The Day I Became an Athlete
SOMETIMES I THINK IT’S HILARIOUS that I ended up working as a trainer, because if you’d known me during my youth, I was a real chubster, forced into “Husky” uniform pants for school. Even my brother called me “chubby in the butt.” Well, despite my “husk,” I made a valiant attempt at sports.
Grade 2 — Little League. I was six, and all the boys in class were doing it, so of course I thought I should too. Mom took me to Gart Brothers sporting goods store (where years later, at age 13, I shoplifted a red Speedo), and I picked out my bat—a Louisville Slugger. Truth be told, the uniform was the only reason I wanted to play. And I never did—play that is. Never went to a practice, never went to a game — I just liked having the catcher’s mitt and bat.
Grade 3 — Soccer. This time, I actually went to practice. I had the cool uniform—the onionskin, slippery soccer shorts, the cleats, the whole nine yards. My big complaint with this sport (and all sports) is the coaches never taught me how to actually play. I needed BASICS, like: “Okay everybody. You’re wearing RED and they’re wearing BLACK. Now, your job is to annihilate anyone wearing black.” THAT I understand. But instead they made us do “drills.” To confuse matters, one of the drills involved dribbling—(isn’t that a basketball term?). I never excelled at soccer and my participation was probably driven more by my stepdad’s desire to see me do anything that would remotely make me like the average Utah boy and not so obviously queer.
Grade 5, 6, and 7 — Basketball. Prompted again by my stepdad, once again I attended practice, ran ladders, did “drills” and tried to dribble. But again, the coaches never taught us the basic rules of the game. They must have figured that we boys had nothing better to do than watch basketball on TV, (which is true if you’re straight and into Boy Scout activities, but not so true if you’re a queer and more into the scouts themselves).
Grades 8, 9, 10, 11 — High School Phys. Ed. The most dreadful four years of my sports career, during which our “coaches” did absolutely nothing identifiably helpful, except pick out the cutest, hottest boys to separate the rest of us onto two “teams.” The next 37 minutes were spent haphazardly attempting to play a game without any rules, instructions, or basic guidelines. Invariably it had to be something complex, like lacrosse. Twice a year, we were required to run a mile (five times around the football field). Imagine me— a fat, awkward little Sam trying to get around the field, lagging behind even the slowest girls in the class. I dreaded it from the day the semester started to the last day of finals.
Then, an epiphany.
Near the end of grade 11, between eating a saucer sized chocolate chip cookie and guzzling a 32 oz. Coke on a break in the newspaper room, I stumbled upon the U.S. Military Academy’s Prospectus for Prospective Cadets. Whoa. Who were all these hot, muscular cadets — like brothers, running in unity and masculine camaraderie? I was rapt. About that time, I stumbled upon “Top Gun” while watching cable one night, and Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer had me at “Playing with the Boys” (the volleyball scene).
“I MUST do the most productive thing at every given moment.”
That day, I started to run. And every day that followed, during that hot Utah summer I ran at least two miles, sometimes five. I didn’t take a day off for three months. I lost about 30 pounds that summer, and returned to high school for registration day. None of my friends recognized me. I was a new man.
I was no longer a slack ass.
I began grade 12, my senior year, with a newfound confidence in my physical abilities to transform and affect a change. I registered for Weightlifting 101 and took Tai Chi. I set my sights on qualifying for the Air Force Academy and began to develop my upper body strength. I even joined the track team, and earned a 5:36 minute mile during a meet in the spring of my senior year. Despite all this, I didn’t make it into the Air Force Academy. A screw up at the Department of Defense Medical Examination Review Board (DODMERB) led me to take cover in Gonzaga University, my “safety school” where I ended up in the fall of 1996.
Bill Clinton had just been elected president, and I was a freshly shaved ‘n’ shorn member of the Gonzaga men’s freshman crew team. We’d get up at the ungodly hour of 4AM to brave the ungodly morning temperatures of eastern Washington, waiting for 30 minutes outside the AD building for a rickety old school bus, which shuttled us to our boathouse (below) next to the Spokane river.
It was the kind of cold that chills you to the bone. I could see my breath with every stroke of the oar, and barely feel my toes as the frost and ice water soaked into my socks. The callouses and blisters on my hands bled from handling the oar during those practices.
Suddenly, there came a payoff. It was simple, really: watching the mist rise up off the water at sunrise as it disappeared into the skyline. All the while, the haunting Gregorian mix of Enigma’s Sade blasted from the boathouse and unfolded across the open water as we rowed back down the river.
I caught a glimpse at myself that morning in the mirrored surface of the water: skin glistening in sweat, triceps flexing, legs warm. It was then I realized: I’d become an athlete.