It’s a freezing cold January day with temperatures dipping into the teens. Everyone in the city is hunkering down against the wind, trying to keep it out of their spirit as much as their clothes. I enter the New York Sports Club on 49th and Broadway; take the elevator to the 15th floor and after changing in the locker room I step out onto the floor of the aerobics room. The elliptical machines, treadmills and exercise bikes look, under the harsh fluorescent lights, like a graveyard filled with futuristic skeletons. I step up to an elliptical machine and begin plugging away. I watch as the electronic display tells me how far I’ve run, how many calories I’ve burned and how long I’ve been at it. It’s still not second nature for me to come to the gym. In the ten years since I graduated high school I have embarked on every kind of debauchery. I drank heavily, used drugs, smoke cigarettes, overate and rarely did I exercise. I was once an energetic and athletic little kid, but that was when athletics were fun, not like work. Today I yearn for phys ed. I yearn for an hour each day when I and another group of people my own age can crowd into a gymnasium and play volley ball, basket ball or badminton. Today working out is like paying a tax for being so affluent. I am trying to attain a body that centuries before hard work and starvation mandated.
When I was in high school I discovered that I had a great gift. I had always known as a small child that I was a fast runner. I could usually do very well in sprints and on field day I almost always came home with a few ribbons for my exploits. On the physical fitness test in the third grade, however, I really found my true athletic calling when it was time to run the mile. I was eight years old and I ran seven minutes flat that day beating my entire grade and the fourth grade as well. I would repeat this feat every year until I went to high school. What made my victories all the more surprising was the fact that I had no idea what I was doing. When the gym teacher told us to start running, I ran an all out sprint only to find myself dead in half a lap. I would spend the rest of the race recovering from my lack of strategy.
I didn’t like running. I hated the feeling of my lungs heaving against the cold wind (especially since I breathed so much second-hand smoke at home from my step father’s Newports). Nevertheless, when the captains of the high school cross country team came to my eighth grade to recruit us would-be freshmen, I signed right up. I knew that I had a gift and I wanted to see where it would take me.
I soon discovered that I desperately needed athletics. Because of my talent I quickly earned respect on the team but what I soon found was that we adolescents sweating together in the hot sun and crashing through New Jersey brambles all summer developed a certain bond, which was forged by our hard work and suffering together. Cross Country runners are a tight knit bunch because most other kids in school think we are crazy to run long distances up and down hills as a sport while we could be playing football or soccer. Our sport does not earn us large audiences, female attention or endorsement deals. Nevertheless there were certain perks to the sport which I had not expected. I found that I had a great deal more energy after running distance for a few months. My legs were amazingly strong and I soon shed any remaining baby fat that I had from childhood. I found that I could eat just about anything that I wanted and not gain so much as a pound. I slept so deeply and soundly at night and strangely enough I enjoyed the soreness that I often felt as a badge of courage and a job well done.
That first season went promisingly as I earned many freshman medals against kids my own age. I found that I was in the top ten overall on the team and next year I would easily be a varsity athlete. In fact my times and my participating in a few varsity races earned me my first varsity letter. I immediately took that letter to the sports store to have my varsity jacket made and I swelled with pride when I told the woman taking the order my graduation year, she said I was the first freshmen that had come in with a letter that year.
During indoor track I further excelled as I discovered new races at which I was very good. In my first race of the year I was paired up against another freshman from Middletown North, our cross-town rivals. I knew who the kid was; his name was Tom and he had done very well in cross country that fall and I had never beaten him. Of course he didn’t know who I was, but we were seeded first and second so we spoke for a few minutes before the race. Thus began one of my biggest rivalries that of my athletic career. The race was 1500 meters, which is an unusual distance, since most high school track races are 1600 meters-an even mile. I was a giant bundle of nerves as the race began. Tom quickly shot to the lead of the 9 ½ lap indoor race and I drafted off him a few strides back. I didn’t know what pace we were running but it was pretty fast. Nonetheless I could handle it and stayed put. As we entered the latter laps I could see that Tom’s body language was changing. His legs flailed more wildly, his shoulders tightened up and he slowed imperceptibly. Although I was no expert, I knew that he was tiring and I decided to make my move. As we entered the home stretch of the lap before last I surged ahead of Tom with a quickness that I hoped he would be too tired and intimidated to follow. They rang the bell for the last lap right in my face and my teammates were screaming at me to keep it up. I was so tired but I kept up a grueling pace for that last lap until, unbelievably I crossed the line in first place. When I turned back to look behind me I saw that Tom was many yards back and the rest of the pack had caught him. I felt a tremendous pride swell in my chest at the victory and my teammates congratulated me profusely.
At that point I was hooked on victory. Although it was only a freshman race I had resolved that this was the sport for me. I earned many more medals that season, including a silver in the freshman championships, a race in which I had run neck and neck with one the best athletes in the county. I finished that mile in 4:54, a new indoor school record and the first time I ever broke five minutes in the mile.
Throughout the rest of my career there were many more great moments in cross country, indoor and outdoor track. I won many events in dual meets and often got my name into the paper. I earned varsity medals in Cross Country, the 400, 800, 1600 and 3200 meter races. I was elected captain by my peers. I broke several indoor and outdoor school records in both individual races and relays. I was all county, all conference and all state. I finished tied for the school record in cross country, a feat which I had never believed possible as a freshman. I was also the first boy in my school’s history to earn a varsity letter in each athletic season during my high school career.
