Thursday, February 21, 2008

Newly Sporty at Forty

Growing up, I didn’t play sports much. In the late 70’s, Title IX, the law banning discrimination in school sports, was far from being implemented in my small town high school. Most of the sports opportunities and glory belonged to the boys. In my mind, the highest athletic feat I could achieve was being a cheerleader. Instead of practicing my jump shot, I worked on pointing my toes during cartwheels and punching out precise arm moves. While it made for a pretty picture in my Lakeland High School yearbook, cheerleading hasn’t been of much use to me, especially lately.

Now that I’m in my forties my athletic prowess is being put to the test - and it’s coming up short. My husband and I have fallen in with a sporty group, the kind of people who play coed softball every Friday night, and beach volleyball every Sunday afternoon. For years we would come out to cheer them on (something I’m good at), mostly hoping to tag along to the post-game beer and hotdog parties. But this summer we were talked into joining a beach volleyball team. And let me tell you, it’s been pressure.

First of all, although everyone says these games are just for fun, they lie. The only purpose of the game is to win, preferably by crushing and humiliating your opponent. As a player, you’re very aware if you aren’t pulling your weight. The first six times I served, the ball plopped lamely into the net. Though my friend Tricia called out encouragingly, “Almost!” I couldn’t help but notice the guys on our team rolling their eyes and kicking sand.

When I wasn’t serving, I was never sure when it was my turn to hit. The ball would sail high over the net, and hang suspended in the wind. I’d squint up at it fearfully. Was it coming my way? Was I supposed to bump it or set it or something? Surely someone else would get it. Splat. The ball would land at my feet. “Oh, was that one mine?” I’d ask timidly. From my teammates’ silence, I gathered it was.

My husband was no help. Growing up in Ireland, he’d never played a day of volleyball in his life. Still, he was able to serve overhand and spike like a pro after only a few games. Apparently he had developed excellent hand-eye coordination in his hurling days. My toe pointing skills were not applicable to volleyball. For three weeks I had nightmares about being cut from the team. I had to try harder.

Eventually, my effort paid off. By the end of the summer I could get my serve over the net most of the time. When a ball came my way, I screamed “mine!” with gusto. I made mistakes, lots of them, but more often than not I kept the ball in play. As we neared the end of the season, our team was winning more and more.

One Sunday, Stephanie joined our team. Man, was she awful. She whacked the ball with such force it flew sideways into the parking lot. She whiffed, missing the ball completely. “Ha-Ha,” she tried to laugh, though her cheeks were burning. “Just for fun, right?” My teammates did some sand scuffing and eye rolling, but not me. I walked over to Stephanie and patted her shoulder. “Absolutely, Steph. And don’t worry, you just need a little practice. Let me show you the right way to bump.”

As I demonstrated the proper form, I thought about how far I’d come that summer. You know, there might be a competitive athlete in me yet.

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