Short Takes: Sports


The Donation

The curator holds up the black silk faille cocktail dress, circa 1954, that I have just donated to the university. A bit nervous, I watch her eyes sweep from neckline to hem, critiquing my favorite “dressy” dress from my college days. She brushes her hand over the full skirt.

“Just look at that waistline. None of our girls will be able to model this dress,” she says. Her colleague nods in agreement and they both laugh.

I stare at the in-joke smiles on their faces.

“Why not?”

“Sports. Girls today don’t have the shape. Very few have anything like an indented waist because they are so muscular,” the curator explains. “They’ve been playing sports since they came out of junior high. In order to get a fit for a dress from the ‘50s, you need a prepubescent girl.” She grins at my incredulous look. “And then they don’t have boobs! You can pad them out, but then they don’t have hips.”

Who would have guessed that a legal decree passed in 1972, designed to expand horizons for women in sports, the business world and beyond, would literally change the female shape?

Like many women in the 1970s, I benefited from that law when I rejoined the labor force and landed a job with equal pay for equal work. But I confess that other than cheering the Education Amendments of 1972 and the revolution it brought for girls and women, I hadn’t paid any attention to the sports angle. Our family has never been sports-minded, although our two sons participated in high school gymnastics and wrestling. Our daughter loved swimming but wasn’t interested in being on the swim team.

Now, as I study the black dress, the one I have hung onto for almost fifty years because of the shimmering memories it contains, I see it with different eyes. The tiny waist — was my waist really so small? It must have been. I have pictures to prove it. Of course, an impossibly tight panty girdle helped sculpt that waistline. Today I hate even to wear pantyhose with a “control” top.

I’ve never thought of sports as a fashion changer, yet it’s another way athletics has influenced our gender. Most styles have become looser, more comfortable, easier to wear. In the details of this dress, students who study clothing design can read the social history of a decade. They may giggle at the indented waist or puzzle why young women once put up with such restrictive clothing. But I wonder if they’ll ever know how much their freedom to wear jeans and T-shirts came from a dusty law known simply as Title IX.


The Long Shot of Tennis

“How about a game of tennis?” Denise, our tour guide, asked me. A Texan in her mid-thirties, she played racquetball to keep fit.

I was in my mid-sixties. I’d played tennis off and on with my children and friends, but I’d never played in China. I was there to chaperone students from the college where I taught.

“I’d love it.”

We met on the hotel’s court at six o’clock the next morning. After volleying a few balls, we began the game. We were well matched, but soon I hit the winning point. “We still have time for another game,” I said.

“That’s enough,” she answered and walked off the court.

I didn’t think any more about it. But the game wasn’t over yet. I finished the tour and returned home.

A year later, I was back in China on a lecture tour, and again Denise was my guide, traveling with me from town to town. On our second stop, a restaurant owner invited us to dinner. Walking down a wide street to get there, we passed a man sitting on his haunches, holding a stick over the curb. A live snake dangled over the stick. Being squeamish about snakes, I wanted to hurry by as fast as possible. But Denise didn’t walk any faster.

Seated at a round table in the restaurant, we enjoyed conversing with our Chinese host and savoring the foods he had prepared especially for us. At end of the meal, a bowl of soup was set before each of us. I tasted the clear broth, then fished a small piece of meat from the bottom of the bowl and nibbled on it. “It tastes like chicken, but it can’t be,” I thought. “It has too many tiny bones in it.”

When we finished eating, Denise announced that we had just eaten snake soup, made from the snake we passed on the street. She had asked the owner to send someone out to buy it and have it turned into soup.

Snake soup! Oh! No! My stomach started churning. I couldn’t believe I’d eaten snake. But I knew I couldn’t say anything. I had to be sure our Chinese host would “save face.” So with great effort, I regained control of my stomach, and when we left, I thanked him for his hospitality.

A couple of years later, Denise visited the American campus where I taught. Speaking to the student body, she told them with a laugh that she had gotten even with me for beating her at tennis — she had tricked me into eating snake soup.

I haven’t played tennis since.


Twice in My Life

Twice in my life I raised my hand when I shouldn’t have.

“Who wants to be in the race?” my fifth-grade teacher asked.

My hand shot up.

I loved running and believed I could beat anyone.

