on being an elite athlete

If there’s one thing people always say about me, it is that I am a naturally gifted athlete.

Oh wait, no they don’t. As a child I did not excel at sports. I was not even mediocre at sports. I was very bad at them.

I went to a hippie ‘family school’ that didn’t believe in competition. We didn’t enter into sports competitions with other schools (besides the annual track and field city-wide meet where our school T-shirts featuring flowers with happy faces were roundly disparaged) and we didn’t receive grades in PE. Or in anything! We were instilled with the notion that putting in a spirited effort was the most important thing.

Thus was borne my mistaken belief that I could be a successful athlete if I tried hard enough.

I tried numerous different athletic activities. I was certain that I would be a natural, and an absolute prodigy once I found just the right sport. I hadn’t ever tried Long Jump, so I was fairly sure that the first time I tried it I would miraculously fly farther than anyone had ever jumped in the sandpit, and that my teachers and classmates would nod knowingly: They had found the city’s new long jump champion. The results of my attempts were underwhelming.

I signed up for soccer. I played soccer for like, four years? I DON’T KNOW WHY. My parents didn’t make me do it or anything. I voluntarily took part. I never once scored a goal or assisted in a goal in all of those years, and every game I hoped the ball wouldn’t come my way. It frightened me when a horde of big aggressive jock-girls would come barrelling after the ball, and I tried to steer clear altogether. My big moment came when I stepped right out of my cleat on the muddy field and for some reason was carried off the pitch to put my shoe back on. I was kind of delicate.

Sometimes I joined in the constant rolling game of all boys street hockey at the end of our dead end street. I occasionally played goalie, and I have tried to start an urban legend that I was so tough I never wore any pads or gloves. This is true – but I think I probably played hockey like five times and I just couldn’t figure out how to coordinate the gear.

I went to soccer camp one year, tennis camp another. I tried both sprinting and distance running, but found that neither speed nor endurance was my running specialty. I was not good at any of the sports.

High school was a rude awakening as regards the virtue of putting in a spirited effort. My first PE grade was, I think, a B. I was hella confused, and spoke to our gym teacher about it. ‘So, what would I have to do to get an A?’ I asked, probably slightly aggressively. ‘You’d have to be like Susie Smith (noted jock)’, she replied. I questioned the logic of this argument, but there was no budging.

Another time, later,  J and I received a poor grade in ‘net games’, the PE class that all the elite athletes obviously chose. We were ALWAYS enthusiastic, we argued, particularly when it came to Ping Pong. Another weary gym teacher finally conceded to changing our grades, I think mostly so she wouldn’t have to listen to us anymore. We were an extremely persistent duo and perhaps somewhat of an acquired taste.

All of this is funny because as an adult I am someone who competes in a community baseball league and is at the gym every morning at 6am, without fail.

Oh wait, no I’m not.

When I lived in Leeds my husb and I went through a brief phase of playing badminton after work. Yet again, I had that giddy, excited feeling: Maybe I am a secret badminton prodigy. Incorrect. I always lost, and I was not really great tempered about it either. Once we went skiing and on the first little hill I sped way, way past him and when he finally joined me at the bottom he said ‘wow, that was impressive!’ and I was hyperventilating because I actually just couldn’t remember how to slow down.

I KEEP TRYING. Last summer for a minute I considered joining a friend’s Dragon Boat team, forgetting the fact that I am neither strong nor coordinated or good at early mornings. I would be an actual team liability.

Occasionally I find myself amongst the type of people who like to ‘toss a Frisbee around’ or ‘play a casual game of catch’ and I briefly panic, as though I am about to be exposed. Recently I was out with the niece and nephew and a bunch of friends and family, and a hula hoop appeared. One friend demonstrated a fancy way to throw it, and then others followed suit. I tried a bunch of times: no dice. The hula hoop sadly fell to the ground. Later, I was describing this scene to my Mum. ‘Oh, the snapping it back trick? I can’t do that either,’ she said. I come by it honestly.


  1. Mary · February 23, 2016

    AAAH! Oh my god, you just summed me up completely with this–I am the exact same (except sub badminton for mountain biking with a boyfriend, and then see: me crashing my bike the first time out, while on a crowded walking path near the ocean. I saw him easily hop up a curb and thought I could do the same?)
    On another outing with the same boyfriend there was an impromptu game of volleyball and it was terrible. I feel like I’m beyond the age now that anyone would ask me to play something (and I’m definitely of the age where I can just say no!) but the fear lives on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • clawmarksonit · February 25, 2016

      Oh god, the mountain biking. I considered it… then stayed away.


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