Monday, September 29, 2008

froggie ...

enough time has passed that i can say now, probably without sounding like a pompous ass, that i used to be pretty good at the long jump. and later when the men in charge of determining which sports girls could compete in without spraining a uterus gave a grizzled, bulbous belly and cigar-smoked nod to the triple jump -- i was pretty decent at that, too.

but first i was good at the standing broad jump.

more than pickleball, badminton or parachute or earth ball, more than even floor hockey, my favorite chapter of grade school gym class was the presidential fitness test. here i measured my athletic prowess against my classmates, who were hanging apathetically from a chin up bar.

i indexed their strengths:

allison, a gymnast, had puny arms with cartoonish muscle lumps. she killed at the flexed-arm hang.

sophea had a low center of gravity and was a spontaneous sweater. he ruled the shuttle run.

joan was a tomboy. she could throw a softball the length of the church parking lot.

the softball throw was my lone weakness. luckily, our gym teacher -- mr. a, a man who resembled clark kent -- had added this to the curriculum without the presidential seal of approval, so my bumbling did not count in the final fitness test tally. it was just for fun. i took this competition to sit on the asphalt and mentally prepare for the real events.

my strengths were running the 50 meter and the 600 meter, the standing broad jump, situps, flexed arm hang ... all but the shuttle run where i was adequate, but hardly lithe. i could crank out a decent time, my keds sliding across the dusty gym floor. but i probably wouldn't win. i had to score high enough in the other events to make up for this slight deficiency.

i pitted myself against the best in each event, choosing to race against the fastest runners, follow the strong athletes' performances so i knew how long i had to hang with my chin poised above that bar, arms shaking, face red, feet squirming. i strategically marked who's feet i would hold during the situps competition, then let them go first. 60 seconds, how many situps can you complete. then i would beat them by at least two situps, greasy hair flying, my bony spine bruising and my plaid uniform skirt snaking up to my belly button as i seizured my way to victory on a two-toned gym mat.

one year i scored in the 98th percentile of all the elementary school students who were my age across the country. my name was written with a sharpie on a piece of construction paper on the wall of the gym, the names of the other high-finishing students listed beneath it. i looked at my name every day on my way to lunch. there at the top, with a star next to it. the 98th percentile. mr. a. said it was a school record. well, it tied a school record.

i pictured ronald reagan sitting at his desk in washington, d.c., rifling through this year's presidential fitness test results and seeing: christa pista, age 9, rochester, minnesota, right there among the best of the best.

"over 6 feet in the standing broad jump!" he would say to himself. "hey, nancy! get a load of this! this girl also beat every boy in her class at the 50-meter dash!"

i watched the mail for a letter of congratulations that never came.

martha was not just an athlete, she was a lifestyle. she was red lipstick and wild colored paisley leggings. her thick hair in a ponytail on top of her head. she would set up a camp near the long jump pit, in the infield of the football field, and it looked like she was moving in. an umbrella to block the sun, a cooler, a walkman. sometimes an entourage.

that girl could jump.

for two years i settled for distant second-place finishes behind this athlete from rochester's sleepy neighboring farm town byron, minnesota. she was the calmest, coolest winner in the history of wins. unflappable and confident. pretty in a way you only see on manequins.

one time, when she wasn't around to challenge it, i jumped 17 feet at the newly-opened national sports center in blaine, minn., during the true team state meet. the blue awkwardly-shaped track was clean. the take off board had punch. because the venue was new, and because martha wasn't there, for at least one week i held stadium record in the long jump.

around this time, my friend hinz began calling me "froggie," a nickname i didn't necessarily not like, but which resulted in an entire litter of frog beanie baby gifts, and later frog tea sets and frog windchimes, and a frog who played jungle bells when you squeezed it's foot. this was a lazy period of gift reception.

martha graduated after my freshman year. i buffed up my own collection of paisley leggings and worked on my own mythical diva mojo. i made a mix tape featuring the song "groove is in the heart" by dee-light. i developed an OCD routine that i performed before each of my three jumps in prelims, and more fiercely before each of my three jumps in finals.

1. stand on the runway approximately 80-100 feet from the takeoff board.
2. jump in the air twice.
3. bend at the waist and touch the asphalt.
4. stand straight and stare down the sand pit.
5. go into my crouch, left leg forward.
6. run my hands down my left calf.
7. snap my fingers.
8. return to crouch.
9. take five, long slow strides until i hit a swatch of white tape placed on the runway. if i overshot or undershot this mark, there was still time to start over without being disqualified.
10. take off on a dead sprint.
11. hit the board and throw myself as high and as far as i could, back arched, hips forward, swinging legs around to the front for a final push of momentum.
12. land.
13. look over my shoulder.
14. walk away from the pit, while emptying sand from the crotch of my shorts. this resembled dancing.

if, at any point, i was distracted from this, i had to take it from the top.

unfortunately, martha had an heir apparent: liz. an outspoken farm girl who wore quilted flannel shirts over her byron track uniform. where martha was a study in natural fluidity, liz was a hack. formless. lucky. like me. not sure why we were good at this or how we got this good or when it would go away. liz and i went back and forth, number one and two at most meets, standing on the blocks, bowing to get a medal wrapped around our necks.

when our teams were at separate meets, i checked her scores in the newspaper. chuckling when she only hit high 14s, cringing when she went high-16s. Ruing the day she hit the 17s, which was only a matter of time.

my junior year, i missed the state meet. i didn't even make it to regions. i'd scratched all but one jump in prelims during subsections, then done poorly in finals. the entire track team was sitting on the side of a hill watching. a cluster of purple sweatshirts. it was the last unfinished event of the day. the 1,600 meter relay had long been called. the camp had been dismantled, the tarp folded and trash collected. they were waiting on me.

defeated, i walked slowly toward the bus.

