On Your Mark, Get Set … June 2006
I grew up in the tiny, rather sheltered suburb of Bronxville, New York, just outside New York City in Westchester County. Please don’t hold it against me. I would have preferred being born in a log cabin in upstate New York, or perhaps a rural Western state with lots of bike paths, but my preferences were difficult to communicate while in utero. Westchester it was.
While I navigated my way through the bizarre social structures of childhood/adolescence in Bronxville (for example, going to school for thirteen years with the same class of seventy kids), I spent most of my time in the humble city of Yonkers, at Murray’s Skating Rink, where I began figure skating in 1986 at age eleven. By twelve, I was putting in close to four hours a day, beginning at 4:45 a.m.—an ordeal from which my chauffeur, who doubled as my father, has yet to recover.
As far as I know, I never made a conscious decision to be an athlete. Athletics was hardwired in my DNA. On a warm September morning in 1983, I was picked last for kickball during a third-grade recess scrimmage. Something snapped. Wiping my sweaty palms on my Wrangler jeans and Pac Man T-shirt, I went Incredible Hulk on that red rubber ball and got my first taste of adrenaline off a grand slam kick. The dream took flight immediately; I was going to play kickball in the Olympics and no one was going to stop me. Except the International Olympic Committee, which still refuses to acknowledge kickball’s Olympic potential.
When my kickball dreams were put on hold, I fell in love with figure skating. I fell in love with the physical effort. I fell in love with the coldness. I fell a lot, in general. At fourteen, I actually had a dream one night that I was at the Olympic Games. There were a lot of lights and screaming fans and a really nifty USA warmup suit. But I couldn’t see my feet. I didn’t know if I was wearing skates or not. The dream felt so real it woke me up. There were no screaming fans next to my bed, just the chhk chhk
of the second hand on my Hello Kitty alarm clock. I never had that dream again, but I never forgot it.
Despite my dedication to skating, I soon realized there was not enough talent in my limbs to get to the Olympics as a figure skater. I made it to the highest level of competitive skating, Senior Ladies, and competed with the best nationally throughout high school and college. But my talent and placings were never impressive enough for me to be considered the next American ice queen. Wanting to stay involved with the world of skating, I was left with two choices: coach the next generation or join a professional ice show. After graduating from college, I chose the latter, signing contracts with the Ice Capades (which quickly went bankrupt), Holiday on Ice (which made me wear an elephant costume), and Hollywood on Ice (which toured South America and paid us in IOUs handwritten on Post-its). What a damn fool mistake that was! Now that I’m older, of course, I subscribe to the If-I-hadn’t-donethat- then-I-wouldn’t-have-gotten-here view of life’s journey. One of the great perks of being a writer is that it turns out there are no mistakes in life, just a lot of long paragraphs greatly in need of editing.
In 1997 and 1998, I toured with these skating shows, learning the hard way that athletic ability took a back seat to physical appearance and corrupt management. Professional skating was about as athletic as professional pinball. There was no need for strong muscles and diligent training. We were simply required to look as Barbie-ish as possible. Lots of the women starved themselves, drank, and did drugs. I got out after a year. I needed to be an athlete again—the only lifestyle that made sense to me.
I didn’t want to go back to amateur skating; a fresh start seemed better. I considered a return to rowing, a sport I had competed in at Colgate University. Unfortunately, there was not a lot of open water in Tucson, Arizona, where I started graduate school in creative writing. What is
in southern Arizona are lots of cyclists, runners, and swimmers. I joined a local triathlon club. I was hooked. Being a triathlete was a hell of a lot better than wearing makeup and sequins and worrying about how many calories were in a cup of coffee. I decided to make a real push to become an elite triathlete. I moved to Boulder, Colorado, in 2003 and trained with world champion Siri Lindley. I improved. After six years as an amateur, I was good enough to turn professional and compete for money. I met the qualifications to race as a pro—placing in the top three at three amateur races in one season, within 10 percent of the winner’s time, and in races with no fewer than five hundred women.
