Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Olympian in Me

I used to write “sack race” opposite “favorite sport” back in the days when signing autograph books was one of the coolest things in school. Although it had been so long ago, my autograph book answer still says something about my perception of sports: good, clean, competitive fun.

I am thinking that both nature and nurture didn’t help much in getting me into sports. I wasn’t born with the most flexible body in world, and my torso and extremities are not especially structured to allow me to excel in any sport. My family isn’t much into sports, either. We do attempt to get our limbs moving every so often but we were never absorbed by any sporty habit.

It seems that even the Fates have thrown in their efforts to keep me away from sports. The Olympian in me was hardly given the opportunity to be set fee.

Sack race, piko, tumbang preso and Chinese garter (ten-twenty, Chinese jump and limbo rock) aside, I soon had my share of serious sports, thanks to my Physical Education (PE) classes.

Perhaps the first more structured sport I ever got to play was kickball. The rules are similar to softball/baseball, minus the bat and hard flying ball. I loved kickball. For a 10-year-old, it was really easy to play. There was a special thrill when the pitcher starts rolling the ball towards you. And once you kick the ball, you are suddenly liberated from all the anticipation of the game.

We used to play kickball during lunch breaks, thus explaining why we spent our afternoon classes all stinky and sweaty. I was so into the game I never realized I was all stinky and sweaty. But then, I had to see a schoolmate twist her ankle during a game. I can vividly remember how tormented her face looked because of the pain. She was then being transported on a stretcher from the field to the school clinic. At that point, I retreated and abandoned whatever career I might have had in that sport.

If some girls pine away for the loveliest doll they see in a toy store, I gravitated towards a colorful (and relatively cheap) badminton set. I later got the pair of white rackets with colorful strings and shuttlecocks as a Christmas gift. And the way I was “instructed to find it” will go down in history as one of the best surprises I ever received in my life (complete story is reserved for another topic).

With the new badminton set, my siblings and I, as well as our neighbors had a new game at our hands. Quite frankly, I never thought of it as a sport back then. Maybe because we never really followed a strict point system while playing it. I was in it for fun. My main goal was to whack the shuttlecock and let my opponent eat it.

Finding a badminton court in the early 90s isn’t as easy as it is these days when anyone and everyone play badminton. The long driveway in font of the row of apartments where we lived made a good court. And the 11-year-old me always found a good badminton opponent in our next-to-the-next-door neighbor who was, I think, no less than 12 years older than I was. Our games weren’t the pros but we were no beginners either. If not for the shuttlecocks getting stuck at another neighbor’s roof, my badminton momentum wouldn’t have taken an eventual halt.

In school, I was introduced to volleyball. I didn’t like it that much because it hurt my forearms but I had no choice but to play. My grades depended on it. Come the ball control and volleying practical tests, I exhausted all possible means to do well. You see, I have the tendency to obsess. And so at night, after I’m done with my homework, I would go outside and play some ball. It partly paid off because, believe it or not, I was among the selected possible players for our class’ volleyball team.

Incidentally, I underwent a minor surgery during that school year. With a bandaged wrist, I was reduced to sitting in the sidelines while my classmates played. I never made it to the compulsory try-outs.

My freshman year in high school would have been a sure hell for me because of that whole quarter of our PE class devoted to gymnastics. Unlike others, I cannot be bent or stretched the way our PE books say people can be bent or stretched. I have an awful track record of physical fitness test scores—especially those related to flexibility and endurance. I cannot bend and reach for my toes (although at one point I did pull off the knee bending thing). But the activity that never failed to tack me against the wall of shame was good old sit-ups. I never learned how to do any of those darn sit-ups. And I make sloppy crunches even up to this day. I don’t know if it’s my back I have problems with but I honestly have a limited way of hoisting myself up. I cannot imagine how I would pass gymnastics class—what with the head/hand stand, splits, and cartwheels?

So how did I get away with not doing head/hand stand, splits and cartwheels? One word: chickenpox. (Oh, I loved the timing of my pox! Haha!) I submitted a special project instead. I think the most apt title for that chapter in my life is “How chickenpox saved my life.”

Apart from memorizing the multiplication table, swimming is the other thing I thank my dad for forcing me to learn. If not for the swimming summer program in his office, I would have probably prayed for another ailment to save me from PE classes. But I knew the basic floats and the correct way of bobbing so learning freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke wasn’t so difficult for me. Sure, I wouldn’t win any swimming relay but I did complete my laps. I didn’t need any special project to pass, this time.

Being able to play softball was really fun. I particularly loved catching and batting—that is, if I hit the ball. I have to admit, though, that it terrified me. The whole time, I prayed that the ball would not hit me. The ball in softball is nowhere near soft. I am just glad it never caused me any bruise. I had no chance to fancy myself being a softball savant. At our game, I, the batter, struck out at the most inopportune time. Two of my teammates who were trapped at different bases never made it home. Needless to say, we lost because I wasn’t nearly a talented batter.

Since I do not possess the most powerful set of bones and muscles, I steered clear of those self-defense classes while in college. I ended up completing two units of Tai Chi class. Not really a competitive “sport” but I am glad to have tried it. Allowing the ball of energy circulate inside my body, submitting to peace, picturing the mountains in my mind, painting the rainbow, stroking the peacock’s tail, etc. are just some of those priceless experiences I had which was sugarcoated with a grade of 1.0. Plus I can always do the correct Tai Chi walk anytime I feel like avoiding arthritis and rheumatism.

Perhaps the only edge I have over Jessica Zafra which I can think of is doing well in a table tennis class. It was a risk taking that sport for PE. I had zero knowledge and experience prior to enrolling in that class. But I was able to pull it off and nearly aced it. However, my “career” in table tennis ended the day our class ended. I couldn’t very well play without a darn table now, can I?

I am guessing that bowling is the easiest sport to love. It would take a lot to be good at it but playing it is not a problem. How hard could rolling a ball be, right? I took the bowling challenge and enrolled in a bowling class one summer. I never made a strike unlike in softball where I made more than four. (Bummer!) I settled for a few spares though. As I always say, I am not good at bowling but I love it so much, I wouldn’t mind playing all by myself. All I need is cash and I’m off to this sport.

* * *

It’s been two days since the Beijing Olympics commenced. I have no idea how many countries have joined to vie for the gold medals. But I do know this, no matter how diverse cultures may be, there really are intersecting interests among us. And sports is one prominent point.

The Olympian in me may be passive, if not dormant, but I have it somewhere shoved at one corner of my person. And at this time of year when the Olympic torch is a-flaming, that almost forgotten part of me is silently celebrating and cheering on for all of the world’s athletes.

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