My mom, who made all the child-rearing decisions for her eight children, didn’t think it was important for any of us to play organized sports. It was the sixties. Most people were not overweight, Title 9 did not exist, and parents did not yet judge each other by how many activities their children crammed into a week. So for many years I appeared to be a completely normal girl, not knowing how to play a game of baseball, how to throw a basket or hit a volleyball. It never occurred to me that my childhood was bereft of sports because I never thought about sports. I did swim, but I never thought of it as a sport because it was fun and second nature to me, like breathing.
I could body surf a strong lake wave since I was seven. I could hold my breath and swim like a bottom feeder for the entire length of a 40 foot pool. I could maneuver three underwater backward somersaults in a row and walk on my hands in the lake. The idea of organized sports never entered my watery realm and I never felt I was missing out on anything until 10th grade gym class.
One normal day in January our gym teacher, an overly tanned older woman singled me out to demonstrate a basketball lay-up. What that was I had no idea. She could not have made a worse choice in a demonstrator, but she made a very good choice in finding someone to pick on.
Handed a sweat stained ball, I tentatively sidled up to the basket with a few steps and took a shot. It went in, which I thought was the point of the whole game, but she pointed out to the class that my footwork was wrong.
“Do NOT do it the way Mimi did” she advised the class, hiding a sneer in her smile. I hated that teacher from that point on for humiliating me and I still despise her even though she’s dead. Of course, if she had asked me to demonstrate the correct way to perform the side stroke, play Get All the Pennies at the Bottom of the Pool in One Breath, or pull an unconscious person from the water, I would have been golden.
In 11th grade and free from the athletic rigors of the gym class requirement, my friend Debbie and I signed up for the track team. It was done in an effort of true team spirit. We wanted to be part of something and we especially wanted to wear the Maize and Blue sweats and jog together in sisterhood.
It was still winter, but we trained indoors with the others while waiting for the snow to melt. I was starting from scratch, never having run farther than the ice cream truck. I worked up to running a few laps, then a mile, then five miles. By April we were running about 6 miles a day outdoors, warming up with a three-mile run to the lake and back and then scooting around the track for a couple of hours. It felt good to be part of a team, showing up after school for practice, wearing the school colors and jogging along the lake bluff with the others. I was proud of my beginner’s shin splints and beet red face, but after a while I noticed that the coach never paid any attention to me. It never occurred to me that I had to be any good at running to stay on the team and I never expected to actually run in a race. I figured I would be on the sidelines and that was okay with me.
One day after practice the coach took me aside and said very matter of factly that track was not for me. Staring at the linoleum tiles that lined the school hallways, my eyes stung the way they do before you cry and my head buzzed with confusion and shame. I managed to argue a minute with him, but in the end it was no use. After that I never ran again. Debbie quit the team the next week, saying it wasn’t any fun because I wasn’t there.
These days I prefer any sport I can do on my own. I play tennis, but usually end up hitting a ball against a wall by myself. In college I learned how to ski but prefer to go alone, hating to band with others who zip down ahead, stop, and then turn uphill to watch the others trail after them. Takes all the fun out of falling and just taking a little break.
When it came time to think about soccer for my daughter, I took one look at the poor little things running around in the cold and rain and said forget it. Putting her in a competitive organized sport that tortures small children was a good idea for about two minutes. So in the modern world of sports frenzy, I admit I am raising a daughter who doesn’t play soccer. She also does not have a good grasp on baseball or basketball, but in the whole scheme of things, I figure it doesn’t matter too much. I tell her that competitive sports are overrated, that there is virtue in not needing to beat the other team to feel good about herself, but if she really wants to play she should. That said, she joined the basketball team in 7th grade. Like me so many years ago, she just didn’t get it and got pushed around on the court. Most games she never even touched the ball. It was painful even for me to watch, so I went to Target for a cheap basketball since we didn’t even have one. Geared only with my stunted athletic gene, I tried to show her how to move faster, grab the ball with strong fingers and keep an arm out to ward off steals, as if I knew this from experience. She finished out the season, having made a few points for the team, but said she wasn’t going back. The pushy physical contact was too much for her.
Maybe my mom was on to something bigger by not putting us into sports, for letting us just grow up and play without the burden of winning to weigh down our little hearts. But most likely she was just overwhelmed with the idea of carting us all over the countryside to play in some league and paying a bunch of fees. So she raised us how she was raised. We roamed the vast corners of the yard and the pool and made up our own games like making paths in the leaves and designing and building houses out of snow. Any more serious athletic interests we developed, had to develop later, in our own time, in our own way.