At about the same time, my writing life took flight when Little, Brown offered me a book contract to write about my life as a professional skater. All the Sundays Yet to Come
hit the shelves in 2003. While my memoir was well received (Entertainment Weekly
gave me an A- the same month John Grisham got a D+ and Toni Morrison got a B! Not that I’m competitive or anything. Noooo.), it didn’t launch me into literary stardom or pay a lot of the bills. I returned to substitute teaching and relied on that and my meager triathlon winnings to finance my chosen life of what could best be described as athletic slumming. Life was good, but not perfect. Because my triathlon skills were better suited for long-distance races—like the 140.6 mile Ironman— rather than the thirty-two-mile Olympic distance event, my Olympic dream seemed a little too dreamy. I just wasn’t fast enough to be one of the top three females at the Olympic trials. There was also the issue of my personal life falling apart. I was choreographing the closing ceremonies of my Engagement Games. Relationships—mine anyway—tended to become an emotional triathlon of jump in, give all, cry lots. I have multiple gold medals in this event. I was learning the hard way that my drive and motivation were great attributes as an athlete, but terrible faults in the I-can-fix-my-alcoholic-fiancé competition. I simply couldn’t understand how I could fix crooked derailleurs, dropped chains, stripped screws, locked pedals, broken laces, and leaking goggles but could not properly rewire another human being’s happy button. It took me years to realize the password to that control panel is strictly owner-operated.
In the spring of 2006, I met with my two editors at the ESPN compound in Bristol, Connecticut, to discuss the intricate details of my assignment/Olympic quest. Surely, attempting to get to the Olympics in two short years necessitated intricate details. The conversation went something like this.
“So, Kathryn, you have two years to try to make the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics in any sport. What sport are you going to try?”
“Well, I’m going to see which U.S. sports are lesser known and start there,” I said, knowing I wasn’t exactly a shoe-in for becoming a ’four-foot-eleven, eighty-eight-pound gymnast. Nor did I have the skill set required for popular sports such as soccer and basketball. My only (naive) hope was that the off-the-beaten-path, media-starved sports might be underpopulated and undertalented.
“Okay. Try some sports and write about it for the magazine and web site. We’ll cover your travel and training expenses. You’ll get a monthly stipend for your articles,” ESPN said.
“Okay!” I said.
“Okay!” ESPN said. “Any questions?”
Yeah, I’ve got questions. How the hell do I get to the Olympics in two years? Aren’t you going to help me with this? Do you have any buddies at the IOC? Is ESPN giving me this Olympic quest because you want to see me succeed or do you want some back page comedy sportswriting schtick that no one takes seriously? Because if it’s the latter, you’ve got the wrong girl, misters. Just because you’re ESPN doesn’t mean I’m going to let you edit or undermine my Olympic efforts as an athlete or a writer. Do you think you intimidate me? Do you think I’m gonna get all starry-eyed by your media magnitude? Can I meet Lance Armstrong?
“No,” I lied. “No questions.”
“Excellent! Keep in touch. Go get ’em.”
Before I could figure out how to go get ’em, I had to go get myself a place where I could live and train and write and, most important, be happy again. My heart wasn’t ready to go back to Boulder, where my relationship ended. My mind couldn’t handle training for any summer sport in the climate and confines of New York City. The idea of moving somewhere new and unfamiliar was unsettling. I only had two years to attempt to get to the Olympics—and in new surroundings, given my capacity to get lost, I would lose some of that time just getting acclimated. I have the sense of direction of a gnat. So where could I base myself that felt familiar, comforting, and conducive to summer sports? Tucson, Arizona. Having graduated from the University of Arizona with an MFA in creative writing in 2000, I knew the city, liked the people, and loved the climate (with the exception of June and July). And unlike NYC or Boulder, I could afford to live in Tucson without eating other people’s leftovers. I packed up my truck and headed west for good.
