Mary vs the javelin


In the dark, I nearly tripped over it. Someone had left it tucked under the lip of our doorway and as I stepped into the dimly lit hours of early morning, my foot snagged on the corner, sending a panicked shudder through my body.

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Me and the javelin.

My feet are precious to me. For five weeks, I have been trying to heal from a stress reaction in my shin (basically, a bunch of little hairline fractures running from my ankle halfway to my knee). For most of those weeks, I’ve been toddling around in a boot, which has limited my ability to do some pretty basic stuff. In the last week or so, I have been able to walk around without the boot from time to time. But it’s tricky business because my ankles are feeling pretty paranoid at the moment. The last thing I need now, I thought to myself with duffle bag in hand and tracksuit fitted snugly beneath my school sweater, is another accident.

Letting my eyes adjust to the dark, I searched for the culprit of my imbalance and made out the shape of a package. As I picked it up to place it in a less life-threatening area, I noticed it was addressed to me, from Northern Ireland.

Another shiver ran down my spine, only this time it spread warmth and excitement.

I knew what was in this box.

But I was running late and Coach will leave people behind, so I tucked the package beneath my arm and hobbled down to my car. No boot today. Today was my first javelin competition.

The story of how I went from nerd to athlete is almost as long and coincidental as the story of how I met my friends from Northern Ireland, but my transition from a hurdler to a javelin thrower is pretty simple. I got injured.

When I pulled into the parking lot at school, Marcus, Sarah and Serena were already there, waiting in their cars. Gold and red lights shone off the black pavement from the neon “Home of the Jaguars” sign above the field house entrance. I turned off my car and slid the package onto my lap. This couldn’t wait any longer.

Inside the well-taped box, tucked into layers of foam wrap, was a ceramic plate decorated with butterflies, fairy mushrooms, and a brooding castle against a wild sea. It was a plate I made last summer when I spent a wonderful day outside Belfast with some dear friends. Immediately, I was swept onto the wild breezes and grey sunshine of the Irish coast. Castles and country lanes danced before my eyes as my memory floated me back to a place I miss.

A door slammed and I saw Serena getting out of her car. Coach had driven up behind us in the school van. Time to load up.

“You guys excited?” I said, clambering into the middle seat — I had stowed the plate neatly in the back of my own car before climbing into the school van. My enthusiasm was greeted by some half-hearted smiles and a snore. It was still early.

Normally, we don’t go up on Fridays. It’s hugely impractical. Most meet events are on Saturday — all the track events, the jumps, and most of the throws. This particular weekend, hammer and javelin were the day before. Javelin happens to be my only event right now, and I haven’t had the chance to compete yet, which means I won’t be able to attend the conference championship at the end of the month. This weekend would be my only chance to qualify.

“Coach,” I had said during practice that Wednesday, “If I can’t compete this weekend then there was no point in my practicing javelin for the last two weeks.”

He heaved a big sigh, gave me an exasperated smile and then showed up at the crack of dawn on Friday morning to take me and the other four throwers to Los Angeles.

My sole ambition as a composer is to hurl my javelin into the infinite space of the future.”
-Franz Liszt

We drove to the shed on the edge of campus to load up our equipment, fog lingering over the grassy field. Marcus had spent the better part of two weeks teaching me how to throw a javelin across this field and the stretch of lawn above it.

Leaning against the shed were our practice hurdles. Even in the excitement of loading our javelins and hammer wires into the car, I couldn’t help but feel a little tug in my chest at the sight of those rickety, wooden frames. It’s been too long since I’ve been over one, too long since I’ve been able to run at all.

Equipment stowed carefully away, we began our trek north. By the time we hit the highway, Coach had awakened enough to be in good spirits. The girls found their chattiness, too, so the drive up was mostly a lively one — Marcus slept in the back seat.

It’s been a rainy winter so, these days, the hills of Southern California are dressed in the bright yellows and pinks of wildflowers. My favorites to see are the mustard plants. They are soft, yellow bunches that grow on pale green stems. They grow tall and thin, texturing the hill with waves of brilliant bulbs of color that parade back and forth to the rhythm of the wind. From a distance, they almost look like fairies flocking the hillside.

And fairies always remind me of Ireland. Of course, there they are known as the Little Folk, as I was told by my Irish friends.

My wee little Belfast family are more than friends. They came into my life at a pivotal moment. They appeared when I was in the middle of a painful transition. Opening their home and their hearts, they served as a wayside shelter, a reminder that God provides, that he promises good to us and he is faithful to fulfill.