“You’re crazy,” my brother told me that lunch hour, “you can barely even skate.”

An ice skating race? Jeepers, I hadn’t been paying attention. Not running. Skating.

Friday night the other girls lined up for the race in their little skirts and white figure skates. My long pants didn’t quite cover my brother’s hand-me-down brown hockey skates. They stood tall and straight while my ankles bent. I don’t remember who came first but I vividly remember who came last.

Fifteen years later at my first faculty meeting as a brand new junior high math teacher, the principal asked for a volunteer to coach the girls’ basketball team. This time my hand did not shoot up. But neither did any other hand. “If no one volunteers,” the principal said, “the girls will not play this year.”

My hand stayed down.

He repeated his request. It felt like an auction. Going, going — my hand went up — gone.

I’d never played basketball. Never. In eighth grade I had tried out for the team but was rejected. I hadn’t touched a basketball since my unsuccessful tryout.

I had three months to prepare and prepare I did. Every weekend I dribbled and shot. I would have passed if there had been someone to pass to. In spite of my diligence, my dribble didn’t improve; I couldn’t maintain control when my eyes left the ball; my shots rarely dropped in.

The first half of our first practice, the girls ran, passed and dribbled. But then they demanded time to shoot, pointing out that that’s how you score the points.

“All right,” I said, “and who would like to demonstrate?”

Fortunately two of my players were skilled with lay-ups and jump shots and one could even do a hook. So I was saved the humiliation of shooting and missing.

During our first game the girls had been playing for a good ten minutes when an exhausted player jogged by me asking for a sub. “Hang in there,” I told her, “you’re doing great.” I had no idea how to sub a player in. A few minutes later the other coach subbed someone in, so I could too.

I don’t remember who won that season but I do know we didn’t lose. We placed near the top. Not because I could coach. I couldn’t. But because I had two great players.

The next year a competent coach relieved me of my duties. Ironically the girls, quoting me as an authority, resisted her. However, the coach did appreciate that the girls had taken to heart one of my dictums: when you’re near the basket, your hands should always be raised.


See Nan Run

I am an athlete but my life did not begin that way.

“I pick Billy!”

“I pick Sally!”

And so it would continue until every child but me was chosen for the neighborhood baseball games. I knew my place and would join the team as “last child picked.” I could not hit the ball or throw it and I never understood the strategies involved in stealing bases. Still, I continued to show up for the games.

My mother enrolled me in dance class to help me find balance because I would “trip over the pattern in the rug” as she told her friends when she thought I couldn’t hear. I failed at every sport I tried. I wasn’t coordinated enough for tennis. I learned to dog paddle, but not to swim. Team sports were out of the question.

As I aged, I tried karate, but couldn’t get past the white belt. Fly-fishing? I tangled the line on every cast. Target shooting? I flinched and missed the target repeatedly. Golf? I got worse with each game.

I was hopeless. Until I discovered running. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? No real skill involved. No coordination. No little ball to hit with a stick. Just put one foot in front of the other as quickly as possible and don’t stop until you cross the finish line. I could do this!

I ran during my daughter’s teenage years, past my divorce, loneliness and anger, beyond substance abuse and menopause, and through deaths and despair. I ran my way to sanity.

2006 had become my year for living the slogan “Just Do It.” So it was only natural to put my running shoes back on and start training for the half marathon division of the Lost Dutchman Marathon in Apache Junction, Arizona.

As the day of the race approached, I grew apprehensive. I had trained for only two months. It had been twenty years since my last real race. I set four goals for the race: don’t hurt myself; don’t look stupid; finish; and finish in two and a half hours.

I crossed the finish line in two hours and forty minutes, without wetting my pants, with nothing worse than a big painful knot in the muscle of my right leg. I would have made my time if I had trained on hills. Not knowing that there would be so many steep grades caused the muscle spasms and slowed me down in the final mile. There were buff marathon runners limping up that final hill right next to me. I beat many people, which I did not expect, and ranked number seven in my division. Next time I will do better.

(At one point in the race, I ran past a water station, staffed by The Red Hat Ladies. As I pointed to my red running visor, I could hear one of them exclaim, “Look, she is one of us!”)

The endorphins are still surging, for you see I may be a great-grandmother, but I am also an athlete and I have the medal to prove it.