In Beijing, there would be thirty-two sports and 302 events: archery, badminton, baseball, basketball, beach volleyball, boxing, cycling, diving, equestrian, fencing, field hockey, gymnastics, handball, judo, modern pentathlon, mountain biking, race walking, rowing, sailing, shooting, soccer, softball, swimming, synchronized swimming, table tennis, tennis, team handball, track and field, volleyball, water polo, weightlifting, and wrestling. The idea that ESPN wanted me to “choose” one bordered on the absurd. Maybe if I was five years old, there would be time to experiment with every sport on the Olympic roster. But at thirty-one, the sport would more or less have to choose me.
As an endurance athlete, I had certain skills. Like endurance. That ruled out attempting events like the 50-meter butterfly and the 100- yard dash. Also, I am most talented at being upright. That ruled out diving, trampoline, and synchronized swimming.
Obviously, it made sense to look closely at any sport/event that crossed over well from my triathlon training or my high school and collegiate sports experiences of running and rowing. Everything else on the list was likely out of reach, due to skill sets, body type, and the fact that most of these sports require training schedules to begin shortly after exiting the womb. Sailing ended up being the only sport I would have liked to try but did not get around to. As soon as there is a sailing center in the desert of Tucson, I’ll look into it. But in the meantime, this was the list I came up with.
Triathlon : This is my current sport, though I tend to do it at longer, non-Olympic distances, and therefore at a pace too slow to qualify for the Olympic team. I’d have to beat out seasoned Olympians and world champions who, up till now, have been consistently handing me my ass on a platter. On the plus side, maybe I can speed up.
Modern pentathlon : This consists of cross-country running, swimming, fencing, horseback riding, and pistol shooting—all in one day. On the plus side, no one in the United States has ever heard of it and it’s obviously crazy hard, two factors which ought to discourage top-level competition. On the other hand, I’d never fenced in my life, hadn’t been on horseback in twenty years, and the only gun I’d ever fired shot water … with a very weak stream.
Team handball : No, not the kind of handball with taped palms, a concrete wall, and a hyper little blue bouncy ball. Team handball is a hybrid of basketball, soccer, water polo, and dodgeball, a sport that is all the rage in Europe and South America. On the plus side, not much doing on that front in this country since our unexpected fourth-place finish in the 1984 Olympics. Also, I’m a good team player. I like people and whatnot. The disadvantages: The last time I played a court sport was, um, never. In addition, my hand-eye coordination consists solely of knowing the difference between my hand and my eye.
Track cycling : On the minus side, brakeless bikes scare the crap out of me, especially brakeless bikes being pedaled by packs of riders zooming around at forty miles per hour on an embanked track made of cement or hardwood. On the plus side, thanks to my experience as a pro triathlete I’m a decent road cyclist, so this seemed to offer a glimmer of hope.
Rowing : On the plus side, I rowed in college. On the other hand, I’m too big to be a good lightweight and too light to be a good heavyweight. But perhaps with a lot of lettuce or a lot of ice cream, there’s that glimmer-of-hope thing.
Open water swimming : While pool swimming has been around (and very popular) for decades, open water swimming makes its debut as an Olympic sport in China. The event is a doozy: a ten-kilometer (6.2-mile) swim across any sort of open water—lake, river, ocean—for roughly two marathonish hours. Whoever gets to the finish buoy first, wins! Simple! Except for annoying things like sharks, jellyfish, parasites, kicking limbs, hypothermia, dehydration, exhaustion, cramping, and, potentially, drowning.
Race walking : All I knew of race walking is that it’s the unsung underdog of track and field events. This seemingly bizarre sport merges running and walking into a most interesting middle ground of human motion. Supposedly, there are technique, tactics, and discipline in race walking, but how hard could it be? It’s just walking, right?
Excerpted from As Good as Gold by Kathryn Bertine. Copyright © 2010 by Kathryn Bertine. Excerpted by permission of ESPN, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.