My high school years were atypical. I didn’t attend a four-year high school. Instead I did an assortment of online classes, some community college courses, and homeschool.
One thing I really wanted to try was a team sport. I wasn’t very coordinated but I liked to run. So I decided to do track. Fortunately for me, my hometown high school allowed me to practice with their track team and compete at meets. I just wasn’t allowed to wear the school uniform.
I practiced with the team for one season, and at the end, I went to my first and only track meet.
This meet was a qualifier for a state competition, so it was a big deal to the serious athletes. I was just there to have fun. And I wasn’t the best with time management. I ran my 400m race early, then spent a few hours wandering around.
Right before my 800m race (the one I was better at, and thus actually cared about), I sat in the grass leisurely lacing up my neon pink track spikes. I must have been counting dandelions while I was at it, because I didn’t hear the starter pistol or see the girls’ team running around the bend.
A coach from another school hustled over and towered above me. I still had only one shoe on my foot.
“Hurry up,” he said, “you missed your race, so you’re running the 800 with the varsity boys.”
I gulped. Oh dear. Oh no please no.
In my plain black tank top, I already felt like the odd one out among the girls and their matching blue uniforms. But being sandwiched in the lineup of dudes was truly intimidating.
The testosterone must have been a little contagious, however, because I ran my fastest two laps yet. It felt like I never stopped sprinting. My quads and lungs were on fire. One by one, the guys passed me. I was sure I was dead last.
On the home stretch I had tunnel vision which blocked out most of the spectators, except for one man who seemed to lean out of the bleachers and into my lane.
His face was red and angry and spit flew out of his mouth as he hovered in front of me, screaming: “You better not let a f***ing girl beat you!!”
I heard a ragged panting behind me as I crossed the finish line. My whole body went numb. Glancing back, I saw a thin teenage guy leaned over with his hands on his knees, gasping for breath. He sounded asthmatic. He looked like he was about to cry.
So what if I am a female? At 16, I was physically bigger and stronger than he was. It was no shock that I would also be a bit faster.
Parents are on a bad track when they bully their children about sports (about anything, of course, but competitive sports can bring out a nasty side of parents in a humiliatingly public way).
If a child is on the verge of a full ride athletic scholarship, sure, I can understand his or her parent taking on more of a coaching role and getting emotionally invested in the outcome of a competition.
But the guy I beat that day? In our rural county? No one was scouting him. He wasn’t breaking any records. His dad needed to relax.
When my mom drove me home her biggest concern was not my race time, but whether my shin splints were flaring up or if I had made any new friends at the meet. Thanks mom, for being a good parent.
I wonder if that guy has forgotten about the race or if a flashback ever crosses his mind while lying in bed awake in the middle of the night. I hope if he does remember it, he feels no shame about losing to a girl.
I never saw him or his dad again. I think it’s pitiful that his dad embarrassed him, while simultaneously making me feel guilty for winning. After I crossed the finish line and looked back, I thought, “I should have slowed down a few paces. If I had let him beat me, this poor kid wouldn’t have been yelled at.”
Why does this memory even stick in my mind? It was just a foot race.