Chubby as a child, and then busty with stubby legs in my teens, I don’t think anyone would have looked at me and said, “There goes an athlete.” Besides being slow, with low stamina, I didn’t have great hand-eye coordination, in part because I needed but never wore glasses, but largely because I wasn’t born with that kind of timing. I had no interest in or discipline for exercise, so I didn’t have the muscle strength needed for tennis, for gymnastics, for basketball. I wasn’t half bad at volleyball—because I loved punching things and that translated to a vicious serve—and I was okay at softball, likely because that involved smacking something hard with a sturdy implement.
I liked hitting a softball so well that, in ninth grade, I tried out for the team. I didn’t throw well (I think they came up with the expression “throws like a girl” by observing me), but I could catch okay and could get the ball over the plate if I was pitching (not understanding then that serving up meatballs did not a good pitcher make). The one thing I could do was hit a pitch for a base hit, practically every time.
But during the tryout, I wasn’t given the chance to hit a pitch. Instead, I was to toss the ball with one hand and hit my own “pitch,” as any Little Leaguer could demonstrate.
I could not then, and cannot now, do that. For anyone with an ounce of athleticism, this must not compute, but I threw that ball and swung and missed, swung and missed to the point of humiliation, which was surely Miss McCormick’s intention when she came up with that drill. Because the last person anyone expected (or wanted) on the softball team was me.
And that’s only in part because I was a poor athlete. The other reason was that my place in the highly segmented school firmament was a galaxy away from the girls on the softball team, and surely the coach—my gym teacher—knew that. I was loathed by all of them. While today, a girl without athletic ability would be a pariah, back then, being good at sports hardly put you in the center of the social scene. Instead, assets like mine—a curvy body, and an outgoing, flirtatious nature—were keys to status. Intelligence and empathy, which I would list among my other assets, didn’t help at all.
[A footnote: it was when I was going through high school that Title IX started to take hold, which eventually resulted in the prevalence of girls' sports you see today. The story of Title IX was documented by one of my high school classmates in the film A Hero For Daisy.]
At 47, I’m still no athlete. I’m just not, and I think now those girls would appreciate that I didn’t play sports because I couldn’t. One of the nastier things my ex said when we were breaking up was—and this is verbatim—”You can’t even throw a Frisbee.” (What kind of rotten wife was I?) But I can do a few things. I can dance (not ballet…I could regale you with stories of humiliation in that arena). I can rollerskate. I can do Dance Dance Revolution. And I can run.
It’s funny that, at 47, I run. When I tried out for that softball team at 15, I couldn’t have run half a mile. I’m still not a great runner; with my little legs and big chest, I’m not exactly built like a marathoner. But I run about 10 miles a week, and I love it. It makes me feel like the athlete I never was, and the fact that I didn’t use my body for this purpose in my youth means that all the parts work like they’re just out of the box.
I’d wager that running 3.5 miles or more at a stretch is something many of the girls from that softball team can’t do today. But I imagine they can still hit their own pitch (and throw a Frisbee), and when they swing a tennis racquet they hit something other than air. I still can’t do any of that, but when I run, I get a taste of what it feels like to be one of them, and it feels pretty damned good.