Quitting is a sport

I was the Rudy of my college hockey team in that I barely played. In that my teammates actually begged for me to get playing time. In that I had no business trying out for the team in the first place.

Trying out had been completely thoughtless, a non-decision. I went to college aiming to play Division 3 soccer. I had played 2 years of ice hockey in high school, had absolutely loved it, but figured it was over. Soccer I had played all my life. Had traveled for and had private coaching.

Tryouts happened before other freshman had come to campus. The returning team members ignored us. Why waste time when the majority of us wouldn't make the team? I talked a little bit with the other freshman girls, but mostly I saw them as my enemy and probably that’s how they saw me too.

Summer before school started Conn mailed out the Freshman Face Book, which was an actual book of faces. You had been asked to pick 3 interests, which they listed under your photo. I, of course, had listed soccer, and I went through the book and circled every other girl who had also listed soccer. Those were my enemies, I knew their faces heading into orientation. Most of them were at tryouts.

Soccer tryouts were similar to all other tryouts. We scrimmaged. We did drills. We were being tested on ball skills, shooting, speed, dribbling, tackling, and general play. My endurance was poopy. It was hot and I hadn't trained much over the summer. At 18 I was just awful at discipline. I’d never met a pop tart I didn't scarf. Never could turn off the TV to go to bed. Couldn't get myself to start homework. I was all Id.

I got cut, obviously. I was and am still good at soccer, but good like the way that Hagrid was helpful in the Battle of Hogwarts. No brains, no refined skill. I am tenacious, aggressive, and shy with the ball. I love to pass. I would rather have an assist than a goal. I would rather smash someone and come away with the ball than have an assist. I just love to smash. I did not hold up well during tryouts, when the other girls were just as strong as me, but faster and more skilled. In getting cut I panicked. All my life I went from school to sports to home, late for dinner always. And college was less school in a day than I was used to, so losing the 2 hours of sports was a big deal. I was heartbroken and shocked and horrified to have been seen trying for something and to be seen not getting it.

In that daze I got invited to try out for the hockey team and motivated by the daze I said yes. Tryouts weren't until October 1, per NESCAC rules, and we weren't allowed to talk to the coach until then either. Pre-tryout workouts were led by upperclassmen on the team, and these happened off-ice since the rink was still a cement plot.

I tried warning people on the team that I wasn't really a hockey player. I’d played two years in high school after being recruited away from basketball. I went to a small prep school where, instead of gym class, we were required to play sports. Transferring in I wasn't sure which to play, because I was coming from a massive high school where we’d all been, for years, whittling our activities down to only those which we were truly excellent at. It was the only way to accommodate the extra everything you had to do to succeed. So now I had to reverse direction, add more sports to my diet. I chose basketball because I’d played for years and loved it and was reasonably tall.

I am an easy come easy go type of person, and my first few games of the season were awkward; I felt like a toddler mimicking a grown up. Having never been drunk, I didn't know then that it felt just like being drunk. My hands just didn't work right anymore. My shot was gone. Sometime that winter I went to an open skate at our campus ice rink and the hockey coach asked me to switch to hockey. I had never played, but I could skate and the team was a shit show. So that was what I was working with, two years of very low level high school ice hockey, my first two years ever playing a sport with an appendage. I loved skating; I loved the bulky equipment, and the physicality. In one of our drills we would wrestle each other out of the middle ring on the ice. It was more fun than I thought I was allowed to have.

In the off-ice preseason training I excelled. I was one of the lightest women on the team. In soccer I’d been a tank, but in hockey I was a dancer. The thing about hockey players is similar to the thing about swimmers, on land they don’t look right. Skates can move weight in a way that legs can’t. So I enjoyed my position as this doe-eyed speedy and lithe future teammate. After all is said and done, I still hold the honor of having been the fastest on the team at running backward. So that’s something.

October 1 came and we started tryouts. Guess what! I was among the worst! Well, there were three of us in a similar spot. Me, Andrea, and Jen. All three of us had played for just a few years in high school. Due to whatever, all three of us made the team. It was lucky timing. The team was in transition. Most people on campus didn't even know we had a women’s hockey team. It had been building for years, and is now very good. When we made it, they still had a few spots for the up and comers. The bulk of the team was Minnesota/Vermont/Maine kids who’d played on boy’s teams since they were 3. The team is entirely those kids now. We got in just under the buzzer.

It was terrifying. I had to go to the locker room early before practice to study drawings of the drills because they were all so new to me. I had no slap shot, could only stop on one side, and the only person I beat in races was the goalie, who was wearing about 60 lbs of padding. But I was a college athlete! A division 3 hockey player! I’d recovered my ego and had a place to go after class!

