The buzzer sounds. The ball sails through the hoop. The crowd erupts. The credits roll.
This is the template we’ve been handed down, the final moment where any sports story meets its inevitable end. We know the routine well enough: It is the heart-warming tale of the underdogs who, through hard work and tireless resolve, manage to overtake the poor boneheads that began the day with every advantage.
We always know when it’s coming. Typically, inevitably, predictably, it’s in that final moment where the morals of the story are fought for and vindicated – a fact that holds even if the author decides to surprise his audience.
Perhaps the final shot will clang off the rim; perhaps the final pass will slip through open hands. But the lesson learned will still somehow shine forth. In every case, in every story, fate is decided at that critical moment, at the buzzer, in the red zone, at the finish line. That is where the moral is earned.
If that were faithful to life, then you would expect someone like me, someone who went to a high school dedicated solely to athletes, to be overflowing with these golden morals, these lessons of strength and perseverance, of determination and iron will. I should in theory be able to draw upon this powerful ethic without hesitation or reserve. And yet, I detect a hint of suspicion, an intuition that life is never so simple or so easy, and I can’t help but fear that this suspicion is well founded.
This story begins with the National Sport School. The NSS. Let’s call it an interesting place; or perhaps surreal is a better word. Imagine your high school if one day, suddenly, all the numerous cliques and clubs and groups all vanished except for one: the jocks. That asshole quarterback with the dreamy eyes, the chiseled chin, those bulging biceps? I went to school with an army of him, and every single one of us was certain that our sparkling teeth would end up spread across the front of a Wheaties box.
There were the tennis players, the skiers, the biathletes, the wrestlers, the unfortunately labeled lugers – no need to bore you with the rest. Some days were fun and laid back; mostly, we just spent our time trying to discover the source of the mysterious and elusive “School” in National Sport School.
But then other days were so filled with woofing and chest thumping and fist pounding that in order to wade through the chin-high levels of testosterone, you needed to do the breaststroke.
Hey, at least the swimmers were there to give proper instruction.
But on this particular day, the NSS was the last place I wanted to be. Being in my senior year and having just quit my sport – or as I liked to say, retired – there was sure to be a day-long sequence of de facto press conferences, question after question after tedious, repetitive question. I had to be prepared, and I was.
All my lines were memorized, I knew exactly what to say, and with constant repetition my responses had settled into familiar grooves and creases, following the same paths every time.
“The sport is such a crapshoot,” I would say, “I could put in as much effort as I wanted and there would be no guarantees. I could get knocked down in an important semi-final, or disqualified because of a bad call from an official, or just fall on my own because of a stripped edge. You know? Years of training would go down the drain in an instant. Even if I managed to make the Olympics, what then? What happens after? Coach? Go back to school? I’d be back at square one. A college degree, on the other hand, that’s dependable.”
This was not talking; it was recitation.
After explaining, I’d always try to lighten the mood with a quip, shuffling through them like different tracks on an album.
“Besides, I just got tired of people confusing me for a figure skater.”
Or “Besides, after years of going in circles I just got dizzy.”
Or my favorite, “Besides, wearing spandex just gets old after a while.”
None of them were particularly funny or clever. Or factual, for that matter. Wearing spandex never gets old. But each of them got the job done, usually just well enough to draw a charitable chuckle or two from my audience.
College over sport, essentially – that was the answer I gave when people asked, and the most important thing to know about that answer is that it is a bold-faced lie. A complete fabrication. I told everybody I knew that I’d quit speed-skating to go to college, and it even made sense: after all, there are only a few (zero) universities who field Division I speed-skating teams. The false dilemma made for a natural alibi. But by the time I finally decided to quit speedskating, I couldn’t have cared less about college; it couldn’t have been further from my mind.
And yet, the strangest part was that, despite my lie, everybody seemed to believe me. Despite all the testosterone and the constant combativeness, despite my own well-known obsession with always competing to win, despite everything everyone knew about me… when I just gave it all up on a half-assed lie, they all swallowed it whole.
That day when I got home from school, I made an unfortunate discovery: daytime television sucks. I walked in the door, put down my bag, and sat on the couch. The clock behind me faithfully registered 3:30, and I never (and I mean never) had homework to do. Smart phones hadn’t been invented yet, so I picked up the remote. After clicking through the channels – Oprah, Maury, Judge Judy, and kids’ cartoons with some of the strangest magical creatures I’ve ever seen in my life – I turned the tv off.
