What happened when this writer called it quits? She learned some valuable lessons
As a person of a certain age, I can remember when sport wasn’t so casual in its character building agenda. When I was in sixth grade, my relay team was chosen to represent our school in the interdiocesan races. I wasn’t a strong runner, but at five inches taller than every other kid in my school, the PE teacher hoped my stride would hold the lead my ridiculously fast teammates obtained in the first three lengths. Her hopes were dashed when I not only lost our two-length lead, I finished the race dead last. To make matters even more colorful, the crowd—students and parents alike—actually booed me. There was no everybody wins trophy, no consolation trip to the local pizza joint, and my mother’s response to my burning lungs (and shame) was, “Well, you’ll try harder next time.”
My athletic exploits elsewhere weren’t any better. Always the last picked for any sport, my mother thought perhaps my body-brain disconnect might be helped by an after school tumbling class. I wasn’t interested in tumbling; I wanted to play basketball. Eventually we compromised and I signed up for both. After my first tumbling class, I promptly broke my arm practicing a back walkover in the living room. Fast forward five years to my arm breaking during basketball practice—on the day the team was to be announced. I often wonder what that decision would have been.
For a long time, because I enjoyed swimming so much, I thought I’d do well on a swim team. When I finally joined a swim team at 13, I was near immediately disabused of that idea. Not only wasn’t I a swimming savant, everyone made fun of me, even the five-year-olds. My involvement in swim team became a huge source of conflict in my house and my mother’s previously successful fallback—but I paid so much money for you to do X—stopped working on me. After several weeks of my begging her to let me quit, she resorted to the only thing she could think of: Go talk to your father.
I remember more about that conversation than any other I had with my father during my adolescence, not because the content was much different, but because nature so closely echoed how I felt. We stood on the small front porch, in the oppressive tidewater summer, with a thunderstorm blackening the horizon. He was silent for a little bit, staring at the black clouds silently blooming towards us, and told me quietly that the choice to quit was mine. He quickly followed that my life was soon to become more complicated, and that I would be faced with many choices like this one, where things would only come to me through my own hard, unappreciated labor. He said he would be disappointed if he found out that I gave up an opportunity at any point in my life to continue improving my personal best—as I had been the previous few weeks on swim team—just because I wasn’t the best. As it began to rain, he left me to consider our conversation carefully, but added that if I decided to quit, it wasn’t a question of just not going to practice any longer. I had to tell the coach myself. In person.
I think my father hoped that telling the coach “I quit” would be humiliating enough that I wouldn’t go through with it. This was a miscalculation on his part because I didn’t respect my coach in the least. In part because he didn’t stop the other kids from being mean to me, but also because he rolled up to practice every day, music blaring out of his silver T-topped Z28, his feathered white blonde hair left unmussed by the wind, with a ridiculously white smile made even more blinding by his lifeguard tan. Where the other girls swooned, I thought he was full of himself. So it was with freedom from everything swim team in my sights that I marched boldly into swim practice that day to give him my immediate resignation.
But a funny thing happened: He put swim practice on hold, put one of the older kids in charge of a water all-play, and took me into the clubhouse. He told me that he was personally offended that I would decide to quit without talking to him first. He said that the other kids were jerks, that most of them had been on swim team since they were three, and that they didn’t know what it meant to work really hard for their wins. Oh, sure, they got their butts kicked by practice, and he was hard on them for sure, but theirs was nothing like the growth experience I’d had that summer, playing ten years of catch-up in two and a half months. Then he cajoled me, saying that I wasn’t putting my whole self into it—because I hated it so much, I was obviously holding back something which might make me a winner. There were many other things said during that conversation which have since fallen away, but I remember being alternately annoyed that I could see through his manipulations and completely floored that some of what he said was right. I left that conversation understanding that he was possessed of more charm than I’d originally seen, even if he did look like Barbie’s boyfriend.
I wish I could say that there was some meaningful meet that summer wherein I smoked every person in the pool, or even that I decided to come back and do it again the next summer. But I did neither. Instead, with these two men’s guidance, I was able to finally see that I actually needed to stay and finish the season, even though I was still getting my hat handed to me every single day. From my father, the obvious: work hard because you want to improve yourself, and screw the people who try to keep you down—and for God’s sake, don’t let one of the people keeping you down be you. From the coach, the not so obvious: sometimes part of the process of coming to the finish line involves desperately wanting to quit, accepting your own defeat while still pushing blindly forward, and welcoming support from an unexpected ally.