Over the last few days, my facebook feed has been filled with messages and obituary articles about a beloved figure at my high school, Coach Z. He was a social studies teacher and a track coach, and he passed away leaving a tremendous legacy of students and runners and co-workers who loved him and remember him fondly. Everyone, EVERYONE has stories about Coach EZ.
I didn't have him as a teacher, but he was my coach for a time. And while to call myself an athlete would be an incredible overstatement, he was an amazing leader and motivator and I learned so much from the way that he coached.
Particularly because I sucked.
I didn't join track because I loved running. I joined track my sophomore year of high school because one of my best friends convinced me that we needed to join a sport -- "Colleges like well-rounded applicants and we don't play a sport--we need to play a sport." I felt pretty well-rounded -- I sang in the choir, I played violin in the orchestra and occasional quartets, I was getting involved in musical theater both in the Pit and on the stage... but she was right. There was no sport, and everything was arts, and so I had more of a lopsided shape than a round one.
"But I'm not coordinated! I hate sports with balls! I won't make the team, no matter what we pick," I wailed, knowing that my only athletic experience was P.E. And in P.E, my experience was primarily getting hit with balls: getting hit in the head with a basketball even when I was sitting against the wall and not playing, getting hit in the head with foul softballs, getting a direct hit in the gut with a soccerball.
"We'll do track! It's a team, but it's not a team like basketball or soccer. It'll be perfect."
Oy. We went, and we did our warm up and stretches, and then everyone (including myself) quickly realized just how much I sucked.
As in, I couldn't even make it once around the track without stopping. I was skinny at the time, but woefully out of shape and fairly recently diagnosed with asthma. I had terrible joints. It did not bode well.
But did I get kicked off the team? NO. Coach Zem encouraged me to work harder, to make it all the way around the track and to get my muscles into shape. He knew I was not going to be a star. But I didn't have to be a dud, either.
When we started races, I ran the 1500m and the 800m. Although to be fair, to say that I ran is not quite accurate. I shuffled the 1500m and the 800m. I came in last, EVERY SINGLE TIME, and not by a little bit. By as much as an entire lap. Which meant I was often "running" by myself for a painfully long time.
But I was determined to get this, if not to be some miracle track star breakout then to prove that I COULD DO IT. And I didn't feel ignored or like my coach was aggravated by my incredible lack of talent. I felt encouraged to try to make my body do this running thing better each time, to run those stairs and hills faster and faster, to run around the track without stopping until I at least didn't utterly suck.
It was hard. In the beginning (and actually, even later when I wasn't so sucktastic), people were mean. I had a girl approach me in the cafeteria and say, "Why don't you just quit? You're not only embarrassing yourself, you're embarrassing THE SCHOOL. Ugh." What she didn't know was that that kind of comment just made me want to stay in it more, and prove her wrong. There were boys who loved to stand at the sidelines, at about the 300m mark on the track, and clap sarcastically as I went by. Nice, right? But again, I didn't really give a shit. I didn't quit. I wouldn't quit. If I had to run a whole lap by myself, SO BE IT. (And it was so.)
At one point that first year, Coach pulled me aside and asked, "Maybe you'd like to try the speed walking... we haven't had anyone on that event in a while and it might be a good one for you!" I thanked him for his thoughts and said no. I'm sure he went home a little exasperated, why won't this poor uncoordinated, wheezy, slow girl just throw in the towel, but he never showed that to me. He pushed me to work harder. He celebrated when I started to do better. And that meant so much to me. He believed in me, even though I wasn't a medal-winner.
In that first year, I would line up at the starting line for the dead last heat, and overhear things like, "Oh good, Jessica H. is in my heat. That means I won't come in last." Ouch. But, true.
Until it wasn't.
I did the weights. I did the wind sprints. I ran the godawful hill from the track up to the soccer fields (or whatever tiered field was at the top, my high school was at the top of a ginormous hill and when you went sledding in the winter it was called Killer Hill, and we ran about halfway up the crazy hilled driveway that led to the field house behind the track). I ran up the stairs with the bleachers, the Rocky theme in my head all the time. I made friends. I survived teasing about my knock-knees. And I got faster.
A setback to my confidence and newfound not-suckiness was when we went to West Point for the NY State Championships. You could enter one runner in every race, but they had to qualify once you had two or more. We had no one for the 3200m, a terribly grueling race to run on a track. Especially one that's only 200m instead of 400m. 16 laps around a short track. Guess who got put into the 3200m, because she was finally not unable to run, and no one else wanted to do it? ME. Except everyone else from other teams actually qualified. I wouldn't have qualified, not even remotely. So when the gun went off, I was immediately far behind the pack. And then I got lapped. And then lapped again. And then again. The officials tried to get me to get off the track. But I was counting, and I was determined to finish. I was not going to just slink off the track at West Point! No siree! I was going to FINISH, even if it was horribly embarrassing. Would you call running almost 4 full laps by yourself embarrassing? I may have held up some events, and people were not happy with me, but I did it. I finished a race at West Point. Just way, way later than everyone else.
However, by the time I was in my last year of track, before my embarrassing knee injury that was 100% not athleticism-related, I was in the FIRST HEAT for the 800 and the 1500. I got to be on relay teams. And while I never "broke 3," ran an 800m in less than 3 minutes, I did hit 3:04 for my fastest time. Which is pretty freaking amazing considering just a short time earlier I couldn't make it around the track without stopping. I even won a couple medals, although not fancy ones and I certainly didn't qualify for anything, I MEDALED WHEN I PRACTICALLY COULD NOT EVEN RUN BEFORE.
It was a glorious feeling. And I owed a lot of it to a coach who never gave up on me, who never encouraged me to perhaps put my energies 100% into my violin and give this running thing a rest, who cheered me on as I improved, even though no college scouts would ever look at me other than to say, "How'd SHE get on the team?"
This knack for perseverance followed me throughout my life. It helped me to realize my dream of becoming a teacher, even when I had very little support from my ex-husband to go back to school and my divorce landed right in the middle of my field experience and student teaching days. And it certainly helped me to keep on going through the worst discouragement of my life -- realizing that it was going to be an all-out battle to have a family, that nothing was going to come easy and I was going to experience loss and feelings of utter failure. That I was going to feel lapped, reproductively. And yet I didn't stop. I didn't quit the team. I am trying a new event, and I realized that medically we weren't going to ever become parents. Which is hard, but not the same as giving up. I read a book recently, Counting by Sevens by Holly Goldberg Sloan, and the main character who deals with grief of her own says, "Giving in is not the same as giving up." I gave in and realized that biological parenthood was not for me, that I was being lapped and no hills-and-stairs regimen was going to fix it. But I didn't let go of parenthood, and we are pursuing adoption--and even though it requires a fair amount of perseverance and sometimes that feeling of being lapped...I know we'll cross that finish line. We might be running several laps by ourselves and wondering if we should just gracefully get off the track, but we're STAYING ON THAT TRACK, dammit.
That's a lesson that I learned from running track, with Coach Z at the helm. Keep going. Work hard, and you'll see results, even if those results aren't exactly what you originally envisioned. Go after your dream and don't let people tell you you can't. I didn't know Coach Z as much as many people who ran all 4 years or were actually terrific athletes, but I feel he made an impact on me and my attitude towards perseverance, and I am sad he's gone early from this world. He'll live on though, in the memories of all the many students he motivated, and in my memories of those foundational experiences that later helped me get through some of the hardest moments of my life.