I checked the clock again. Four minutes had passed. I started thinking about showing up at practice anyway, maybe just to help out. But considering the abruptness of my departure, it would’ve been pretty awkward.
But that wasn’t because of the decision itself, only the timing. My coach had known for a while that I might be hanging up my skates after that season. Aside from speedskating, my focus for the year was college applications. And I already had a discussion with him about whether or not I’d keep skating. In short, I was still undecided.
So the shock wasn’t because he had no idea that I might be quitting after the season. The thing is, it wasn’t the end of the season. It was the middle. The last competition was still two months away.
Because of this mid-year short-circuit, I instantly went from having an inordinately busy schedule to having absolutely nothing to do.
To give you an idea, my typical weekday had previously started with me waking up at 3:30 to eat the bagel I had made the night before, then going back to sleep. I’d digest the bagel in my sleep, so that when I woke up and went to the “Oval” for on-ice practice at 6:00 in the morning, I wouldn’t get stomach cramps. At around 8:00, I would finish practice and then drive to school. There I would socialize, eventually get lunch, and maybe even attend what we called “class.” When school ended at 3:00, I would drive straight back to the Oval, though I could take my time because “video” (our group video session) wasn’t until 4:00. Once there, we’d discuss high-level concepts with our coach, like tactics, skating technique, and track patterns. Right after video, around 5:00, we’d have dry-land practice, which could mean cardio, or weights, or cycling, or maybe some masochistic combination of the three. After that, there’d usually be some kind of team dinner at the food court near the Oval, followed by a return to the rink to volunteer coach the club-level practice at 8:30. Whew. When I finally got home just after 10:00, I would typically pass out from exhaustion, though not before inhaling a protein shake and making my bagel for the next morning.
For the better part of my adolescence, I spent the majority of every day working towards a naïve, but tangible (maybe even at one point achievable) dream of skating in the Olympics.
I had no concept of free time.
But now, my timetable was very, very different. Everything that filled up my schedule before had a new, boring correlate.
Instead of morning practice there was sleep.
Instead of group video sessions, there were solo television sessions.
Instead of volunteer coaching, there was volunteer… error-checking Wikipedia articles.
I was left wondering what people did during the day, though I guess I had plenty of time to figure it out. Only one thing was certain: the answer wasn’t Oprah.
Speed-skating is a strange activity. It’s one of those obscure sports that is normally invisible but then becomes bizarrely popular whenever the Winter Olympics roll around, only to later retreat once again into the wide abyss of athletic obscurity. I could try to explain to you how it’s more than just skating in circles: there’s the art of sharpening your own blades, the subtleties of proper skating technique, the playful animosity between “short trackers” and “long trackers,” etc. etc. etc.
But that discussion would probably make no sense to the uninitiated. It would be as fruitful as trying to explain the Queen’s Indian Attack to someone who didn’t know the rules of chess. And unlike chess players, speed-skaters are never surprised when they meet someone who doesn’t know the rules. Nobody does.
Yet, there is a world of people whose lives are completely wrapped up in the sport – a small world, but a world nonetheless. These people spend every breath contemplating the next ice session, their next chance to lace up their skates. Their calendars are marked not by Christmas and Easter, but by National Championships and World Cups. When winter finally gives way to the warmer months, there is no off-season; “off-season” just means that speed-skaters turn to weight rooms and bike trails.
It’s not even all that atypical. It’s like this in any sport, save for the fact that unlike football or basketball or even hockey, no one really cares.
So why do we put in the effort, you ask? Why perform in a play where there is no audience? Why do people screw knives onto the bottom of their boots so they can run in circles as fast as they can over a sheet of ice? The only answer I can think of is this:
When you curl around the corner, you lean over so far that you need to put your hand down to support yourself. We call it the “pivot.” When you’re pivoting, you put so much pressure on your edge that if you try to push just too much or at just the wrong angle, the ice will break away underneath your footing, and you’ll fall. So you submit yourself to the mercy of your skates and just glide around the curve with nothing but your edge and your hand propping you up. You have to trust that it will be enough. If you did everything you needed to do – from the months of sticking to your training regimen, to the weeks of planning for this competition, to the days of anticipation and visualization, to the hours of prepping and warmup, to the minutes of sharpening your blades, to the split-second adjustments of strategy mid-race, all leading up to that final moment of truth – if you got absolutely every bit of it just right, then your pivot will hold. If not, the ice breaks away under your feet. You fall.
