Monday, February 8, 2010

Yes, I competed in the Olympics.

One morning this week, I watched a group of six adults run laps around the soccer field next to the dog park. One was more athletic and eventually passed (several times) all those who straggled behind and were forced to walk. And as usual, I sat on my bench and tried to get motivated to exercise more.

I was never an athletic child. Sure, I took dancing lessons, played in the hills behind our house, skied at our local ski resort, and went to the public pool every summer, but I was never considered athletic. I did win first place in the skipping contest in second grade, but I was always one of the last girls chosen when we picked teams in gym class.

Despite this, when I was ten years old I signed up to be in the regional Girl Scout Olympics and run the 880-yard race in the big town of Bloomington. I have no idea what possessed me. Maybe I didn’t want to be left out. Maybe I liked feeling important when adding my name to the list. Most likely, I didn’t know how far 800 yards was!

While I remember very little of that big Olympics day, the race itself is very clear. I was the only contestant there from my hometown, and I realized at the starting line that I was way out of my league. This was no longer the Girl Scouts; this was like the Olympics I had seen on TV. These girls did not look like ten-year-old me. They were tall, lean, and chiseled. They stretched at the starting line and warmed up, knowingly. I looked at them out of the corner of my eye, copying the way they put their feet on the starting blocks.

The gun fired and we were off. I began running, trying desperately to look like I belonged. Most of the girls easily broke away from the group and picked up the pace. I kept running, trying not to think about how tired my legs were. This was far longer than I expected, and the end was nowhere in sight.

The girls were all far in front of me now, and I began to get embarrassed. I fought the urge to cry, and instead adjusted my arms to the position the other runners used. I tried not to imagine what the bystanders were thinking as they watched me straggling behind.

Eventually as the race went on, a runner moved to the side and slowed to a walk. As I passed, she leaned over with her hands on her knees in exhaustion. “She’s quitting!” I realized in surprise. And as I continued, another girl slowed to a walk, then another.

I kept running. By this time I had very little energy left. But I kept running. We had gone around the track 1½ times when I began to cry. I was tired and embarrassed and overwhelmed and wanted my mom. By now I had no semblance of form left. I saw the tallest, most graceful girl cross the finish line far ahead of me, with her arms thrown above her head and her back arched against the tape. An eternity later, I crossed the finish, my arms and legs flailing wildly, and sobbing uncontrollably. I kept running straight into my mother’s arms.

At the time, the race was not a momentous occasion. Mom cleaned me up and we drove home, stopping for ice cream on the way.

But looking back I am very proud of that day. Now when I face obstacles as an adult, I see my 3rd place ribbon and remember that somewhere deep down I have an inner strength. The little girl in me remembers that I am not a quitter. I may flail a little and shed a few tears, but overall I can hang on through anything.

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