Teed-Off

When my husband bought me golf clubs for my birthday, it reminded me of the time my brother gave me Superman comic books for Christmas. That was okay, ‘cuz I gave him Little Lulu. As I had no equivalent gift for my husband, I took up golf. With my red leather glove, red bag, and red tees, I looked like I belonged on a Christmas tree, not a golf course.

In those early days of my former marriage, I watched Sunday football (“What color is our team?”), baked bread, clipped coupons, even tried to learn to knit, and left writing on the shelf where it festered and fumed.

The first time I used my clubs was when I locked myself out of our red Subaru: I pushed the putter through a crack in the window. It took only five tries to hit the lock button. Proof that my swing didn’t need as much work as my husband said it did. Although I got paint all over the handle of my putter, at least it was red paint.

The last time I used my clubs, my husband had invited me to “round out” a foursome. I was thrilled. Maybe golf had some redeeming qualities. Later I learned that at the last minute the fourth player had canceled, and my husband and his friends needed “someone” in order to get a tee time.

Where others took one swing, I took six or seven, sometimes ten “good tries.” But I kept my head down and my arm straight. I concentrated on my follow-through. Versed in the etiquette of the sport, I even muffled my enthusiasm when a red-shafted flicker landed on the ball washer while my husband was teeing off.

When my ball had taken enough abuse and sought refuge in a bed of thistles, three knights in shining condescension offered to help me look for it.

“Of course I know the brand name of my ball,” I said. “We’re looking for a German-make: “Tit-leist.”

Watching a trio of grown men roll their eyes to the tops of their sockets made me only more adamant about my right to be right, so I spelled it for them. T-i-t-l-e-i-s-t. Oh. The light from my own innocence, or ignorance, blinded me. Right then I knew I would never “round out” another foursome.

I remember presenting a similar problem to Ms. Ludlow, my third-grade reading teacher, when I insisted on saying “now-here” instead of “no-where.” I wonder if she would have been as unforgiving about Tit-leist.

So I hung up my golf clubs and picked up my pen. When I write, I can say what I mean even if I can’t pronounce it. I don’t have to keep my arm straight or my head down, and I don’t have to be quiet when a red-shafted flicker catches my eye. But the best part about writing is I can tee off any time, any place, about anything.


Ice Skating

Each winter, sometime after Thanksgiving, Dad began the ice pond. First, he shoveled all the snow from the flat part of the yard until the dark, crusted grass showed. He packed the dirty snow around the edges of the trapezoidal patch. Sometimes we tried to help – a crew of lively elves bouncing around in the mud and muck. Finally, patiently, gently, he began to spray the whole mess with the hose. Layer after layer, the glassy surface froze: a slick, delicious icing that became our pond.

I had tucked all this somewhere in the back of dim memories, until, from some magical place, a photo reappeared. It was one of those glossy, black and white pictures with scalloped edges, somehow all the more vivid because of its lack of color. The grinning girls in the picture had paused in their skating to pose for the camera. It was all as familiar as yesterday: the warmth of the jackets, the texture of the hats, the multicolored mittens, the heaviness of the skates digging into the new ice, the ice itself as it marred and dulled from use, and its wondrous renewal into a sleek mirror after a bucket of hot water was splashed over the surface, filling in the cracks and holes.

I remembered how I had nimbly swirled and turned, then slammed into the rocky rim to stop. Stopping was always the hardest, no matter what style of skate had been plucked from the skate box. There were dull double runners that strapped onto boots or shoes, sometimes held on with extra shoelaces. There were boys’ brown hockey skates and hand-me-down figure skates with improbably thin blades and saw tooth tips designed for stopping. A few extra socks did double duty for warmth and padding. One year, there were even shiny new skates under the tree, their polished white boots nearly begging for some fancy rink with blinking lights and waltz music.

On those rare, quiet nights, when others were tucked inside with homework or other projects, the homemade pond provided peace and happiness. I swung alone on its sleek surface, in the shadows of the swaying porch light. A ringed moon hung above as decoration, while my blades cut the sleek surface with a long sigh. The pond was the best gift I had ever received; I wished the winter and the night would never end. I became a swan, no longer a girl, scissoring my empty lake with joyous leaps and turns, in celebration.

 


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