Every turn has a pivot, but it’s only when you’re flying around the ice and sprinting at top-speed that you really dig down and lean your hip in. In that moment, you let your weight carry you around the turn as your edge carves into the ice, guiding you through that tight corner, and when you put your hand down, you don’t just touch the ice, you touch the sublime.
Gliding through the pivot.
There is nothing purer.
While I can’t speak for the rest of the speedskating community, I can say that this was why I skated. I was a sprinter, after all. In speed-skating, sprinting means everything. It means kicking and panting and cramming in as many frantic strides as possible and then streaking and dipping into the corner with a pair of turbulent crossovers. But, when you finally reach the peak of the corner, the “apex,” and you pivot through? You find that instant where for a single tick of the stopwatch, the world is perfectly still.
For me, that was the syntax of a race: rage and fire and fury punctuated by infinitesimal moments of silence and calm.
My teammates always joked that I had the body of a sixty year-old man – not because I wasn’t athletic, but more just because I was incredibly injury prone.
If you want to discuss soft-tissue damage, especially below the waist, I’m your man. As for major injuries, I’ve seriously torn my right hamstring, strained my hip flexors, and severely sprained an ankle, along with having a slew of knee problems, neck pains, lower-back issues, bruised joints, and general aches and creaks. None of these were very strange injuries. They’re actually all very common to speedskating. The uncommon part is only that I seemed to get every single one of them. Maybe this isn’t as unusual as I seem to think. I know only that it’s never a good thing when you can walk into your physical therapist’s office and say, “Hey Laurie, how’s the dog?”
Simply put, it was a constant problem. Of all the injuries above, however, none caused me so much trouble as my hamstring. I tore it three times and tweaked it once, one incident for each of my four years in high school. Except for the ankle sprain, I was able to train through the other problems, for the most part. The hamstring, though, sidelined me for months at a time. It just kept causing problems, even when I was healthy. I eventually became paranoid about my right leg, worrying incessantly; every little twinge was a potential earth-shattering disaster.
The first time I tore the hamstring was the most serious and, admittedly, my fault. At one practice freshman year, I didn’t stretch. Then, during a drill, I felt someone take a fork and jab it into the back of my thigh and then wiggle it around like they were scrambling eggs. I fell to the ground and crawled to the side of the field, turning to my coach to say, “I think I landed funny.”
I tried to stretch it, but couldn’t smooth out the kink. To be honest, I felt stupid sitting on the side of the field; I could already see in my head every coach I’ve ever had waving their finger. I knew I should have warmed up. I knew I should have stretched. I knew I had nobody to blame but myself. What I didn’t know was how serious the injury was or the role it would play in my life over the next four years.
That afternoon, I set up my appointment for physical therapy.
The months of recovery saw me limping from classroom to classroom, from house to house; there was no hiding it. People were nice enough, their comments generally insightful and reassuring. Sympathy rained down from all directions. I was thankful that I had never needed long-term crutches or surgery, though being unable to sit down like a normal person was a pretty glaring problem. Let’s just say getting in and out of chairs was an awkward experience. During the entire ordeal, I wanted nothing more than to go back to practice; my shoulders sank dejected each time my physical therapist mouthed those agonizing words: “not yet.” Eventually, though, I came back – for a while.
About a year later, doing the exact same drill, despite having become religious in my warm-up routine, I injured the hamstring a second time. Back in physical therapy, I discovered that I couldn’t regain the entire range of motion in the leg. Certain jumping drills were out of the question for now, especially the specific one that caused both injuries. My physical therapist told me it was probably because the scar tissue in the muscle didn’t heal properly, and like any type of dynamic tissue it would be very fragile when overtaxed in awkward positions. I knew what motion to avoid so it wasn’t going to be a problem, as long as I substituted certain drills for others. Knowing what to do and what not to do, there was essentially no way I could tear the hamstring a third time.
The third time I tore the hamstring was an entirely different experience. At that point, I had suffered several somatic breakdowns and, due to the obligatory recovery periods, my endurance had suffered as well. All the time I had spent in physical therapy, my teammates had spent training. Needless to say, I lost ground and it showed. The speed was still there, but I had trouble keeping up and even finishing some of the long-distance practices. I suspect that this earned me an unfortunate label with my new coach: “slacker.”
