It’s a well-recognized truth that playing sports brings out the best — and worst — in people. The same can be said about watching sports, and that goes double for me, since I’m both a fan and an athlete. More than double, actually: I’m downright Sybil-esque. To view the Olympics with me is to witness a one-woman crowd in which some spectators display noble and uplifting emotions like compassion, empathy and pride, but others reveal themselves to be mean, bitter and envious.
I may be an “age group athlete” at this point, but I still identify so closely with the young female athletes that when I watch them, my reactions are visceral. I twist, writhe, hold my breath and clench my fists in front of the television as they go through their events. The Summer Games are more intense for me than the winter ones, as they feature the greatest number of sports I still do regularly: swimming, cycling, running and triathlon. And just to heighten the tension of my internal crowd, boxing, a sport I trained in for a half-dozen years without ever making it into the ring, debuts in London as a women’s competition.
Seeing young women like Lolo Jones, Marlen Esparza and Michelle Jenneke (the Australian hurdler who became an Internet phenomenon with her “sexy dance” warm-up at the track-and-field trials), with their blend of power and vulnerability, brings me almost physical pain because as an aging athlete, I’m already living in their future. Tears spring to my eyes when I witness that ephemeral moment when they cross the finish line first. I want to grab them in the midst of their victory lap and demand that they acknowledge their own extraordinary athletic beauty and confidence and grasp how fleeting it is. Never again will everything be so perfect. At this point in an event, I am sniffling and wiping my nose on my hand. (Athletes do these things.)
Watching “older” female Olympians, like the much-medaled Dara Torres (who at 45 is a decade younger than I), I’m even more conflicted. On the one hand, I desperately want her to succeed and prove a point for us all. On the other, as ridiculous as it is on a rational level, because she is an older swimmer, I perceive her as competition. Which means I want her to lose. That’s another thing about athletes: Sometime we just want to see someone like us fail so we can appease our overweening envy.
Yet when I learned that Torres actually had failed to make the time cut-off in the 50-meter Olympic trials, losing her third-place slot to Christine Magnuson, a girl born the year after Torres’ first Olympic appearance in 1984, I felt as though I’d been kicked in the chest. Breathless, I reviewed the stats: Torres had lost by .09 seconds — that’s not one second, that’s less than one-tenth of a second. And there it is, the inexorable injustice of aging for athletes: All your hard work and determination and past wins can’t stop the clock. You are destined to watch your speed, if not your skills, ebb away in tiny increments, some as small as a fraction of time we can’t even fully comprehend.
Somehow athletes have to make peace with this reality; to come to terms with the repeated injuries and wear and tear that inevitably erode your edge. Am I having a tough time doing so? Yes. I was 15 in 1972 when President Richard Nixon (Richard Nixon!) signed Title IX into law. Of all the legislation passed in my lifetime, I would hail Title IX as the item that has had the most radical and profound effects for females by equalizing men’s and women’s school athletic programs.
Unfortunately for me, I was just a little too far along in the educational system to benefit from the opportunities it presented. So I was a late bloomer, sports-wise, not even starting competitively until most people have set aside their athletic exploits.
Friends who don’t race always advise me, “Just relax and have fun. Who cares if you win or lose?” Who cares? I care — unapologetically. If sports were just about relaxing and having fun, the Olympics would be one big ’60s revival hugfest. And it would be a giant bore, with medals for everyone and lots of high-fives among the athletes, winners all.
So I’m bringing my game face to the Olympics next week and I plan to live every vicarious moment with intensity, no matter how much each win or loss hurts — often at the same tenth of an instant.