How I became an athlete – NOT!

It was a peculiar thing that I discovered in 6th grade. We were given standard fitness tests. I cleared 6 feet, 0 inches in standing broad jump. The teachers and the test administrator were amazed – other students could barely clear 5 feet. This fantastically useful talent languished until high school, where it somehow re-emerged as a significant test for Physical Education ‘teachers’ to conduct. { Do I seem inadequately deferential by accenting the word teachers? Indeed, I have as poor a regard for my P.E. teachers as I have a high regard for most of my other teachers. There was seldom instruction. That was a certainty, since there was seldom a teacher present during P.E. }

When tested for the standing broad jump, I blasted into orbit over a gym mat and made re-entry at a point far beyond what any other student could do. I had a genuine, unassailable athletic skill, and other people noticed it. Before this accomplishment, people noticed two things about me: my intellect (you probably have suspicions by now, yourself) and my rail-thin physique. A couple of years hence, as a junior, I was 5’11” and weighed 118Lbs. That is skinny. I kept loose change between my ribs so I would have room in my pocket for a slide rule.

The new attention to my special athletic ability (an ability which contrasted with my athletic mediocrity in other areas) was not uniformly lauditory and benevolent. One of the things that we learn in school is that being exceptional can be a prime motivation for other students to resent you. Star athletes in major sports seem to be given uncritical adulation. Their performance as representatives of the school offers many opportunities for other students to project themselves into the role of a hero. The solo athlete, whose skill is strictly personal and isolated, is competition to the egoes of non-athletes.

During my freshman and sophmore years, some P.E. classmates made their disappointment obvious every semester, when the standard tests were conducted. They found a reason to hope during our junior year.

Junior year introduced my first competitor. I will call him Matt. He was a transfer, so none of us had seen him jump. No one needed to see. Matt was about 6’4″. He was as skinny as I was, but that was irrelevant. Matt could almost *fall* as far as I could jump. The class sensed that, as the first semester standard tests began, they would soon be able to tell the thorn in their sides to get the pluck out.

They were, due to their anticipation, doubly disappointed with the result. Matt jumped farther than anyone else had ever jumped – except me. My efforts bested his in the best-of-three jumps. Maybe they would have been comforted to know that, on a bad jump which ended with a fall backward, I sat hard on a thumb. The arthritis occasionally reminds me of that jump.

Afterward, between classes, one of the decent guys (which most of them were) in class told me that ‘the coach said that he wants you to try out for track’. This is your opportunity to understand something about Jim. The comment did not strike me favorably. A few minutes before, I was in that teacher’s (or rather ‘teacher’s’) class. He had every opportunity to speak directly to me. I decided that he was behaving, at minimum, immaturely. He was possibly attempting to get me to approach him, which would have made me a person asking him for a favor. I had seen enough of coaches harassing and verbally abusing their athletes to be suspicious of his manner. Other teachers could conduct a private conversation with a student, or even telephone the student’s parents. If he wanted something from me, he would be seeing me in class in another day or two.

The hopes of the small clique of the resentful seemed to have vanished in a flash. Those hopes rose again like a snarling Phoenix. Another student transferred to Parkview for second semester, and he was in my P.E. class.

David Sturgis was the greatest track star in Springfield history to that date. He had been a student at Central before circumstances (and the end of fall track season) brought him to Parkview. David was about 5’6″ and looked like he could have run through brick walls. He competed in as many track events as humanly possible. It was common for him to win six individual events. He could run, jump, and throw faster and farther than many thousands of others his age. It seemed that every track record belonged to him.

When standard P.E. tests began for the second semester, the clique of the resentful were unable to restrain themselves. It was not possible for the greatest track star in Springfield history to lose to the undeserving nerd. They found a way to restrain themselves after David’s first jump. I had jumped over 8 feet. David cleared less than 7 feet.

I knew that David had never done a standing broad jump before. Perhaps he mentioned it? It was certainly understood, because he would not have been required to take standard P.E. tests before. He probably was allowed to do special workouts instead of regular P.E. classes. Whatever the activity, a degree of experience (or inexperience) makes a difference.

David’s second jump was as poor as the first. My third and last jump was the best I had ever done: 8 feet, 11 inches. He had one opportunity to jump at least two feet further than either of his first two jumps – farther even than the coach had ever seen anyone jump.

This is what makes a true champion: a true champion has physical skills, mental concentration, and emotional drive in equal proportions. A deficiency in one area weakens the others. David was a true champion.

His final jump was just over the end of the gym mat, lightly grazing the end seam. Exactly 9 feet, 0 inches.

I was happy for him. He had much at stake in a showdown which he did not anticipate and did not seek. I had nothing to lose. He was a quiet and unpretentious guy, so he was gracious and made nothing of these events. It was the best possible ending. The clique never uttered the smallest murmur again.

I was a fast walker. I always walked 6mph. I could even walk fast while carrying books and a violin for two miles to Parkview. I could race-walk about 10mph, but never tried to do it any real distance. The jocks could run faster than me, but I could walk faster than all of them.

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All original material Copyright James R. Stone 2010, except where specifically noted. Some images licensed under Creative Commons, or GNU Free Documentation License, or unlicensed and public domain.

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