I haven’t watched the race yet (not due to any tape delay, but because I find watching swimming boring), but Twitter tells me that Michael Phelps put down his bong and White Castle Crave Case long enough to race as part of the freestyle relay team that won a gold medal in London today. That gives him 19 medals, making the 27-year-old the most decorated Olympian of all time (aside from Ann Romney’s dressage horse).
It’s hard bearing the burden of history, and I can relate: I have what is, without historical peer, the least distinguished athletic — and sedentary — competitive career of all time.
Every few years, when the world’s greatest performers of obscure sporting competitions come together to test their skills in fierce battles to be the greatest, I think back to my own personal quests for gold and glory. The sappy NBC-narrated version would go something like this: Born to young parents of modest means in New York, this scrappy, sometimes sickly kid was always determined to be the best, and showing great resource and grit, dedicated himself to everything he did (until it became apparent he had not a single fleck of natural talent, and moved on to what would inevitably another failed endeavor).
My pathetic entreaty into sports came with Little League, a great American coming-of-age experience. Unfortunately, my body didn’t come of age until I was about 17, and so swinging the bat was like tossing a tire iron for me. The first town in which I lived took its youth baseball seriously, with fields more managed and manicured than its schools (classrooms leaked; dugouts didn’t).
Our coaches were intense from tee ball on, even though our team names came from NBA and NHL franchises; I spent successive years on the Sharks, Clippers and Devils, though really, you could have put me on the Yankees, batting between Gehrig and Ruth, and it still wouldn’t have helped much. And it wasn’t from lack of effort; I was obsessed with baseball, and wanted nothing more than to be a great player.
I studied the way the best hitters stood, loaded their bats, kicked their legs and followed their bats through the zone, and if you were to watch my swing in slow motion, it was probably insanely fundamentally sound. Unfortunately, you’d then realize you weren’t watching it in slow motion. Being the only sixth grader to have read Ted Williams’ book on hitting didn’t much help, either.
By 7th grade, in my new and more laid back town, my friend’s dad wanted to resign as coach of our team, so ashamed he was our of play. Through all my years playing baseball, I didn’t just not win a championship; I earned just one trophy — for participation.
I didn’t put all my eggs in the baseball basket, of course; I was fueled by a competitive spirit all year round. I never got to play ice hockey — my mom’s nerves couldn’t handle such stress — but I did compete in a series of fantasy leagues. I knew the NHL inside and out, and felt confident in my ability to pick the right players for what was still an obscure past time. I’d pore over magazine guides and online stat banks, weighing trades and free agent signings like the actual Cup was on the line, because for me, it was. My friends weren’t much into fantasy sports yet, so I’d play in leagues with strangers online. Ironically, that made it feel more real, because I could pretend I was facing off against elite and important people (I was too naive at the time to realize that they were probably either kids like me, or adults in a basement).
I never won fantasy hockey. Even when I created my own league.
The winter of sixth grade, my entire family went down to Club Med to celebrate my grandfather’s 80th birthday (this remains the only family reunion we’ve ever had). It was an off month for tourism, I guess, so the place was pretty sparsely populated (meaning there was no having to wait in line when I ran with my brother to the dining room to refill my water bottle with Surge soda). I’m not much of a joiner, but one of the activities during our five day stay was a ping pong tournament. I was having a terrible time with tennis, and it seemed me like the amount of athleticism required to play ping pong was in direct proportion to the size of the ping pong table versus tennis court. So I figured I’d give it a shot.
When I showed up for the match, there were winners’ medals on a table, glistening in the Florida sun. That changed everything. Here was a chance to secure true glory, to proudly don heavy a prize around my neck and nod to every single person who looked my way, knowing that they were impressed and thrilled, even, that there was a champion in their midst, breathing the same air.
Only one other person entered that “tournament.” He was older, and he beat me by about 10 points. I got the silver medal… and I cherished it, keeping the small, cheap metal pendant in the hotel safe, returning every few hours to check in and make sure it was there. As if anyone would want to steal it, even if there hadn’t been some storage closet filled with the ten cent prizes. I’m pretty confident I wore it on my flight home.
To be fair, I was still reeling from a deep loss six or so months before. My town’s elementary schools had a competition called the Battle of the Books, in which about 10 novels were assigned to a grade of kids, who were then split into teams and forced into a kind of Hunger Games-Jeopardy hybrid competition.
I read like a beast, finishing eight of ten books (a major accomplishment for me). I wasn’t chosen as the captain for my team, which was a huge bummer because the captain was the one to man the buzzer. But our librarian, Mrs. Stern, recognized in me a special capacity for regurgitating facts about young adult novels, and let me put my hand on top of our captain Yasmin’s.
We tore through the various rounds of trivia competitions, dispatching any and all book knowledge rivals in our paths. Yasmin and I had our
differences — she was quite bossy, and I kept slamming her hand into the buzzer — but the tandem worked. With the whole school (minus second and first graders, plus kindergarteners) looking on, we put aside our differences for long enough to win the school championship.
I was ecstatic, but that wasn’t the end of the road. There was still the town finals, against two other schools’ champions. So a week later, we headed over to Woodrow Wilson Elementary, where we launched into pitched buzzer battle in front of a healthy mix of parents and students (probably at least 100 people!).
We didn’t stand a chance. The girl from Washington Elementary was a robot. She knew everything: every character’s name, every plot point, every little detail. I couldn’t think fast enough, let alone slap my hand down to get in a word edgewise. We went down in defeat, slinking back to our school (named after Ben Franklin, the boozy one who was never even president), where we hung our heads in shame.
In high school, Yasmin was my boss on the school newspaper, for which I covered sports, having retired from athletics in 8th grade. And senior year, I would date that girl from Washington Elementary. She was my prom date. And then she dumped me before we went to college.
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