I spent my formative years in a sports-obsessed southern town surrounded by girls who were good at sports, girls who loved watching sports, and girls who were good at sports and also loved watching sports. Unfortunately, as an anemic and noodle-bodied sloth with zero competitive instincts who was traumatized by the mere thought of physical discomfort, neither of these qualities applied to me.
For some reason, I did not concede to these deficiencies in myself until, essentially, adulthood. Growing up I came to believe that a vital factor of womanhood was athleticism, and that I, as a budding woman, was entitled to this athleticism. I was pretty sure that if I just worked hard and tried enough different types of sports, I would at some point be magically transformed into someone who looked scary in pony-braids and had adequate spatial reasoning skills. I was also a pragmatist who wanted to be popular, and knew that I would get invited to more things if I participated in the right after-school activities. None of it really worked out!
I don’t really know why I joined a swim team. I guess for the same reason anyone does anything when they’re 8 years old—out of a vague sense of jealousy, or because your mom decides it’s a good idea. My mom has always told me the story of how impressed she was when I “auditioned” (I think this “audition” was just to make sure I wouldn’t drown; to be clear, I have never participated on a team that required tryouts); apparently I tried very, very hard, thrashing red-faced up and down the lane. “Okay, but I worked really hard at it...and was still terrible,” I recently explained to her over the phone. “That’s really sad!”
“No, it’s not,” she said, and then after a second: “It was kind of intense, though.”
Because swimming is not a contact sport, I found it less emotionally shocking than I would future endeavors; I always kind of assumed I was doing well until the end of the race, when I inevitably finished dead last. Once and only once, at my final swim meet, did I finish the race before someone else. The knowledge that one person was a worse swimmer than me was both a comfort and a thrill, which I don’t think was the lesson I was supposed to have learned.
I remember very, very little about this, but am still, 17 years later, appalled that it happened. Here’s what I do remember: it was a YMCA summer league, I was lured into it by the seductive sweep of my crush’s brunette bowl cut, and no one ever thought to explain the rules of basketball to me. I immediately scored on my own team, ran off the court, and hid behind a van in the parking lot.
Since my middle school had about 200 students, none of our sports teams could be described as “elite,” or even “good,” but our cheerleading squad was exceptionally neither. As I’ve mentioned, the fact that I participated means that there were no tryouts. No one on the squad was very familiar with the basics of gymnastics. I wrongly took this to mean that here, finally, was a place I might shine.
The summer before school, we went to cheerleading camp at the University of Kentucky, which was then and remains still one of the most chilling experiences of my life. Cheerleaders tend to be incredible athletes, and we were, to put it politely, out of our league—there were four-year-olds present who knew their shit better—and every day, I would walk outside to a crushing wave of thousands of perky miniature people who all appeared to lack a certain necessary fear of death, and coaches who, more alarmingly, seemed to want me specifically to die via head injury.
Right before school started, we spent a few days at a training gym where we worked on things like cartwheels and headstands, at which point it became clear to myself and everyone else that I could not do either of those things. When first arranging us into formation, after a long day of watching me crab-rolling around the gym, the coach sized me up and disappeared me into the last row, even though I was a foot shorter than everyone else.
My school didn’t have a football team, so we cheered at basketball games against other weird private schools. Standing behind the basket at games—and these were generally pretty tepid experiences except for our humiliating halftime efforts—I would learn to be afraid of the ball even when I was not directly playing with the ball, a fear that is still with me today.
Soccer was never a game that I was good at or even okay at, but as you can see by these dates, this is not a fact that I accepted easily. I tended to be fine during practice but would freeze in an actual game context; whenever a ball came towards me I would behave in the same way I do when there is a large bug on me, which is to say that I would panic and kick it literally anywhere, at anyone. My various coaches would quickly learn of this tendency to accidentally pass to the other team, so I spent a lot of time eating oranges on the bench and getting my foot wrapped by the medic.
My most serious soccer injury occurred in 8th grade, when we were warming up before a game. We were scrimmaging casually, and, never one to look around before moving, I ran into my teammate Andi’s forehead and broke my nose (I think her head was fine). At first, nobody believed that my nose was broken, because it wasn’t bleeding, so I just sat on the field holding it until our assistant coach picked me up and carried me away in front of the entire team. To this day, I do not understand a) why she did this, b) how she did this, or c) why I let her. Sometimes, when the broken bones question comes up on a date, I will tell them vaguely that I broke my nose playing soccer, and they will seem impressed. I guess I can’t do that anymore.
There were plenty of sports that I never tried, and several that I quit as soon as things got weird. I quit horseback riding lessons after someone’s pony stepped in a hole and all the horses started galloping before we’d learned how to gallop and a girl fell off and got taken away in an ambulance. I quit windsurfing after trying it once at camp and spending the entire activity hour stranded on a rock on the other side of the lake. I quit ballet around age 7 because I wasn’t flexible enough and my teacher kept making me do hard stuff; I was also very turned off by my peers’ tendency to wear giant underpants under their leotards.
There are also sports I’m good at, like rock climbing, or playing tennis against someone who has never played tennis, or finding a seat on the subway during rush hour. But the point is that in my uniquely graceless and uncoordinated case, perseverance in this particular area was not a value that worked in my favor. Instead of, say, learning to play the guitar, I was having surgery to reattach my nose bones and praying to Jesus on a basketball court, choking on hairspray fumes.
The consistent presence of sports in my life, paired with my stubborn inability to be good at playing them, did not so much make me a stronger person as it did a person convinced of her own essential uselessness. I consider that, and that alone, a valuable life lesson.
Image by one of the author’s parents; gif by Bobby Finger.