The reason I suspect this is: when I told the new coach that I simply couldn’t do one of the drills (the drill) one day in dry-land practice, he was having none of it. He essentially told me that I would either do the drill or I could stop coming to practice, period. There was no way my hamstring was so bad that simply doing one jumping exercise would tear it. Everybody else in the program was doing it no problem, so I should just stop slacking off and do the drill.
But I was confused. When I told him I couldn’t do the drill, it wasn’t a question. “No” had not been offered as a valid response. I thought I was just informing him of the situation. I gave him a look, but he wouldn’t budge. Supposedly, it was either do the drill now or never do drills again. Even at the time, I was pretty sure my coach would never have actually kicked me off the team, but still. The effect his approach had on me was not positive.
I knew exactly what was about to happen and I went along anyway, not because I thought coach was right, but because I was stubborn. My adolescent need to prove him wrong made me want to scream right in his face, but in the end I took a quieter approach. I crouched down into position on my left leg and then jumped into the air landing on my right. One jump was all it took. I felt that sharp hook and that was it; I proved my point.
I crawled to the sideline like before, but this time there was no sympathy.
“Get back in the drill!”
I shook my head at the ground, “I can’t.”
I don’t think my coach realized until a few days later that I actually did pull my hamstring. If he ever even realized at all.
By my senior year of high school, my endurance had gotten terrible. Though I was still in much better shape than your average high-school student, I did not measure up to most elite speed-skaters my age – or even my own conditioning from just a year before. I had become a pure sprinter. I was always a sprinter, but never a pure sprinter.
So while I was still one of the quickest in my age class, I was no longer one of the best. Yes, even in speedskating, speed isn’t everything. The real miracle was that I stayed competitive at all.
At the previous National Championships, I managed second overall due solely to my performance in the sprints. The achievement was bittersweet, since in the final race – the longest race; the decisive race; the 3000 meter – I finished dead last and was lapped, widely considered an embarrassment.
So while I still had my “speed off the line” and an ability to hit and hold my top gear consistently, my renown as a pure sprinter had an underside to it: in speed-skating, being a sprinter, to most people, really means you’re fast but lazy.
I started to realize I had won this new reputation. Coaches sighed when they talked to me about my performance in practice, disappointed in my unrealized potential. Other skaters knew they could essentially plan their tactics around me in the longer distances, since I would be a non-factor. People usually didn’t say anything to me directly, but I knew I was a topic of discussion behind my back. I was the kid with squandered talent, who chose to just squeak by instead of training hard and dominating.
But the situation was worse than being thought of as lazy. I was not only rumored to be lazy but also consistently having trouble with injuries, both major and minor, people naturally became skeptical. The label “slacker” was slid into “faker” with relative ease. Again, things were rarely ever said to my face, but it was never exactly hard to tell. There was a deep mistrust. Whenever my hip flexors came up, it wasn’t met with “huh, hope it gets better soon,” but simply “huh.”
With each injury, the tenor of people around me started to change. They started to empathize less, and ask questions more. And I noticed it. Responses got proceedingly more distant, and with that my whole mindset shifted. And eventually… it got completely subsumed. My goal was no longer skating to win, but skating to repair my reputation. If I could just win the next competition, if I could only set a new personal record in this distance – then everybody would realize that all the injuries were behind me.
The lack of trust bled into other areas too. And that really started to get to me. One weekend, I missed a competition because I got the flu. It wasn’t an important competition or anything, just an unofficial early-season meet. It wasn’t even for points or qualifying for later season competitions. Missing it was not supposed to be a very big deal.
The week after, at on-ice practice, I caught up on all the juicy details: results, key races, crazy passes, funny stories, and the like. That’s when one of my teammates casually shot off this comment, “It’s too bad you didn’t feel like going.”
Everybody forgot that she said it a second later – everybody, that is, but me. It was small, insignificant, maybe even meaningless, and yet I could not shrug it off, could not simply let the comment slide. I thought about it during practice, on the drive home, at dinner, in the shower. I wanted only to tell her how I did want to go. I wanted to tell her how much the flu sucked. I wanted to turn, look her in the eye, and declare for everyone to hear, “What do you even want? I had the FLU. Should I have gone anyway? Should I have won every goddamn race and then puked all over the fucking finish line? I couldn’t even get out of my bed.”
I wanted to say these things. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Because she didn’t tell me she thought I was lazy; she probably didn’t even realize that she insinuated it. If I had responded by addressing the issue outright, it would have been a blatant overreaction, with my insecurities on show, which would have been all the more incriminating.
