I wasn’t athletic, so I had to be a good sport. My body wasn’t doing me any favors. I was fat, slow, and asthmatic. I didn’t like to run, and sometimes I couldn’t run, and most often I couldn’t tell the difference. In no particular order, I’d find myself in an anxious panic, trying to catch up, struggling to breathe, and deciding how long to suffer before quitting. Maybe it happened all at once. I appreciated positive messages regarding adversity, sound bites like, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” I figured I’d be pretty strong one day. I didn’t want to die; I don’t think anyone really does, but I frequently wanted another water break.
Every once in a while, I wouldn’t stop. I’d be running sprints, gasping for air, too embarrassed to call a timeout so I could shuffle to the sidelines for my inhaler. A few public puffs on my medicinal aerosol canister were embarrassing enough to make me want to die of hypoxia instead. My mom would come pick me up from practice to find me purple-lipped, whistling soft words at her, seemingly oblivious to the situation’s severity. She’d rush me to the emergency room so I could hit the hospital’s enormous vaporizer machine for about an hour. My face felt tingly as the albuterol kicked in. I would be mortified upon my return to practice, because Mom reamed all of my coaches, educating them on the signs of an asthma attack and berating them for yelling at me, “Pick it up, Cole!”
Every season of my childhood was marked by whatever sport I was playing at the time. I loved sports. I didn’t love them in the conventional sense, but I loved them nonetheless. Sports were my entire social life, so I made it work. You didn’t have to be athletic to be good at sports. Rewards were everywhere. I got a trophy for being the best sport on my Little League basketball team. I wondered if the worst kid on the team always won the award for sportsmanship, but regardless, I was happy to get recognized for my positive attitude. I got another trophy for being most improved on my middle school baseball team, the year after getting cut for not being able to hit second base from the outfield. Even in defeat, there were wins to be had. My attitude, my effort, and my conduct were all opportunities for success. I would not be denied.
Sports taught me how to think, and, influenced by Dad’s daily dosage of self-help inspiration and Mom’s optimistic outlook, I began to view competition as a matter of perspective. Talent was the most obvious measurable category, but there were many ways to play the game. If you lost gracefully, you were a good sport; otherwise, you were a sore loser. I learned quickly that how I lost, and how I approached my lack of talent, was a game I needed to get good at. People didn’t care all that much about whether or not I was good at the game, but they cared a whole lot about how I related to my shortcomings. At least in front of my coaches and peers, I stopped acknowledging my difficulty, compensating with optimism and positivity. Reality was up for debate; it was all relative.
Everything I needed to know I learned in sports. There were always two teams. There were the good guys and the bad guys, and which ones were good and which ones were bad depended on which team we were on. There were the others, over there, and they sucked. We didn’t say that, though; we said stuff like “good luck,” and “may the best man win,” and “it’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game.” Really, we knew we were better, because red was a more dominant color than blue, lions were tougher than bears, and we secretly understood that God loved us more.
My family moved for the last time when I was in the fourth grade, landing me in Sandy Springs, an affluent city adjacent to Atlanta. We joined Riverside, the neighborhood swim and tennis club. All my best friends were my teammates at one point or another, and we would stay good friends well into adulthood.
There was Bobby, who always plugged his nose when he jumped in the water and was kind of sensitive like me. He would cry in front of everybody, though; I held the waterworks until I got home.
There was Joe, whose dad made him drink weight gainer because he was so skinny. I would jealously watch him choke down these huge, delicious-looking vanilla milkshakes like he was taking medicine. Joe’s mom called his dad “Big Daddy,” but I thought my dad was bigger than him.
There was Luke, who was really nice to me, and who went to a special primary school for his dyslexia but never talked about it. His house was the best sleepover spot, because he had a huge basement and his parents rarely came downstairs.
There was Henry and his best friend Jason. Both were athletic phenoms, and we would all debate which one was better at sports. Jason threw the hardest at butts-up, but Henry was faster, and they both played on a highly competitive traveling baseball team.
Then there was Alex, who was a total goofball. I liked him best, partly because he was a little chubby too. He wouldn’t spend the night out because he’d watched the horror film It with his older brother, and the clown had scared the shit out of him. When we had sleepovers, his folks would pick him up right before the rest of us went to bed, at least until we were in middle school.
We all crushed on older girls at the club; I remember only one girl my age. Her name was Jesse, and she was also my next-door neighbor.
Eventually, I went to middle school with the whole Riverside crew, and some of us even went to college together.
When it came time for our actual swim meets against rival clubs, I would hide in the bathroom and pretend to be pooping so I wouldn’t have to race. The coaches didn’t really bother me too much about it, because every time I did compete, all the other children would be out of the water drying off by the time I finally touched the wall, so it wasn’t like I was costing our team any points. Other than losing all my races, the main reason I skipped was that I wasn’t crazy about taking my shirt off and bending over on the big metal starting blocks for all my friends to witness. I was grateful my parents didn’t make me wear one of those speedos like Jesse’s little brother had to wear.
Over time, my mind became my most valuable asset, and my personality was my gift. My body was my problem, the thing that got in the way. I heard people say, “Play to your strengths,” so I did. I was more like a mascot than a player, cheering on my teammates, making my friends laugh, and offering positive antidotes to any negativity in the dugout. I was a good teammate, and I received fair praise for my efforts. Sports taught me that there were endless games within the game, and that I could still be a winner. It was easier to be good at a different game than to be better at the one everyone else was playing.
The division between my mind and my body grew greater. I felt very good about my positive approach to being bad. My strengths were solidified. My humor, kindness, and positivity were great assets to any team. Still, I had this body that didn’t work right. I wanted a better body, and everyone—my parents, doctors, coaches—all told me it was possible. If I could just eat healthier and exercise more, then I would have it all. I convinced myself that my body was my only problem, that if I were skinny, then I would be perfect.
It was easy to change my mind. I could do it very quickly; I just needed a different vantage point, new information, and a reason to alter reality. My body wasn’t so kind. I had to work hard and long to change my body, and the whole thing was exhausting. I wished I didn’t have to eat. I imagined how amazing it would be just to take a pill and be done with it. Dad would coach me, “Remember, Chris, mind over matter.” Clearly, there was something the matter with my mind, because no matter how hard I tried to lose weight, it didn’t matter. Every time I attempted to eat less, I would just get hungry and binge.
Oddly enough, eating badly was a reward for playing sports. Treats and junk food always accompanied sport activities. After every baseball game, we got coupons redeemable at the concession stand. At all swim meets there was a ton of candy and baked sweets for sale. No matter if we won or lost, we almost always went out for pizza or Mexican food after the game. I could have as much chips and salsa as I wanted. I prayed my mom and dad wouldn’t come to the restaurant with me, so no one would judge how much I was eating. God still judged me, so I prayed a lot.
I spent a great deal of my childhood praying for rain. Some of my fondest memories took place in the dugout of my Little League baseball games. We weren’t actually playing baseball; just sitting together, telling yo’ mama jokes, blowing bubbles with our gigantic wads of bright green watermelon Big League Chew, seeing who could spit a sunflower seed shell the farthest onto the slick field. The drumming of heavy summer showers against the flat concrete slab above my head was something spiritual, a peace offering from God assuring me of safety. I feigned disappointment while my teammates complained about the game’s delay, silently basking in our fleeting camaraderie as pine-riding equals. I’d ask Heavenly Father just to finish the job and call the game off, so we could all go out for pizza. Sometimes, He obliged. Maybe it was just because I wore my socks really high that game.