That is a reminder I have needed this semester, which is why the plate they sent meant so much to me.

When El Camino College finally greeted us with the open arms of opportunity, I was ready to greet it back.

For context, I have been training with the javelin for a week and half. The doctor finally approved me to do limited activities on my boot and javelin made the most sense to me. So here I’ve been, a wanna-be-hurdler with zero background in sports and a hefty injury on my right leg, learning how to throw a spear with three weeks left in the season.

Coach sauntered out of the parking garage towards the sunshine and the rest of us scrambled along behind, carrying poles and wires and metal balls (and, in my case, an enormous box of Cheezits).

Only four or five other schools showed up over the course of the morning. It was a small crowd. Track meets host hundreds of contestants, but the field side of things — especially when only half the events are being thrown — is understandably smaller.

“Should we take bets on how far Mary is going to throw today?” Coach asked. He was fully awake now and his proclivity for teasing had arisen with him.

“I already know,” I said, standing up on shaky ankles. We were sitting on the cement slab where the bleachers were set up. Across from us was a cone shaped field with a runway on one end and a hammer cage tucked away in the middle-right side. I stepped onto the edge of the red-track runway where a thick white line ran across the width of it and counted out thirteen loose footsteps into the grass. Turned to Coach, I said, “About here. This is my margin.”

Immediately, Sarah and Serena were at my side.

“But watch out for the line,” they said. “If you step over that line you scratch and your throw doesn’t count.”

My head jerked up instantly. I hadn’t heard this rule.

“You can’t even step over it as you’re walking off,” they said. “You should probably do some practice leads just so you get it.”

Lining myself up, I stepped out with my limited range of motion (even without the boot, I don’t have a lot of give on my right foot) and threw and imaginary javelin into the air. But I had to catch myself as I leaned forward and my feet ended up well past the white line.

“Scratch,” said Serena. “Try again.”

The second time I went through the motions on the right side of the line, but exited in the wrong direction.

“Scratch,” said Sarah. “Wait for your javelin to hit the grass, too.”

Suddenly, my head was spinning. I was having trouble just remembering to block and release up. Now I had to worry about the stupid white line too?

As the girls busied themselves with the Cheezits and Marcus took off to warm up for the hammer, I slipped away down the sidewalk, out of view.

For twenty minutes, I walked myself through blocking movements. Step out. Pivot. Pull. Block. Push. Follow-through. Release. Don’t step over the line.

Using the cement blocks in the sidewalk as markers, I ran through the steps until the soccer players in the field next to me had all but forgotten there was some weird girl doing Karate Kid motions by herself in the middle of campus.

Pausing to give my shoulder a rest, I was struck with a feeling of loneliness. I missed my hurdlers. My distance kids. My gang of misfits and rabble-rousers. I missed warming up with everyone and running in circles around an unforgiving track, telling each other we’ll be better people if we can just survive the day. It’s been such an incredible experience, being part of a team, and having to sit on the bench for the last few weeks has been isolating and discouraging. Half the reason I signed up for javelin in the first place was just to have a reason to keep coming to meets. Anything to stay in the uniform, you know? (The other half is that I’m fiercely competitive and I don’t like being told to quit).

My perk from the morning had disappeared into nerves and loneliness. I sat back down with the girls and listened to their cheerful banter as we watched Marcus throw. They explained the finer points of the hammer event and helped me wrap my bad ankle with the medical tape in our first aid bag. It was a shoddy job, but it held together.

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Warming up.

The morning passed away serenely. At one point, I fell asleep stretched out on the concrete and upon waking up, I discovered Coach had balanced a Cheezit on my forehead.  

Coach came and went. He knows everyone, so this meet was a busy social occasion for him.

At last, the time for women’s javelin had come. It was the last event of the afternoon so the remaining athletes and coaches collected near the field to watch.

“Okay Mary,” said Coach, pulling me aside. “This is just the warm up. It’s called picking. Just practice throwing a few feet in front of you. Throw at the same time as the other girls in the line. You wouldn’t want to hit anyone.”

His deep, gravely voice was a familiar comfort. I don’t know if every coach is given an internal fear detector to help them locate which of their athletes needs a pep talk the most or if it’s just my coach, but he always seems to know when to remind me that he’s right there, that we’ve got this.

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Picking with my Lady Jags.

Serena and Sarah made space for me between them in the picking line and walked me through the process of spotting my mark and aiming for it.

The tall girl next to us was panicking almost as hard as I was. It was her first time to, but she didn’t have teammates here to help her like I did..