That was the day I came up with the metaphor. The clever, perfect metaphor. The glass case. At the time, my idiot teenage brain thought it was the most ingenious, apt metaphor possible, encapsulating every aspect of my situation in a fashion that could only be described as, of course, poetic. Insightful or not, it formed the basis of how I viewed my entire situation.
You see, doubts, suspicions, rumors – people aren’t as good at hiding these things as they like to believe. In fact, people don’t hide them at all. Rather, they put them on display in an impenetrable case. Like a painting in a museum, the rumors are there for all to see, but impossible to pull out into the open, trapped forever in the infuriating silence.
For my part, I can’t explain how desperately I would scratch and claw at that glass, wishing someone would someday say something direct to my face so I could finally square up to the rumors and show them that tried hard, that I also sweated, that I also gasped for air.
But there they stayed, trapped forever beneath the pristine glass, immaculate and untouchable.
That fall, my senior year, we had yet another new coach. Like all my coaches, he was knowledgeable, approachable, and generally structured practices to our liking. But one day before practice, I looked at the program with dread. Once again, a diagram showed my least favorite drill, the hamstring killer. But our new coach was a pretty decent guy and he knew all the details around my hamstring history, so I had no qualms about talking to him before practice.
“Hey coach,” I said and pointed to the program in my hands, “this drill in the second set, the imitation-jumps with the kick-out,”
“Yea, what about ‘em?”
“I don’t think I can do it.”
“Look,” he said. The doubt was painfully obvious. “I say, when we start the second set, you go out there and give it a shot. If anything feels weird, then you can back out.”
Back Out? What was that supposed to mean?
I sighed, “Fine.”
Afterwards, I limped home.
For the first few jumps, I had been extremely cautious. After weeks of regretting the stunt I pulled last time, I wasn’t going to get riled up. But I guess it must’ve been obvious from my form that I didn’t go “all out,” which could not have helped my case. But to my surprise, the first jumps felt fine. My confidence grew and I went a little lower to the ground, and then, of course, before I could even really get into the motion, I felt it: the all-too-familiar hook. I hobbled over to the side of the track on my left foot and, in my peripheral vision, spotted my coach shaking his head.
Maybe because I’d been so cautious this time, it wasn’t a major injury. Even right after the practice I could clench the muscle and put a little weight on it. I had only tweaked it, and after a few days I was back in practice. At the time, I thought this could only be a good thing. How could there be a downside to a short recovery period? However, I realized afterwards that my miraculous recuperation could only have furthered the suspicion that I faked it.
Let’s pause for a moment and ruminate on an older story, one that always bugged me for pretty obvious reasons: The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
We all know that, as commonly told, the boy is a liar, a fraud, and a snake. But I have a weakness for giving people the faintest shadow of a doubt.
Besides, can we trust the cold objectivity of that arrogant narrator? Can we be sure the wolf was never there, hiding in some place unseen by the moonlight? With a little human twist, its not hard to rebuild the story from the shepherd’s perspective:
The poor shepherd-boy did his solemn duty, four days in a row. He spotted the wolf lurking at the edge of the woods and immediately called to the villagers for help. Upon noticing torchlight from the advancing mob, the wolf fled. The culprit simply wasn’t there when the mob arrived. Two times the villagers came sprinting, the third time reluctantly, the fourth time, not at all. A young shepherd’s days were cut short because trust can only stretch so far.
Perhaps this was the wolf’s plan from the beginning.
Perhaps that wolf has always been the hidden actor lurking in the shadows, only ever coming forth to sow distrust, discord, divisiveness.
Or perhaps the wolf had no intent at all–only dumb instinct, only material impetus, only blind luck that the shepherd’s village failed to mobilize.
Or again, perhaps it was still the shepherd boy’s fault, even in my retelling. After all, one recasting always begets another. Why was his village so unconcerned by his fate? What must he have done that trust in him was already worn so thin? Why was it ever stretched so far and prone to failure? What kind of selfish and solitary shepherd was he, such that he was so vulnerable to the wolves?
What is it that our narrator is omitting, even now?
What has been concealed?
Whichever theory you choose, it doesn’t really matter.
The wolf got its lamb that evening.
One practice in January of my senior year, a few months after the hamstring tweak, I was bothered by these randomly annoying neck twitches. Some small spasms. I must’ve strained my neck in some weird position the day before, but I didn’t remember when it could have happened. Maybe I slept awkwardly. Obviously, it wasn’t very serious, but crouching in skating position puts a lot of stress on your back and neck, so the problem got a little aggravated at practice, naturally.
