Over at RG's playground (www.rachellegardner.com/2012/06/staying-in-the-game) today is a post that has once again inspired me to get to thinking. She talks about not giving up, and frames the discussion within the vignette of her daughter's challenges with gymnastics and subsequent flirt with quitting. Hey, I can't do what she said any justice here, so please go read it for yourself.
I think sports are like that, though. If nothing else, the field of athletic competition teaches us the importance of pressing on, pushing ourselves past where we think we can go.
Reminds me of a story, in fact. Granted, looking out of my living room window can remind me of a story, I'm so full of it--er, them. But RG's daughter's struggles reminded me of my own, way back when I'd decided that I was going to attend a military academy, and so I'd been advised to become athletic. Yes, generally that happens in reverse order, but I've always been the guy who does things backwards.
My mother was quite protective of her eldest son, mind you. I'd been trying to talk her into letting me play football (though how I thought I would do both football and band is a mystery) but she was convinced I would end up being bundled off the field in a medical cocoon, every bone fractured and permanently ruined. Thus, the only way I could work toward going into the military (where people might be shooting at me, but--well, we didn't go there) was to seek out a non-contact, non-violent, non-son-crushing sport. Like, um, water polo.
I mean, how hard can that sport be, I thought. People swim down the court and throw the little ball at the goal, and then they swim back. It's just a lot of swimming back and forth with some occasional ball-throwing mixed in for interest.
The reason I'm snickering to myself is that the only people who think that water polo is non-violent are those who haven't played it. The refs can't see through splashing water very well, and the unwritten rule of water polo is that anything the refs don't see is legal.
So anyway, first day of water polo, there I was in my speedos and towel. Wasn't all that challenging at first--how hard could it be, anyway? Granted, at the time I had no idea of the difference between "warm-up" and "conditioning." Thus it was that we arrived at the conditioning portion of the practice with me still pretty much unaware of what was to come: In-n-Outs.
Now, In-n-Outs are one of the bread and butter workout moves for water polo teams. Conceptually they've very, very simple: every body dives in, swims the short length of the pool, and jumps out. In, and out, got it? Like I said, it ain't rocket science. It's also pretty easy to do. Once. But then the coach tells you to spin around and do it again. And after that, spin around and do it again. And again. And again.
Problem with doing it in a synchronized, team-wide manner, is that the guy who can really swim (Kyle Kopp, in our case--great guy, but that day I hated his guts) gets several seconds of rest between each one, while the weakest swimmer on the squad (guess who that was...) comes up gasping for breath only to have to flop-spash back in immediately every time.
After nearly a hundred of them (actually it was only seven or eight, but by that point I couldn't count too well) I was done. I'd had it. My illustrious water polo career was over, man. I was never, ever going to cut it with these guys, so why bother trying?
The coach knew, somehow. Something about the way I stood straight on that rep instead of flopping back in half-hunched over told him what was on my mind. He came over and said something to me, and suddenly I had entirely new life. Granted, I still flop-splashed through the rest of that workout and the dozens to come, but I didn't quit again. I made it through that season, and the next one. I even played in a few games, ones where we were already up by monstrous point differences and so the coach could afford to put in the flop-splasher.
I sucked at water polo. Still do, or at least did the last time I pulled on a pair of speedos. But I was okay at other sports. Used to be able to run a five-minute mile, followed by several more. It's not Olympic standards, but I liked it. And you know what? Time after time I remembered that moment by the pool at San Bernardino High School. When I was somewhere between Mile 25 and Mile 26 of the Marine Corps Marathon, ambling along with muscle cramps in four different major muscles while every other muscle, bone, and ligament in my body screamed at me to stop, I thought of that moment and ran--well, jogged--on.
That's helped me in other things as well. I've had jobs where I wanted to just quit, yet I plowed on. Sometimes we feel that way as writers, too. But the fact is that no matter how hard it is, there's always something left inside of us to draw from in pressing on.
You'd think I'd remember what it was the coach said. I don't. I only remember how I felt in that instant, the switch that flipped from "I can't do this" to "I can do this."
My favorite poem of all time (I bought a laminated copy over 25 years ago and still have it):
When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you're trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest, if you must, but don't you quit.
Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As every one of us sometimes learns,
And many a failure turns about,
When he might have won had he stuck it out;
Don't give up though the pace seems slow--
You may succeed with another blow.
Often the goal is nearer than,
It seems to a faint and faltering man,
Often the struggler has given up,
When he might have captured the victor's cup,
And he learned too late when the night slipped down,
How close he was to the golden crown.
Success is failure turned inside out--
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far,
So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit--
It's when things seem worst that you must not quit.
- Author unknown