When Everyone Got A Trophy
It was January 1998. I was thirteen and beginning what would be the greatest season of my tennis career. The first big tournament was in Santa Barbara with 128 juniors battling to start the year off right. I had reached the Round of 16 and my opponent was John Mano – a familiar name near the top of the USTA Southern California Rankings. To this point the highest ranking I had reached was in the forties, back when I was in the 12 & Under division.
We met for the first time on the beaten up, lightning fast tennis courts of SB High. We split sets and in the middle of a third set tiebreaker it happened – the absolute worst pain I had ever felt in my life, a full-blown cramp in my left quad. It was like someone was ripping my muscles apart. My leg had a heartbeat. Writhing in pain on the ground, it appeared to everyone I was done, down 5-1 in the tiebreaker and now on one leg. After an injury timeout I went back on the court; at this point you have to, it’s almost over and your dad will never let you live it down. And somehow I won. I sidearm served and limped my way to victory. It was without a doubt the proudest I’ve ever been of myself. That year I finished ranked twelfth in Southern California and was invited to play National Hard Courts in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was the greatest sports year of my life.
The most ridiculous sports moment of my tennis career also involved John Mano. A year later we competed in the quarterfinals of a much smaller tournament. Due to family travel, I was going to be unable to play the next round if I were to beat Mano. I had decided that the cool thing to do was to go out there and kick his ass, and when I was one point from victory, retire. My dad and coach had agreed to this plan. I just wanted Mano to know I was better than him, but be cool and give him the opportunity to win the tournament because I couldn’t. I won the first set 6-2 and was up 5-3 with match point in the second. I began to walk up to the net to shake his hand when my dad and tennis coach feverishly waved me off. Fucking tennis dads, so greedy for the points and the rankings. What they had realized is that retiring would count as a loss and possibly affect my rankings whereas a default in the semifinals would not. As if twenty years later any of us gives a shit about that. My tennis coach is dead and so is my career. In any case, I continued to play and fully collapsed. I didn’t win another game that set, and got demolished 6-1 in the third. I wouldn’t say I lost on purpose, but I do remember having a sense of calm afterwards, an unfamiliar post-loss feeling on a long drive home next to Dad. I think a part of me didn’t want to win – I felt like I wasn’t doing the right thing and changing the plan ultimately cost me the loss. Fucking John Mano. You played a role in making me who I am today. I wonder where the hell you are?
Many of us Californians remember the summer of 1999 as a time of rolling blackouts, when we were left without electricity for hours on end. It was the same summer Eminem’s mother took him to court for defamation of character over his lyric “My mother smokes more dope than I do.” I like to remember that summer for my glorious softball pitching debut.
I’d been taking pitching lessons for a few months, perfecting my fast pitch, changeup and curveball. Then, on a typically hot summer day, I was finally called upon to start against our rival, the Fresno High Warriors. I remember standing on the mound, pretending to be calm and collected, an experienced pitcher ready to mow down another lineup. And I somehow played the part, striking out one batter after the next. The Warriors were furious. I’d start with a not-so-fast fastball right down the middle and follow it with a changeup that usually hit home plate. Then dealer’s choice, whatever I felt like throwing – down 0-2, the’d go for anything, swinging and missing, again and again. It was awesome. As the innings progressed, the Warriors’ fans — their parents — taunted me with insults, screeching something to the effect that I wasn’t very fast. It was true, I wasn’t – I was just completely confusing them with my arsenal of pitches. I didn’t care what they say. I was slow, they were losers.
Runners are a fucked up breed, marked by their precarious balance of self-care and masochism. I developed a taste for it early, as a hurdler in high school track and field. Most athletes have that one coach whose hardass tactics simultaneously help you figure out who you are and make you want to blow your brains out; we had Coach Owens, a tiny but tenacious Australian woman. “I don’t care if you’re tired,” she’d say cheerfully, as we all lay paralyzed on the grass. “When that gun goes off, you go. Balls to the wall, tits to the floor.” The rules were simple: give it all you’ve got, finish what you start, don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s high school track, you nerds.