I stepped aside at one point to shake it off.
“Hey coach, you know any good neck stretches? My neck’s been bugging me all day.”
“Look,” he sighed in apparent frustration. He then proceeded on a tangent about how everybody goes through little aches and pains (which is true, of course). Sometimes your muscles twinge for no reason, and you just have to fight past it (also true). Everybody does it all the time (once again, true). So he told me to just hang in there and I’d be fine, which was very good advice (advice I planned on following anyway). He hadn’t said anything offensive. None of the things he said were technically insulting in any way.
He talked as if I had never fought through anything, as if I had never pushed past the lactic acid burning through my legs or never skated through the choking, hollow fire in my lungs. My own coach. Even worse, he didn’t actually respond to me! He gave me zero stretches to do.
I asked for some trivial help, and he responded with “You lazy piece of shit.”
This was it. Again. My reputation manifesting itself, peeking out from the shadows, slapping me in the face, then withdrawing once again into that stupid fucking impenetrable glass case. It was an enemy I could not fight, could not reject, could not even address, because it never came out in the open.
I can’t explain how I managed to avoid an irrevocable public outburst. If I hadn’t otherwise generally liked him as a person, I guarantee you I would’ve punched my coach in the face. Okay, probably not… but still. I like to at least think I would’ve.
But the worst part was that I couldn’t blame him. I kept getting hurt, but let’s be honest, how could anyone possibly be that injury-prone? I wondered this myself. The hamstrings three times, the hip flexors twice, the knees, the back, and the calves – and those were just the major ones. No wonder people were suspicious. Nothing I could say would convince anyone I wasn’t a slacking, faking slacker-faker. I couldn’t even convince them that I had stubbed my toe.
That afternoon I called my coach to tell him I wouldn’t be coming to practice anymore.
A little while later, I was talking to my closest friend on the team and he asked me why I quit all of a sudden. I told him the truth. I told him there was no trust. I told him I couldn’t keep showing my face in such a small community where I had a reputation as a liar, and I didn’t see any way I could fix it. It was infuriating. I was getting more and more paranoid, hearing backhanded comments and insults even when none were there. I needed to start over somewhere – somewhere that I could build a reputation for myself. I’m not a stupid person, so hopefully I’d do fine at school. We’d just have to see where I stand when the rejection letters start coming in. It was all very cliché and I was okay with that. I just wanted out.
I grew visibly nervous as I told him this, excited even. The glass case was wide open! I had struggled against my silent enemy for what seemed like a hundred years; now I would have the chance to address the whispers, to tear them down, to air the explanations I had practiced so many times before my mirror.
But completely by accident, he sideswiped me.
“Why not keep at it?” he asked, “Why not prove them all wrong?”
He didn’t deny the rumors at all; he simply offered a different approach, one that I had long since given up on, or maybe never even considered.
The true champion, that archetypical athlete, the one that exists only in film and record books and stadiums, would know exactly how to break the glass. They would win everything – every race, every competition, even every practice. They would heap medal after medal after medal on the stubborn case until the added pressure from all the gold, silver, and bronze pounded it back into sand, which would then sift away effortlessly through their fingers.
But I was not that athlete.
I threw my skates in the closet and turned towards my desk and my schoolwork. I didn’t face up to the situation. I didn’t even face up to my friend’s question, but evaded it with one of my handy quips instead.
“I don’t know man,” I told him, “I guess wearing spandex every day just gets old after a while.”
The next summer I hopped back on the ice to see everybody, just for one practice.
After all, they were still my friends.
I had stayed in pretty good condition thanks to a strict exercise regimen, which was part of my time-killing solution for the whole “Oprah” problem. Besides, after a while you just get addicted to exercise anyway.
But even though I was at practice with everyone, and even though I was still in competitive shape, I decided not to skate the actual drills. Instead, I helped water the track, set up the cones, and did stopwatch duty. During the set-rest, I just hung out in the middle of the rink and joked around with everyone.