My last few picks were horrible. I could hear Coach from the sideline saying, “Pretend it’s your ex-boyfriend and you’re mad at him. Throw it, Mary!”

Next came practice throws from the runway. I was a mess. The javelin wasn’t even sticking in the grass when I threw it. It just sort of hit the ground and slid a few feet, like an underachieving lizard on a poorly constructed water slide.

And, of course, everyone was watching. At least in track most people are too busy watching the winner to notice the loser.

But the tall girl was struggling too, so I commiserated with her and we had a good laugh. Then I complimented some girl on her American flag muscle tape and another girl on how pretty her throw was, even though it didn’t stick (“You’re like my mom today, thanks,” she said with an an appreciative smile).

The official called us over and asked if anyone wanted the rules explained. Everyone — not just my teammates, the whole flight of javelin girls — looked at me.

“Yes, please,” I said with a sheepish giggle.

Fully aware that everyone had recognized me as the baby of the group, I held my head high. I was the first to throw — also terrifying — and I could hear my teammates cheering me on.

All I had to do was get the javelin to stick in the grass and I would have my mark, I would get to compete at the Conference finals in two weeks.

Step out. Pivot. Pull. Block. Push. Follow-through. Release. Don’t step over the line.

I lifted my eyes just in time to see my javelin plunging into the earth, tail still skyward. Instinctively, I clapped my hands and looked for Coach amid the several dozen smiling from the bleachers.

“It stuck! Coach, I’ve got a mark!”

It wasn’t just my own teammates applauding me. The whole flight of throwers and most of the crowd were laughing and clapping their hands. Not because it was a great throw — it was the shortest of the round — but because they knew I had accomplished my goal. I got a mark. I made a start. I had begun.

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My second throw was even better, and I got another cheer when my javelin passed the first mark by a foot. The third throw swelled farther out still.

The fourth throw was flat and came down short, but at that point, I was happy anyway. Happy to be in a uniform. Happy to be part of the team. Happy to be in the sunshine doing new things in new places.

I cradled the half-empty box of Cheezits all the way back to the car. Coach said he was proud of us so he took us to his favorite burrito joint in LA to celebrate. The food was delicious and portions were big. I had already decided not to finish mine when Coach informed that I couldn’t be a thrower unless I could eat like one. My teammates nodded in agreement silently as they chowed down on burrito-y goodness, the deepest contentment etched across their faces. So I sighed, reexamined my plate, and strategically conquered the whole thing. And the throwers officially claimed me as one of their own.

With food on our stomachs and a long, long morning behind us, the ride back was fairly quiet. I slept for a lot of it. When I did wake up, in those first few moments of almost-consciousness, the jumble of the school van down California’s golden coast reminded me of another coast and the familiar bus ride that took me from Dublin’s airport to my lovely wee friends in Belfast. They, too, claimed me as their own. For reasons I’ll never understand, they just opened up their hearts and let me walk right in.

Since leaving Prague two years ago, I’ve been struggling to find a place where I belong. Maybe that’s why I’ve taken to sports so intently this year. But every time I think I’ve found my feet beneath me again, something trips me up. It’s been one injury after another for two seasons now. I’m doing everything I can just to stay fit for a race in two weeks I may never get cleared to run. All my pool sprints and now bike workouts and gym hours — I know very well it might all be for nothing if the doctor says I still can’t run on this leg when the time comes. And that’s been so disappointing.

Harder still is having to shoulder the disappointment alone. Because I do my workouts separately, I never see my kids anymore. Janet, Corey, David, the distance boys and the hurdle crew and all those rag-tag sprinters who’ve wormed their way into my affections so steadfastly this year — I don’t see them now.

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But for two weeks I have been able to train with the throwers, these crazy wonderful kids who have turned into sweet friends. I have been able to learn a new skill, one I have been interested in but never thought I’d have the time to try. I’ve walked into a whole new world, right here at the end of the season. What an unexpected gift.

It’s as if God is reminding me once again that he will never leave me empty handed. That, even though my life might not unfold the way I envisioned, it will not be barren or bleak. It will be filled with his grace and mercy, overflowing with blessings like sunshine, roadtrips and Cheezits, like friends in unexpected places and ceramic plates that show up outside your door like rainbows after stormy weather, like teammates who will cheer you on for not falling over the scratch line and coaches who will give up their Friday to drive you three hours north so you can throw a spear into the ground and make it stick.

Mary vs the fear of falling

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I’m deathly, gut-wrenchingly afraid of falling.