"how did you do, christa?" a clueless sophomore thrower asked me.
i growled and threw my walkman in her general direction. not necessarily at her, per se, but close. my dad gave me a long talk about sportsmanship that day. the whole "gracious when losing" speech. i recognized it. i'd been giving it to my friends in fourth grade.

the triple jump in an unnatural series of movements. the sprint down the runway is the same, as is the initial takeoff. and OCD jumping-bending-snapping routine and the "groove is in the heart" warmup.

i'd launch myself off my right leg and cover upward of 14 feet before landing on my right, hopping to my left, landing on left and then launching myself into the sand.

to be a competitive high school triple jumper in the mid-1990s required just having a solid second phase -- that right foot to left foot part. some young athletes will simply take a step. but if this can be completed as an actual jump that is between 10-12 feet, consider it a victory. i had a pretty decent second phase. again, it was accidental.

i graduated from high school with some school records and a few trips to the state meet in various events. but i learned quickly that there is a big difference between being a good jumper in rochester and being a good jumper in minnesota.

i was sitting in the track coach's office, torn between st. thomas and st. mary's. "we can't give you a scholarship," he said. the differences between division II and division III and the elusive Divsion I was not something i yet understood. "but we can make it financially possible for you to go here."

[to this day, i'm not sure what that means. i do know that 10 years later i'm still paying for four years at st. thomas, which means "financially possible" was a euphemism for "financially ridiculous." ]

my friend hinz was already on the tommies' famed track and field team, winners of umpteen conference indoor and outdoor titles. she took me to a track party after the MIAC indoor meet when i was a senior in high school. the party was busted up by cops minutes after we got there. we filed out of the house, careful not to make eye contact with anyone with a discerning eye toward what a high school student at a college party looked like. regardless, i'd made my decision: st. thomas it was.

i was never the best jumper in the conference. hell, on a good day, i was like third-best on the team. our leaping leader was meghan, a short girl with legs up to her armpits. she was the least imposing jumper in my competitive history. but on a regular basis, meghan jumped distances that would have stunned the red lipstick right off martha.

around this time, the nickname froggie became one of those funny ironic nicknames. like slim or shorty or curly.

to my credit, we had a good team. and being third on the st. thomas track team could translate to fifth place overall at a meet at st. olaf. by this time i had stopped fooling myself that i could compete in running events and instead devoted all of my attention to the jumps. our jumps coach was a booming bearded man who ruled with a mix of degredation and sexual innuendo. we called him cheech and avoided one-on-one interaction.

it was hard to get used to hard work and practice, having gotten by on luck and charm for so many years. i had a tendency to skip track practice and when i went, to complain about my shins. one day i was laying in the infield and cheech asked me why i wasn't improving.

"i don't know," i shrugged. "maybe my boom is getting too big," i indicated to my ass.
he nodded.
"maybe you're right," he said.
i spent the rest of the day like a dog chasing my tail, trying to gauge the bredth of my own butt.

i had all-but given up on track by the end of my sophomore year. the outdoor conference meet conflicted with a handful of high school friends coming to town to visit. i ignored the carbo-loading, early-to-bed sentiments that had been passed out on a worksheet during a team pep talk / strategizing session where we planned how we were going to win the MIAC title. again. [hmm ... just show up? don't drop any batons? try not to scratch or false start?]

i drank busch lite that night until the sun came up. i slept on the floor of my dorm room. i woke at 10 a.m., wrapped myself in a steve urkle sleeping bag and hopped on a bus for hamline university, a scant five miles away.

while my teammates warmed up, i did some half assed stretching and eventually settled in for a nap under a tree. when it came time to triple jump, i dragged myself to the pit, yawning on the runway. the sun in my eyes. the wind hurting my hair.

that day i jumped 37 feet, 2 inches in the triple jump. a personal record. first i'd hit something in the 35s. then i'd topped that. my jumps just kept getting better. my mom was on the sidelines, whooping like an alarm clock as each distance was announced. cheech roared. i was ahead of that leggy old meghan, even. froggie was back in town.

meghan got me on the last jump by a few inches. barely any. cheech asked me if i wanted to sign up for a last chance meet, try for a provisional mark and see if i could sneak into the national meet.

i said no. that would mean another week of practice, and i was tracked out. besides, i saw where this was going, and i'd already had that graceful in defeat conversation years ago.

i went out for the track team my junior year, but i don't remember a second of it. i quit my senior year and didn't miss it at all.

martha and i were both in hinz's wedding. i keep looking for liz on facebook.

i haven't jumped in more than 10 years. i haven't talked about it in probably three. being pretty okay at such obscure events doesn't really translate in the real world. it's kind of like being a philosophy major.

this is why i can write about it now. i mean, who even cares?


CDP said...

I loved reading this.

Kristabella said...

I like the triple jump on Sonic & Mario Olympics on the Wii.

And I HATED the Presidential Fitness Test. I sucked at the sit & reach. And I used to say I should get more points because I had longer legs. Like that made any sense.