After, since it was a recovery week, the guys decided to have some fun: a pivot session. Whitmore went first. He built his speed over a lap-and-a-half and then dove into the corner with a two-handed pivot, both hands on the ice. Not bad. But Dustin went out next and one-upped him with a “three-point” pivot, with both hands and his left knee touching the ice. Very classy. But Whitmore countered again, this time with a three-point pivot of his own. But unlike Dustin on the last run, Whitmore didn’t use his knee. Instead, he decided to glide around with both hands and his head to the ice. It was somehow both elegant and goofy at the same time. Like a giraffe doing ballet. And beyond any doubt, it was also game over.
Dustin waved his hands in forfeit as Whitmore pumped his fist into the air, basking in that strangest of eternal glories–the kind that disappears moments later, yet still fills your heart with warmth every time it comes to mind.
Whitmore’s stunning moves got my blood pumping, so I decided to go out for a try. Nothing fancy. I just wanted to get one standard pivot at speed, to feel my edge guide me through the turn again, to feel that moment of tranquil beauty. I skated onto the track, methodically building up my pace over the course of a wind-up lap. With two last strides to build momentum, I turned into the corner and leaned in for a pivot with that familiar tickle of wind rushing past my ear.
But I guess I must not have gotten my hip far enough into the curve, because my weight was off. I rocked back onto my heels and lost balance. My legs flew up in the air. Slipping onto my back, I careened immediately into the soft wall of layered padding, then got up as quickly as possible and laughed it off, trying to scrunch out the pools of icy-cold water now soaked through my spandex.
Not exactly sublime.
“Guess it takes a couple weeks to get your form back,” I told the guys as they ridiculed me mercilessly. I laughed as I said it, but it later occurred to me that I didn’t have a couple weeks to spare, and probably never would.
Stories in the sport genre have a lot more in common with fables than most people realize. Like fables, they often follow similar tropes and borrow heavily from each other. Like fables, they leave you with a hard-earned lesson, a moral. And like fables, that moral is almost always completely useless.
It’s now just over three years since I quit and I find myself sitting on my dorm room couch, watching Olympic speedskating from Vancouver. I mute the color commentators, seeing as their insight goes only as deep as the names on their list. There is no room for commentating in the sport, simply not enough time in a race to explain when and where and why. Their sound bites are nothing more than annoying.
In any case, I don’t need them to tell me background stories. They keep going on and on about how the nineteen-year-old J.P. Nitschke had qualified for the Olympic Team, only to then fall in a race and get cut by his own blade – a seven-inch gash, narrowly missing an artery, blood gushing through his skin-suit and out onto on the ice.
I don’t need them to tell me this story because I have been following it closely all year. J.P. didn’t get back into his uniform until two weeks before the Olympics. He hasn’t skated competitively at all since the day of the crash. But now he is back. He is there, ready to skate, ready to meet with whatever may come.
He may as well have sewn up the gash himself, using only his boot laces, of course, then immediately sprung to his feet, hobbled through the race with a smile, and bounded straight onto the podium.
No one anywhere has any doubts about his determination.
That is the archetypical athlete.
I begin to wonder about what could have been, what I could have done different. After all, how could I not? The questions besiege my mind against my will. Why did I really quit? Was it the injuries? Or was it the trust? Or, even stranger, was my “false reason” actually the real one? Did I subconsciously intend on quitting anyway to go to college? Did my frustration simply push me over the bluff a little earlier than planned? Or was it the exact opposite? Would I have otherwise stayed the course? Would I have daringly foregone my education in favor of a bold dream?
The events, as they stand, are impossible to untangle, impossible to comb into neat, orderly lines.
I realize once again that I never rid myself of that pesky glass case. I was still holding onto those whispers of my reputation, my ego. I only put it in the closet, beside my skates. I could not escape the case, because of the simple fact that they are not the doubts of others contained therein, but my own. The doubts don’t fade with time; they build and grow until they fill the case and press outward against the glass, now weakened and liable to burst at any moment.
And as much as my heart wants to be able to cheer on J.P. – for all the reasons I know too well, for all the things he’s suffered and gone through just to get to where he is right now, for all the time I know he’s put in for this one penultimate moment – all I can even think about are my own doubts, my own inadequacies. My own insecurities and my own failings. Despite my best efforts to forget these tattered threads, they remain.
But all that is in the past. Now, only one thing matters: I am sitting on my couch and J.P. is in Vancouver with his toe in the ice, standing on the start line. The race is about to begin, and I’m thousands of miles away.
This is when the final question, the only question, strikes me. I realize that there is something essential missing from this long and tiresome fable.
There is something I was meant to be looking for but never found.
I realize that I have been robbed.
What ever happened to that golden, shining moral?