Coach knows this.

He also knows that I like a good challenge, which is why, on a golden day last week, he called me over to work with the hurdlers at track practice.

“Warm up with these guys today,” he told me in his deep, rich voice that always seems to be laced simultaneously with layers of amusement, preoccupation and expectation.

Coach is the predominate reason I found myself on the track team this semester. And even though I got to know him well when I ran cross country, I’m discovering quickly that he is a different beast during track season. When it’s time for play, he leads the charge. But when it’s time to work, you don’t mess around with Coach.

At the end of the soft red track, nestled on the outer curve of the bend, a heap of hurdles were stacked on the grass.

It had been raining – you all remember the deluge, right? So the grass was green, and the mountains across Otay Lake were gorgeously carpeted in pear-colored sprigs. The sky was blue, the lapping waves on the surface of the lake were silver, the breeze was clear and golden. What a day to be outside.

Our team has been training at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista since our own track was ripped up and turned into a dirt path over Christmas break.

I’m not complaining. This place is gorgeous. The equipment is top-notch and we always see Olympic or professional athletes from other parts of the country, or other parts of the world, practicing alongside us. Already I know I will never forget this for as long as I live.

“C’mere, Mary,” said Daniel, the very tall, very friendly guy who first taught me how to run a three-hundred without dying from butt-lock. “I’ll show you how to get set up for the hurdle stretch.”

He helped me shimmy the hurdles around and lift my leg up and over them.

Some of the other guys jumped in and added that I should keep my toes pointed up, or keep my knee pulled in tighter. Janet, my friend from cross country season, just gave me looks now and again to correct my form or attitude. With just the nod or shake of her head, that girl could change the tides of the ocean. She can also hurdle like nobody’s business.

Eventually, after my make-shift lesson in stretching and warming up, Coach meandered back in our direction, his great shadow stretching long and wide.

“Are you all about ready?” he asked, swaggering over from the middle of the field where he had been talking with the jump coach, the layer of preoccupation casually at the command deck of his voice. “Do four 300’s with the last three hurdles.”

“Not you,” Coach said to me, not even looking down. His eyes were still assessing my companions, all lanky-limbed and agile, as they made their way towards their lanes. “Go set up a hurdle down there. Take the top off. We’ll practice.”

I scampered away and quickly followed directions, a tiny knot beginning to form from the threads of my stomach. How was I supposed to actually jump over one of these things?

From the middle of the field, at the end of the jump zone, I had a clear view of everything. Everything from the pole vaulters at the bottom corner of the field to the sprinters practicing in their starting blocks. All around me was a whir of people, activity and sunshine.

Coach doesn’t stay in one sport during practice. Not ever. He watches the sprinters, keeps tabs on the hurdlers, talks with the distance coaches, and makes the long walk over to the throwers in the other field. And just when you might think he’s not paying attention, you can hear him bellow across the track, calling you by name, to tell you to dorsi flex or open your stride.

By the time he finally made his way back to me, my hurdle was set up and ready to go. Frankly, it was doing a lot better than I was. I was a nervous, jittery wreck.

Did I mention that I’m scared of falling?

Coach walked over to one side of the dismantled hurdle, top barely a foot from the ground, and said, “Go ahead, jump.”

And I did. Piece of cake.

He raised the top slightly and we repeated the process. Each time, he gave me a new instruction to follow – knees up, lean forward, use momentum. Each time I had to shake myself off and mentally give my face a little slap before sizing myself up before the baby hurdle.

A few yards away, Janet and Daniel were whizzing past, jumping over actual hurdles. I watched in awe. They made it look so easy, graceful even.

When my baby hurdle had grown to racing height and I had successfully gotten over twice, Coach said, “Alright, now go join them.”

I gulped. The hurdlers were running three hundred meters and then leaping at full-speed over literal obstacles in their path and, miraculously, not dying. I had not expected to get thrown in with the big dogs so soon.

But you don’t mess with Coach, and worse than angering him is disappointing him, so I picked up my feet and found the starting line just beyond the vaulters.

“You got this, Mary,” Daniel said with his ever-reassuring chuckle. “This is easy.”

There was nothing to do but go for it.

Red rubber track slid away beneath my shoes as I gathered speed down the first hundred meters. The second hundred meters makes up the bend in the track and then, then come the hurdles.

Something happens when you jump a hurdle.

When you run, the world rushes by in a blur of color and muffled sounds. But the second you leap into the air, your body slows down just enough for the world to look noticeably still. Objects in your peripheral vision become clear and sounds land crisply in your ears until your feet touch back down and you shoot off again. For a second, just one second, at the crest of that hurdle, it feels like time stops.

