleashing his police dog onto young schoolchildren. Just kidding...
He's alright, I suppose. Anyway, shortly after bringing him into the world, my mother announced that she would no longer be carting all now FIVE children “into town” for my now several-times-a-week gymnastics classes.
This made about as much sense to me as them wanting to have another baby. My mother is quite possibly the best on the planet (is there an Olympics for that?), but back then I thought she should be more like… hold on, has anyone ever seen Dance Moms? No? How about Theresa from Real Housewives of New Jersey? Back then, I kind of thought my mother should be more like that. Dropping everything, including (fingers crossed) my other siblings (newborn included), to spend 10 hours a day watching me learn to do a back walkover on the beam, and then screeching like a howler monkey when someone else’s kid does it better. Or breaking down into sobs.
My mother never once shed a tear over a single back flip of mine. She just casually said we’d find another gym closer to home. And we did, and it was fine. The ceiling was only about 12 feet high, which made particularly high vaults a bit of a challenge (believe me, that’s not a lesson you have to learn twice). Also the balance beam was outside.
2. I have no problem faking an injury &
3. If the sport has a ball, I can’t play it.
It’s funny being a relatively athletic person and not being able to play a single sport that involves keeping an eye on, hitting, throwing, or shooting a ball. Of any kind.
After the gymnastics era, my mother enrolled me in the Little League softball team. It seemed like fun since all my friends were on the team. But it took one practice, maybe two, to learn how truly horrendous I was at the sport. I struck out every time I got to the plate. I never caught a single ball. I never got better. Playing on that team was like Groundhog Day for sucky ballplayers.
But just as my friends, one by one, began to turn against me, something interesting happened.
I hit the ball. In an actual game.
I raced to first base, but the ball got there around the same time. Some sort of debacle ensued, confusion, and in the end, the umpire called me out. I scuffed my way back to the bench, holding back tears. Not because I was out—I was used to that. But because, for once, I was so close to NOT being out.
On the bench, everyone glared at me. The tears kept fighting their way up. As a fidgety way of controlling them, I put my hand over my face, then, for no reason at all, I moved it down to my neck. Right about then, my friend Jennifer's mom spotted me.
She's not a quiet woman, and she's not subtle. So when she shouted, "Oh my God... did that ball hit you in the throat? Talk to me, are you hurt?" everyone heard.
I looked up at her towering over me. Suddenly, my teammates were holding their breath, waiting to hear if they could still despise me. I looked at the stands. The other parents waited to hear, too. Well, except for mine. They'd have bet their 1983 Volvo station wagon there wasn't a goddamn thing wrong with me.
"Were you hit?" Mrs. Hone pressed.
My ticket out was one answer away, and I took it.
"Yes. Yes, I was."
Bags of ice came in a rush, my name was instantly pulled from the line-up (bingo), an ice-cold Coca-Cola thrust into my hands, and all my haters were immediately guilted into backing the f&*% off.
No crying in baseball? That’s hilarious.
Related story, involving a real injury: while playing center field during a Sunday softball game on our farm, I managed to stand directly underneath a sky-high pop fly. Instead of catching it, I stood perfectly still until it landed squarely on my head. It nearly knocked me unconscious. Instead of pulling me from that game for being too stupid to play, or perhaps asking the doctor (well, he's a dentist...) who hit the pop fly to do some basic concussion testing, my dad's solution was to stand less than a foot in front of me for the entire six innings left in the game. Right in front of my face. I couldn’t see around him, the game, the batters—in fact, every time I tried to step to the side to see what was happening, my dad moved right along with me. Like a shadow I couldn’t see through. But it was just as well. My brain had started to swell by then, so I wouldn’t have been able to see the plate anyway.
4. My sportsmanship is not exactly Olympic caliber.
I spent five years on the swim team. The Baker Bullets.
In time, I was good, but not the best. That title went to a girl we’ll call Carla. How she got in my age group I’ll never know. A late birthday, a forged birth certificate, could be any number of things. All I do know is that her age 13 looked nothing like my 13.
During warm-ups, Carla’d race up behind me in the lane and touch my toes, just to let me know she was there. In meets, I came in second to her every time. I’d beat everyone else, but never her. (This was particularly puzzling considering I was so much more, shall we say, streamlined….)
My ribbons were a sea of red.
Then came a final invitational meet. This was a big one. For us, this meant in addition to racing our usual 100 freestyle, we’d also race a 200. I think Whitney Houston’s One Moment In Time played off in the distance as we climbed on the starting blocks.
Cue the slow-mo sideways glances as we waited for the gun.
And I beat her.
I did. Handily, too, by a couple seconds, which is no small margin.
We both had our theories. Mine was that the only difference between this race and every other we’d battled out was the distance. One could argue I was better at the long haul.
She had a different
excuse reason. As I glided by Carla’s towel afterwards, where she sat looking pitiful, she looked up at me and said, “I had cramps. I’ve had them all day.”
I stopped. “Excuse me?”
“Yeah. You only beat me because of my cramps.”
I know, I could have taken the blue ribbon AND the high road, but I was 13. And I only wanted one of them.
Instead, I smiled and said, "Oh. Well, I guess that's what you get for developing early, isn’t it?"
Not exactly the sportsmanship of champions. In truth, I didn’t give a damn which of her enormities—those gigantic C-cups or her ego—did her in. I finally won.
Ironically, swimming’s on right now—the 100m freestyle. And if Carla wants to claim that, fine, she can have it. Me, I’ve got a gymnastics-watching date with my friend Martha for Thursday night (Women’s All-Around). We’ll eat shrimp and root for Gabby Douglas. I like Aly, too. And I’ll hold a tumbling class or two next week with my nieces. Teach them somersaults and handstands for the 10 minutes before the class goes wholly haywire, and one lays down for a nap in the grass and the other stops and asks if I brought any pizza. I’d ask my financial analyst friend Myndi to join us, but I think she’s in hard-core training mode now for… something. My guess is ice skating. From her back patio. In Florida.
Let's hear it for the dreamers.