I remember a hurdler was running his first 300m race, track and field’s response to Freud’s death drive. Tall, gangly, and awkward, the kid never stood a chance. As he jumped over the first hurdle, both of his feet got caught and he fell face first onto the turf. Nose and knees bloodied, he got up again and went for the second hurdle, only to somehow repeat his mistake. Like, put your hands out and catch yourself, dude. As I watched him faceplant over the fourth hurdle I realized this motherfucker was gonna hit every goddamn hurdle. By the end, our whole team had lined up along the inner track slow-clapping, murmuring words of encouragement and stifling our laughter. I never said we were nice kids. Our coach was ecstatic. “Good one, mate!” she cheered as he dragged himself over the last hurdle. “See, that’s a fucking runner!”
At the end of the season, he got one of those bullshit “you tried!” awards that kids my age grew up expecting. Later in our more informal ceremony (read: backwoods banger), over cheap beer and loose joints, we gave him the Most Likely to Eat Shit award. In the worst acceptance speech ever, he shotgunned a beer and tried to hurdle over a tree stump. He ate shit; we all laughed. Because if you’re ever going to survive being a masochist, you’ve got to figure out how to laugh at yourself, too.
Rowers are gross. Long mornings on the water in sweaty spandex, farts trapped in the bowels of the boat. Sharing athlete’s foot and Gatorade bottles to piss in, passing around tins of Kodiak – many harbor a dipping tobacco habit so as to preserve their lungs from the ravages of cigarettes. Rowers serve two masters, slaves to the boat and their bodies. Yet when the water is still, the technique sound, and the cadence right, those eight bodies become one, straining and releasing in unison, propelling the thin shell swiftly backward across the surface of the water. In those moments as you’re approaching a kind of oneness it can feel like you’re transcending your body and moving to the beat of eternity. But it doesn’t last, it never does, and you find yourself back with seven other high school boys somewhere in Ohio.
I remember one morning after practice we were lounging about the parking lot, lingering between the morning’s work and the day’s job. Long and tall Terp reclined in his tank top and spandex against the grassy rise of the curb, propped up on his elbows, spitting occasionally into a Coke can. He mentioned in passing that he really had to piss, but really didn’t want to get up. He sighed up into the summer sun, just one care in the world, nursing an inclination not strong enough to act upon. He asked no one in particular if he should just do it and figure things out later. Moments later he asked again, perhaps fishing for a dare. He said if he gave in we couldn’t tell poor Tim, his ride for the day. He asked again, and then he closed his eyes and groaned, describing the warmth spreading over his lycra crotch, limbs going limp. All was silent and still and constant. Tim came around the curve in his Accord, and Terp slinked into the passenger’s side for the drive back home.
The funny thing about nostalgia is it’s linked to irrelevancy – washed up athletes jump at any chance to talk about the good ol’ days. But here goes anyway: It was December 2010 and the setting was Hawaii. The whole surfing world descends to Oahu’s North Shore where the Pipeline wave decides world titles and makes careers. Having not had the best competitive year, I needed to shine in Hawaii.
After the Pipeline Masters event had ended one evening it was time for the groms — fresh blood in the surf world — to get out and prove their worth. With all my sponsor, Billabong’s execs watching, I confidently (and arrogantly) got into the water first and paddled hard into the first big wave I saw. I jumped to my feet, grabbed the rail of my surfboard and hoped for the best. Halfway down I felt myself sliding off my board, going down, back up, over the falls, and then power driven into the reef head first. After what felt like an eternity I came up, rattled and bleeding and in a slight panic. I looked around and rode the first wave I could to shore.
On the way in I could feel the blood running down my face, and my back and hips felt grazed from the reef. Approaching the sand, the lifeguards could see I had hurt myself and met me at the shoreline. Propping my arms over their shoulders they carried me up the beach. After a few steps I noticed everyone was looking at me – but no one was making eye contact. Their attention was focused on my waist and the expressions on their faces didn't seem sympathetic. Thinking it was my new reef wounds I looked down and FUUUUUUCK. My board shorts had ripped off entirely and my shrunken junk was on display for the crowd and photographers with their rather large lenses to see. I spent the next few weeks bribing them to not release the photos and getting teased by everyone on the North Shore.