My proudest moment, however, was when my team defeated Christian Brother’s Academy in a dual meet during my junior year. CBA was an all-boys school with every advantage in athletics that we public schools did not have. They could recruit athletes from all over the state, while my school had to content itself with the southern half of our township. They had the funding to buy the best equipment, travel to the most exclusive far away meets and they were not bound by our insurance rules which forbade us to train together as a team until August 1st each summer. Needless to say CBA won every dual meet against the 6 hapless public schools in their division. They currently have not lost a cross country meet in over 30 years-a national record-and in 1996 they had not lost a track meet in 19 years. That year, however, we had a phenomenal team. We had the best sprinters in the county, a solid distance team, of which I was the proud leader, and we recruited jumpers and throwers from throughout the school. We won the conference title during that indoor season, a feat rendered spurious by the fact that CBA elected to rest their premier athletes for the state title meet and therefore did not contest our victory very hard. Nonetheless we were touted as the #2 track team in the conference and the track community and local press looked forward to April 15th, 1996-our date with CBA on our own home track.
It was a cloudy day and had rained the day before. The wind blew briskly as school ended and we gathered in our locker room before the meet. We were surprised to find our lockers decorated with well wishes from the girls track team, who would be our cheerleaders that day. Our coach had drawn up a very specific plan that was designed to utilize our athletes in the best way to maximize points. Every place-first, second or third-mattered in that meet. As we came out to the track for the meet we were very nervous. The CBA athletes were stretching in the middle of our football field. The stands were packed with hundreds of spectators, an extremely unusual occurrence for a track and field dual meet.
The meet began auspiciously as we swept the 400 meter hurdles, an event at which my team excelled. In the next race, the 100 meter dash, we also managed first and second place and had opened up a 17-1 lead. The third race was the 1600 meters, my race. I was a heavy underdog as CBA is known for their distance runners. I managed only third place but did salvage a point for my team. We then took first and second in the 400 meters, first in the 800 meters and first and second in 110 meter hurdles. The meet was going very well on the track, but this was to be expected, it was in the field that we would struggle mightily that day. CBA swept the high jump, took first and second in the shot put and first and third in the discus throw. It was a fight for the last points as both squads knew the meet would be close. In the 3200 meter race my best friend managed to earn second place and a crucial three points. We also earned first and third in the 200 meter race and after an extremely exciting head to head run, we took the 4×400 meter relay for five points. Nevertheless CBA swept the pole vault and had earned first and third in the long jump. The last even that day was the javelin throw, at mid field. The meet was tied at 61 points each. Our throwers came through with the performances of their lives and we swept the javelin to a 70-61 victory. We bombarded the field. We had done something that no team ever had done and no team since has managed to do-we beat the best team in New Jersey. We were given the front page in every local newspaper and were interviewed for our feat. Although I only earned one point that day, I was a part of the greatest track and field competition in my school’s history.
That was perhaps the greatest gift that I have gained from athletics-the gift of team work. I am a very independent and individualistic person but that day my team earned a great honor and I was much happier for my team than for myself. We worked together and every performance contributed to the slim margin of our victory. I have often thought back on that memorable meet, I thought of it as I wore my gown and mortarboard in the sweltering heat of my high school graduation. Before that meet everyone thought that CBA could not be beat. We thought it ourselves. Since then I know that nothing is impossible if you are willing to work you heart out for it.
Every child who is able should participate in athletics while they still can. There are so many good things to be had from being part of a team. Athletics teaches kids the value of hard work, competition and cooperation. They learn sportsmanship, respect and discipline. They also learn the pride of victory and the irreplaceable feeling of belonging to something. Athletics can teach values that impact every aspect of our lives. Cross country taught me tenacity and endurance against pain. Sometimes in life, just like in the cold wind of New York City, you just have to put your head down and venture forth or consider yourself a coward. This determination can carry over to any aspect of life, be it staying up the extra hour to finish a term paper or project at a job, asking the boss for that long overdue raise or finally speaking to that girl you always spy in the crowds at Starbucks. These days as I lumber through the freezing cold of Central Park trying to log a few miles of my exercise regimen I often swell with pride to think that I was once a gifted athlete on a proud and successful sports team. I once endured races in the rain, the freezing cold, the sweltering heat and even the driving snow. I sweated blood with my team mates. There is precious little fellowship like that in adult life. Perhaps for most men the thrill of success in the business world or the responsibilities of a family are enough to keep them fulfilled but I’m not so sure. I yearn for the pure feeling of accomplishment that comes with athletics, the feeling of a clean and absolute victory in a world where nothing is quite so black and white. As I round my body back into shape I am considering becoming a road racer or perhaps joining a softball or volleyball team. My life has become much more complicated than it was as a teenage and I seek the feelings, the values and the sense of purpose that athletics provides. I once ran like the wind that I could feel whipping through my hair on the back stretch of our home track. Today my shins groan with the effort of carrying ten more years and thirty more pounds. I have managed to shed my vices one by one and now I attack my body fat with the methodical effort of an adult, seeking that limberness of a teenager that will never return.