Olympian dreams

There is a major disconnect between my head and my body. My head thinks it’s 18, my body? Well, my body knows it’s closer to sunset than sunrise. So, it is in the dark of night when that older me is in repose that I can indulge the dreams of that perennial teenager. When I can stroll the Olympic Village and weigh which sport I will grant the reward of my considerable athletic talent.

As a young child, growing up a lefty, I dreamed of being the first female Whitey Ford, the left-handed pitcher for the New York Yankees who was a 10-time MLB All-Star and played in six World Series. Funnily enough, it never occurred to me, then, that that was an aspiration worthy of Don Quixote. Never, never, never would a woman play in the major leagues, and never for the Yankees. The handicap of my girl-ness would take years to seep past my thick-headed resistance to gender politics. In the meantime, I spent hours perfecting my pitching skills playing catch with my father in the backyard, including learning how to throw a fast ball, a knuckle ball and even the illegal spitball. Another odd thing: He never mentioned, never let on at all, that there would be absolutely no place, not the majors, nor the minors, nor the Olympics where it wasn’t an official sport yet, not even high school, for me to take the gift I worked so diligently to perfect. That was probably his cockeyed optimism shining through — his best hope for a professional athlete wasn’t a son but this scrappy daughter. Just like he was all for women at Princeton if it meant I could attend. When it turned out PU wouldn’t take transfers upon becoming co-ed, he masked his disappointment in a change of heart about girls at his beloved alma mater.

When I came home dejected one day when I was about 10 and complained too my father that my best friend, next door neighbor and first basketball coach wouldn’t play H-O-R-S-E with me anymore, my father folded me in his arms. This was his method for absorbing my big disappointments when justice went south and the world was too seriously askew for my meager coping skills. ‘Why not, kid? Why won’t Charlie play with you anymore?’ When I explained that I had won the last 30-odd games and that Charlie had stormed off the court propelled by his own form of discouragement, my father held me at arms length and said in perfect earnestness, ‘Can’t you let Charlie win just once?’

Throw a game? Lose on purpose? Why would I do that? Wasn’t his mantra always Try Your Hardest? Do Your Best? The mark of a true sportsman, he had opined on many occasions, was to always go for the gold. Then either win with humility or, if necessity and the score demanded it, be gracious in defeat. But deliberately lose? Wasn’t that as bad, if not an actual form of, cheating?

It was years before I understood my father’s sympathy for poor Charlie, for his counsel to put another’s self-respect above my own need to win. That to do so was even bigger than another notch on the gun barrel. A concept too profound, too grown-up for me at that point. I didn’t want to win the Largesse-of-Spirit trophy, however desirable my father hinted it might be; I wanted to win. Period.

Of course, it was also sexist, my father’s advice. I accept that. Male honor, and all that. Nowadays, I don’t care so much about winning. No wait. That’s a lie. I care very much about playing to win. The ‘don’t care’ part is because I recognize that on the playing fields of real life, my time on the starting team has long gone.

But the dreams live on.  I drag around this battered old body by day but at night, in the sacred dark, I am dribbling toward gold.

— Belle Songer



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