Being athletic served as a powerful defense against children who were mean to me. My athletic accomplishments and successes made them reluctant to criticize me for fear that they would be labeled jealous, and certainly they were too slow to take me on so they left me alone. From as early as I could remember, I was the fastest girl in my school, and until about sixth grade, I could beat most boys in a foot race. I was always the first person chosen for any athletic contest.
My athletic competence was surprising given how painfully shy I was (I suspect that I was expected to perform as meekly as I behaved). When I visited my aunt and her children in California one summer, I spent most days inside for fear of going outside and having to engage the other children. When I did, they thought that I was the one to choose last for their games. In a round of foot racing, I destroyed the competition and I can recall my cousin’s confusion. “You didn’t think I could run, did you,” I asked her. Though she acted as though she had not heard me, she decided never to race me again. In fact, she knew how her playmates perceived me and decided to allow their version of me to persist so that she could dominate them in their games by keeping my talents to herself.
Though I could run fast and excelled in any sport I ever tried, I never liked the contests. I never identified with the outcome of athletic success. It never lived up to my expectations. One of my coaches was greatly skilled at crafting narratives of success that made you want to have a starring role in his tales. I wanted to be among those champions who had excelled through hard work and limited resources to defy expectations and establish myself in the record books. In fact, I had a vague familiarity with my future teammates because I had read about them in the newspaper each week. They were an improbable lot. A group of high achieving runners at a small, all-girls, Catholic school with no running track to speak of. They set state records, won state titles, and were academic standouts. I wanted to be like them.
Eventually, I would be. I won state titles, established state records, was widely recruited and finally settled on an athletic scholarship to the University of Kentucky. One of my former teammates and very good friends was the person who called me to tell me that I had been accepted into the University of Michigan. I had visited her for one of my recruiting visits and though I enjoyed spending time with her, she seemed miserable. Plus, Michigan did not seem to respect women athletes as much as I thought was necessary. I recall being shown the basketball and football training facilities and then being told that while other teams could request to use them, most often they were denied. Though I would be offered a scholarship, I was always concerned about the cost of attending. Somewhere in me, I knew that I was not going to complete college on an athletic scholarship. As far as I was concerned, Michigan cost too much.
Kentucky was affordable. And it needed to be because I gave up my scholarship at the end of my first year. I could no longer compel myself to care enough about performing well to work as hard as I needed to in order to be successful. Winning itself, wasn’t compelling enough–it was out of reach for me though, even if it had been.
What I realized sometime later is that I believed in the promise of meaning that winning offered. Though I could not have articulated this when I was younger, I definitely thought that winning would make the meaning of life less vague. I thought it would give it certainty and clarity. Thus, I thought winning would be a transformative experience. But when I won, nothing changed.