At least it did the first time I made it over. And it was a miracle I made it over that hurdle at all. I hit the next two and basically body slammed the last one.

A few more tries running around the track left me more out of breath, my shins beginning to splinter from the pounding, and the hurdles still an elusive foe.

Sometimes, I would get all the way up to a hurdle and then just stop, unable to make myself jump over it. My whole body would jerk to a halt or rear up backwards like a skittish horse. There was, unfortunately, a fair amount of yelping and shrieking involved in all of this as my life flashed before my eyes at each approach.

“Mary,” Coach called from the side of the field. “You have to make it over the hurdle.”

“Yes, Coach,” I said, smiling dumbly as my shin splints began a new chorus of screams.

On the walk back to the starting line, I ran into one of the hurdle boys. He stopped me for a moment.

“The hurdle, Mary” he said, “it’s all in your head. We’re all scared of it. But you have to trust your gut.” He pointed to his head, “You have to beat it up here first.”

I know quite a lot about how much some battles are fought in the mind. All of last semester, the cross country team trained on hills. I can get up a hill just fine, it’s the coming back down. It’s the staring down a long drop that rushes at your face as your tired body plunges seemingly toward the earth. It’s that fear of falling. There were some days where I would sweat my way up a hill just to get stuck at the top, heart pounding, mind screaming, throat tightening into unreasonable sobs. I knew I wasn’t going to fall down those hills. No one else had. But there was some invisible hand holding me back, pressing my mind into the dust, leaving me weak and shaking.

But I got over it. After a whole season of fighting that hand, I finally won. Now I run down hills, not because I’m no longer afraid of falling, but because I am stronger than it.

At the end of last season, when Coach asked what I wanted to do for track, in my mind I thought, anything but hurdles. Because even the thought of hurdles gave me that same heart-pounding, mind-numbing ache.

But I like a challenge, and Coach knows this. So when I asked if I could do the 400 hurdles, he said “Okay” without a single note of preoccupation or amusement. It was all expectation. Expectation that I would push myself, live up to my commitment to the team. He expected that I would learn how to jump a hurdle. And you don’t mess with Coach.

I knelt at the line, gave myself one last big pep talk, and shoved off. But as I rounded the bend, I was suddenly smacked with the view of a bare track. The hurdles were gone!

“Coach!” I yelled, continuing to run, though somewhat flailingly without a target hurdle to jump.

“Hey!” Coach shouted, amusement and expectation in his voice both battling for the upper hand. “Where are my hurdles at? Where’d you guys put the hurdles? She’s still got to get over them!”

The Papa Bear chuckle in his voice caused a string of giggles to erupt from the side of the field as the team scrambled to put the track back together.

I was ushered back to the start where I had to regive myself the “just do it” pep talk before beginning.

At this point, most of the team, the jumpers and sprinters, had completed their workouts and the commotion had caused a fair number of them to criss-cross over to our side of the track. I could hear them cheering me on as I lifted off and rushed toward the first hurdle. But Coach’s voice, now determined and expectant, was the only one I listened to.

“Faster,” I could hear Coach say. “Get those knees up or you aren’t going to make it.”

“Lean in, Mary!”

“Control your arms!”

“Dorsi flex!”

My mind tried to grasp what he was saying, but literally none of it processed. I had one thought and one alone: don’t trip over the hurdle. Don’t fall.

In a blue and white flash, the first hurdle came and went beneath the current of movement I had created and I barely noticed it. The second one clipped my knee, but I crossed it as well, losing my balance for just a moment before pulling myself toward the last obstacle.

By this point, the team down by the last hurdle was just as intensely drawn into the trek as I was. I could hear them even in the faintness of the rushing track and the roaring road beneath me. But the only sound I listened to was my own little voice, a voice that is growing stronger, the same one that begged me to just pluck up and run down all those hills last semester.

Just get over the hurdle, Mary. Please, just get over the hurdle.

And I did.

It was truly something else. Once my toes were off the ground, it felt like they belonged in the air. That golden sunshine seemed to pave a road for my feet and in the split second that I found myself crowning the hurdle, I felt like I had wings.

It wasn’t a technically beautiful jump, and Coach was the first to say it wasn’t perfect, but perfection will be a lesson for tomorrow.

That day, I was content just to walk off the field a hurdler, knowing it wouldn’t matter that I was afraid of falling now that I knew what it felt like to fly.