Guest Post: Handing in my stripesAugust 19, 2009
I’m westwood, and I am an elite, high-performance athlete.
I train 25-30 hours a week. I undergo comprehensive fitness testing every three months. I travel across the country six or seven times a year to compete, and work incessantly to be the provincial champion and maintain a top 16 national standing. I am sponsored by a company (Victor), who provides me with free (Victor) racquets and (Victor) shoes and (Victor) bags and (Victor) grip tape and (Victor) clothes and whatever other lovely (Victor) items I desire. I eat six times a day, as much food as I like. The other players, my friends, are Olympic hopefuls who spend months training in China, Denmark, and Mexico. I am debating joining them, but am not ready to sacrifice my academic life just yet. I go to class, do sprint training, go to my next class, hit the weights, and then head to the club to practice. Every day. When I am not studying or training, I coach, or cross-train by playing on three or four basketball teams. This is my life.
Wait. There is something wrong with this picture.
I’m westwood, and I was an elite, high-performance athlete… until a dislocated kneecap ended my badminton career. Although, I am nothing if not persistent, so it took dislocating my kneecap four times to force me to stop trying to be a comeback. At twenty, I have been retired for two years. And in terms of sports, I feel like my life has ended.
I’m still active, and reasonably fit, but nothing like I was. The trouble is, I still define myself as that person who stood on top of the world at the Canada Games. That person is who I am, deep down inside. My mindset hasn’t changed, which explains the weight that piled on unnoticed around my midsection before I took a reality check. It used to be a mystery to me why my sprint times kept declining, but I understand it now. It still frustrates me that I can barely hold a plank for two minutes when it used to be closer to ten. Push-ups? Forget it. I’m lucky if I can hammer out twenty.
I am not that super-athlete. I have to accept this. But I can’t, because if I do, I will stop running and lifting weights and cycling and eating so well. I need to have something to train for. I was taught at the age of nine that you haven’t had a good workout unless you feel like vomiting (or do vomit!) by the end, and I still believe this. I was also taught young that the purpose of sports is winning, and the purpose of exercise and nutrition is to drive you on the road to glory.
Recently, I was running hill sprints in the park behind my house. Sprint up, jog down, repeat. Three sets of twelve. A man walked by me with a dog, his expression serene in the warm evening sun. He asked me what I was training for, and I mumbled an excuse. I have plenty of them, which I use often.
I am training for basketball, because I played on a college-level team, even if I sat on the bench the whole time.
I am training for aikido, because I want to test for my next level, even though my attendance is poor and I can’t remember anything I’m taught.
I’m training for baseball, because I can throw really, really, really far, even though I’ve never played the sport in my life.
I’m training for biathlon, because I think I would like it a lot, even though I have no idea how to ski.
I’m training for badminton, because if my knee ever heals I might go back, even though I hate the fracking thing for killing my love of sports.
The list goes on.
In many ways, I envy the recreational athlete and those who engage in fitness activities just because they want to. Don’t get me wrong… I have had fantastic experiences with elite sports that I wouldn’t trade for the world. Training and traveling were incredibly rewarding. But I’d like to not feel like a failure because I barely manage to work out ten hours a week. I would like to not feel like a failure if I’m not the fastest runner in the gym or lifting the heaviest weights. It would be nice to exercise and manage my eating just because I want to look good and feel good. Because I want to be healthy and fit. Or, even better, because I enjoy working out. But I can’t. I do these things in pursuit of glory… I’m chasing after victory that will eternally evade me.
So I am trying to learn about new kinds of glory. Like the chatter of birdsong on my run through the park, or sun dappling through the trees during my bicycle commute to work. The superficial ecstasy of rediscovering taught lines of muscular definition in my back. The fun of laughing as I shoot hoops with a friend, and the glory of sweating out every last drop of water doing sprints in my backyard on a hot day. Or the swell of pride that comes with coaching, and watching the kid you’ve coaxed for months finally have the courage to drive to the hoop.
This is not a happy ending, though. There is no take-home moral. I am restless and unsettled, constantly displeased with the quality and quantity of my workouts. I feel like a loaded gun with no target. At least, no target that is realistic to hit. How have you done it? Whether you played high-school sports, recreational games, or are an ex-Olympian, I want your advice. How did you fold up your jersey and relegate it to collect dust in the basement? Anyone who has played competitive sports understands how they give you meaning, give you purpose… they define you. When it was over, how did you fill that enormous void?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. I refuse to be retired, to be an ex-athlete, to be washed up. But I can’t write any more, because I need to go do a lay-up circuit and shooting drills on my driveway. I’m training. I’m training to make the university basketball team when I do my Master’s degree. I swear I will do it. Whether or not I really want to, or have time to, doesn’t matter. I swear I’m training for something.
I am an elite high-performance athlete and somewhere, somehow, there is glory ahead. I will be the champion. Of what, I don’t know. When, I don’t know. Perhaps it is all just lies and delusions.
Whatever. I just need an excuse to keep me going.
P.S. Badminton is not a sissy sport. It is actually one of the most played and most difficult sports in the world, and this is what it really looks like: