In spite of everything, though, I love ballet. I could not for a moment imagine my life without it, and it is one of the most important things in my life. I am very glad I have found my way back to the dance world, and I hope I stay here for a while.
This is an introspective and honest post, Kelly, that dives directly to the center of your in-depth’s (some might say, life’s) challenge: to confront one’s self, for better or worse, and struggle to attain the goal (or live the life) we think might be possible for ourselves.
I can identify with the pressure to compete and maintain a high level of physical fitness and precision – not unlike dance, or gymnastics – through my track and field career, both in high school and university. Especially when I was younger, I was seized with a dreadful panic and anxiety before the start of races; for the first few years in track (ages 11 – 13), I participated in mostly field events. It wasn’t until the farther side of adolescence let me ‘grow into my body'(and develop a fledgling sense of coordination between my mind and extremities) that I became ‘elite,’ you might say, challenging for the provincial title in my event (the 800m) in grades 11 and 12, and shopping myself to various American universities.
But even then, and no less so once I went on to the NCAA, or in three consecutive national junior finals, doubt and anxiety were familiar competitors on the track, in addition to the call to test my own physical limits, and stare down my fellow racers in a gut-wrenching war of wills that lasted less than two minutes.
The day before what was to be one of my best college race – an 800m final at Duke University, in North Carolina – my coach introduced me to Don Paige, a coach from Villanova who had at one point held the world record in the 1000 yards, and was ranked #1 in the world in the 800m in 1980, the year the US boycotted the Olympics.
We sat in the steep grandstands watching the 1500s, and talked about race strategy: how to run the perfect 800. Don talked about his missed Olympic opportunity, and how he had partially orchestrated a showdown with the preeminent middle distance runner of the time, Sebastian Coe (who held the world record in the 800m for some twenty years; I knew more than one runner with a SebCoe tattoo: he is a legend), and beat him, running the fastest time in the world that year, and earning a spot in history.
Next to winning a head-to-head showdown with one of the greatest runners in history, my race at Duke seemed like child’s play.
But it was also essentially the same opportunity: to test myself under the best conditions, to set myself up for success, and do what I had to do, succeed or fail. Don Paige had beaten Sebastian Coe, and sat talking about my race the next day as if there was no way to even look at it as something other than an opportunity.
After piecing together my strategy with Don, I felt a sense of proximal greatness to this man, who took winning for granted because the thing he was most interested in was seeing what he could do.
On Saturday I was in the “B” final, and stood on the infield grass and watched Otukile Lekote run the fastest time in the world that year moments before my race.
When it was time to step out on the track, I calmly found a place in the middle-to-end of the pack, knowing it would be at least a lap before I made any kind of move, and in that time the runners at the front would have shown their hands, declared their intentions for the race.
Don and I, and my coach from Arkansas – a genuinely beautiful person who had no small hand in making my life what it is today – had talked about always having another card to play, as late in the race as possible. And I waited through 450m of the race before making my way toward a position in the pack where I could play mine.
The key to this, we had agreed, would be the critical third two-hundred, where an 800m runner classically falls apart, after a scorching opening lap, or overextends him or herself, leaving nothing for the home stretch. My goal was to apply pressure in the third two hundred, but leave myself enough of a “hand” to play, or extra gear to enter, in the race’s final turn.
After the pacesetter had dropped out, leaving him in the lead, this is what Paige had done to Sebastian Coe in 1980:
“At 200 meters, Sebastian Coe jumps. I’m amazed at how fast he is. He’s a half-step in front of me, but I don’t want him to get too far in front. We’re stride-for-stride. With 50 meters to go we’re dead even. I’m thinking we’re gonna tie. We both lean at the tape, he pats me on the back, I pat him on the back. I look over at my teammates and give them the thumbs-up. I knew I won, and Sebastian knew he lost.”
On the backstretch, I passed two thirds of the field, and was gaining ground on the leaders as we rounded the corner where I had talked to Don the day before. With two hundred meters to go, I gradually unleashed my kick and had gained on the leaders by the time we entered the home stretch, where I passed them and won the heat, leaving my ‘final card’ to be the effort I put into logging the fastest time I was able to run during university, 1:52.65, which for three year’s was my school’s record.
That was ten years ago; I couldn’t likely run an 800m in under 2:20 today.
And that is in some ways saddening, because I never did become the Olympian that I thought I would at eighteen, and I am detached from the world of sport such that Googling the names and dates that accompanied this comment brought back pangs at nostalgia for a nearly forgotten period in my life (both athletics, and my time in Arkansas).
But in a lot of ways, running, and competing at an elite level, opened doors both physical and personal in my life that led me to where I am today. If not for running, I wouldn’t have gone to Arkansas, wouldn’t have become an injured athlete who took a scholarship, and internship with the Boy Scouts, where I discovered teaching, music, and nurtured and explored a love and energy for the outdoors, literature and philosophy.
If my body had performed differently, and I had continued on at an elite level – as some of my friends, and former teammates have – I am sure running would have left me with the same lessons:
that you can’t control much but your own preparation, and commitment to your own goals
that to be great requires a denial of negativity and worry about how things might turn out, and an ability to just do what needs to be done
that we are stronger than we realize
that we are all in the same boat
And so I don’t regret not becoming, or staying great, at sports, not so long as I continue to apply the same lessons, and put forth the same degree of commitment to making myself better, and rising to challenges as they happen, and that I set up for myself to grow.
The lessons of your in-depth, dancing, TALONS and life beyond, are pieces of the same course of study, and we are greater always with the most difficult of lessons. Being as honest as you have been with the challenge you are up against, and all that it entails of who you are, is a grand step in conquering it and fulfilling your potential, as a student, dancer, and human being.
Do not let anxieties of what will be get in the way of the already challenging task of accomplishing something amazing. You have the opportunity to participate in the creation of something that is the essence of creative beauty, as well as the fulfillment of tireless hard work and precision that – succeed or fail – will be worth it if it is engaged in to its fullest.
If you give your best effort to anything, for any length of period, your time is never wasted, even if all it does is lead you to something completely different.
If you’ve made it this far into the comment, I thank you for letting me prattle on and tell this little piece of a story I had almost forgotten. Thanks for sharing this struggle to define your in-depth for yourself, and making your own lessons ours, too.
I can’t wait to see the depths your study takes, both as a physical, and personal test.
Any post that yields a comment that is this long, is irrefutably a great post. My apologies for there being so many words, Kelly; suffice to say that your thinking put me at a loss for the right ones, and the ones I could find multiplied.