Monday, August 30, 2004

The Olympics And Ridiculous Dreams Of Childhood

Tonight we watched the closing ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Greece.

The opening ceremonies were simply stunning. We were so enthralled by both the show and what this small country had managed to accomplish that all three of us had sat there watching the teams enter the stadium, the flame lit, the theatrical performances. We were so engrossed, trying to impart the historical importance of the Olympics returning to their birthplace to my four year old daughter that we quite frankly allowed her bedtime to come and go.

Over the last two weeks we tried to sample many different events to watch--NBC got smart and spread various events over their many NBC-owned stations so there was a MUCH wider variety of options--not just the same old mega-popular events. N. did pretty well and was genuinely interested in a lot of it, but I don't know how much of this she'll remember.

Tonight, I mostly watched the closing ceremonies by myself--N. had been put to bed at a sensible hour for a change and J. had wandered off to take a shower, nursing a probable broken toe courtesy of a late-night foray into the darkened kitchen and an unexpected greeting by the immovable kitchen island last night.

As I watched I was surprised to feel myself choking up a bit as they showed scenes of the many amazing victories, failures and strain that the athletes endured. Then it hit me as to why I tried so hard to get my daughter interested in the games, why I got so absorbed myself: I remembered watching the 1972 Olympics from Munich when I was 11.

Still, quiet summertime in Norco, with no air conditioning and the house opened up to every possible breath of fresh air, fans running at high speed. My Dad mostly asleep on the couch as I watched the events. Surprisingly, while the terrible murder of the Israeli athletes towards the end was the prevailing memory of that year, it was also the year that had really fired my every-kid's-wish to somehow, someday, be on that Olympic medal podium myself.

When you are 11 you know that certainly you can do it!

...if only you didn't have to wait until you were older. The problems of being short in height, never having been on a real sports team before and being the youngest child of a large family with admittedly modest means doesn't even enter into it. In my family I learned by watching the older kids--and learned pretty quick not to even dream of playing little league or go out for expensive school sports. My folks couldn't afford it, and what they were able to give us came with a lot of hard work and sacrifice on their part. I think we kids decided privately to ourselves to appreciate what we had, enjoy our family and not whine.

My personal ambition was to be able to compete in the high jump and it had hit me hard. I had seen Dwight Stones in the Olympics and what he was able to do amazed me. Again, never mind that I was lamentably short--even as an adult I don't exactly tower at 5 foot 2--and the high jump bar loomed overhead like a damned skyscraper. I was determined to try. Surprisingly--especially to me--I actually did pretty well and was looking forward to taking the first step along the Olympic road. To me, anyway.

I had been practicing the high jump during P.E. and was screwing up my nerve to ask the coach if I could get at it seriously when--

we moved away.

Not only moved away, but moved FAR away, to a tiny country town where the high school student body numbered exactly 100--for grades 9 through 12. Needless to say, they had no such thing as high jump equipment. When my dad told us of the move I could practically feel any chance of competing draining away from me. Heck, they barely even had a football field, and no track and field program at all. The sports choices for the girls were basketball, volleyball and softball.

I even asked the one girls' sports coach about starting up a track and field team, complete with high jump, and was given a gentle but firm lecture on the small-time budgets of small-town schools.

For a while I tried to practice on my own in the sagebrush-and-fire-ant-infested area up behind our barn. I built two poles with nails every 1/2 inch to hold the bar and marked the measurements on them. My problem was the pit. When you high jump, ya need something large and soft to land in. This is where I was stymied. That town wasn't even big enough to collect old mattresses from. From somewhere I obtained some miserably thin foam padding, cut into weird shapes that was obviously scrap material. There was precious little of it and I had to arrange it juuuuust right to keep from breaking my head. Even then it was woefully thin and eventually, sadly, I had to give up that particular dream. All I was doing was pissing off the fire ants. It's probably just as well and saved me many injuries, failures and disappointments when my lack of height would eventually put a stop to my dream. But I did watch Dwight Stones again in the 1976 Olympics, feeling a kind of kinship with him. We were lucky to even see the Olympics since in our remote area we had three TV stations, and only one was semi-reliable.

Tonight, I was shocked to have that childhood memory and dream of the high jump come roaring back so strongly. I haven't even thought of it in years. It's been filed away I guess, waiting for the chance to pop up. Now that I carry an extra pound or two of scrap metal in my left ankle and have had to give up running in any form I am reduced to watching others strive for that dream. I don't often feel sorry for myself for what has happened to me--heck, if it's the worst thing I'll be lucky--but tonight I do, and it's because I had a huge flashback--being 11 years old and having any possibility in the world open to me. Not only having that door closed, but having it welded shut, still jumps up to bite me at unexpected moments.

I guess that's why it was so important to me to explain to my daughter what the Olympics mean--it's the best of the best, and she won't see them again until she's nearly 9. I hope she remembers something of what she saw this time, and gets to experience that same amazing, breathless, wide-eyed epiphany of possibilities when she gets older. I hope that she trusts me enough to come to me and say, "Mom, can I...?" without any barriers.

When she does, I hope I can remember how I felt in 1972.

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