I played defense. Teams are split into offensive and defensive lines, and you stick together. If you see your mate sub out, you sub out at the next opportunity. In high school this had been very annoying for me because my D partner was always throwing off her gloves and picking fights with “bitches” on the other team. She’d get sent to the penalty box and correspondingly I would have to sit out, too. She was from Colorado and on cocaine. Defense holds a line, generally the same type of body positioning as in soccer. You skate backward as much as possible to keep the goal behind you and the offender in front of you. You contain and don’t poke. You steer them outside.

Offense is grouped in threes, and is a much more poetic and fluid thing. They circles the net like birds. It’s more akin to basketball, except you can go behind the net, or midfield in soccer, but if soccer were sped up and the size of the field reduced by 3.

I was the fifth defender, which should have made it obvious to me that I wasn't going to play much. I had no D partner. I kept waiting to be told the plan by my coach, but mostly she ignored me. The first time she talked to me was when she marched into the locker room after a practice and asked who had size 11 feet. She was holding up my skates, which I had put in the pile to be sharpened. I said: Those are my skates. She said there was no way I had size 11 feet, which is true; I’m an 8. She then told me my ice skates were much too big for me and I needed to get another pair.

She ordered me the proper size, and then I spent several practices performing a live version of an America’s Funniest Home Video. Dropping 3 skate sizes had greatly reduced the length of blade. I was used to a much bigger blade and I absolutely could not stay on my feet. Already I was tied with the backup goalie for least amount of playing time, and now I was spending practices acting like a newborn deer.

All of this; the daily hours-long practices, mandatory 48 hour rule, the mandatory weight lifting and team meals, I subjected myself to because I didn't know any other way. Always always always in my life there had been sports. Did I like it? I had never thought to ask. The division 3 college hockey season runs from October 1st through mid-March. We played three games a week, and traveled all over the east coast. We went up to Maine, to Vermont, to Massachusetts, to upstate New York. We traveled on a rented Peter Pan bus where we each got our own block of seats, with one block reserved for piles of snacks. We ate two dinners and two breakfasts on the road. It was all about calories. I was frequently teased for being scrawny. And I was. I absolutely could not stay on my feet when I got smashed. I was just too runty.

A hockey game is 3 twenty minute periods. In between periods they zamboni the ice, which adds about 10 minutes to the game time. For a Friday night game we had to be at the dining hall for dinner at 4pm in dress clothes. Then we went down to the rink and changed into our matching sweats for our off-ice warm up, which was a jog, a series of plios, and then a game like spud or dodgeball. Then we went to our locker room to suit up and eat more. Then we did our on-ice warm up, which was five minutes long and often the only ice time I got. Then back to the locker room for the pep talk and cheer, and then out for the game. After the game we changed back into our sweats for our cool down run, and then back to our dress clothes to leave. All told it was about a 6 hour commitment.

I did all of it happily and without questioning because it was what I thought I was supposed to be doing. I did it freshman year, and came back to the team for sophomore year, amped to improve and get some more playing time. I had a slap shot now, and had gotten faster.

About midway through the season I started getting to play. Coach had moved me to forward and put me on an actual line in an actual rotation. I was having the best time. I told my parents, who were so proud they organized a trip to come watch me play. They flew out to New Jersey, where they picked up my grandparents and drove them up to Connecticut, where we were going to stay in-state for the weekend and play at Wesleyan in Watertown, and Trinity in Hartford.

We played at Wesleyan on Friday night. I could see my family across the rink, waiting. I sat and sat and sat. I kept waiting to be told I was going in, but it never happened. My coach ignored me entirely. I was confused and other people were confused for me. Everyone knew my family was there. After the game I had to go and greet my family and apologize, say I didn't know why I hadn't gotten to play. On the bus back to campus, coach summoned me to her seat block. When I sat down she launched into a fit. She was punishing me, benching me for the weekend because she had seen me smiling the weekend before after a loss to Bowdoin. She yelled that I had a terrible attitude and brought the whole team down and that I deserved to sit on the bench with my family in the rink.

It remains one of the crueler things that’s been done to me. Not because it hurt me, but because it hurt my family. And as for smiling after a loss, well, that I do not apologize for. We lost a lot. We lost most of our games. We frequently drove 10+ hours to lose by 10+ points. If you take every one of those losses hard, my goodness, what kind of world do you live in?

I was grateful for the explosion, though, because it woke me up. Holy hell, what was I doing all of this for? I had gladly handed away two years of my college experience to this team because why? Because it was what I thought I was supposed to do? In those terrifying five minutes, Coach Steele made me realize that she did not respect me as an athlete or a person. She set me free. I played the rest of the season and then quit, in tears, in her office. I wish I could say I delivered a killer speech, skewering her for her abuse and her misconception of me. But I didn't. It was as wispy a speech as I had been as a player. But I did it and it was over.

Always always always there had been sports, and now there was just blank space. When hockey started up again the next year, my former teammates were gentle with me. They assumed I must be feeling emo about it. But by then I was on Rumspringa. I had unstructured afternoons! Nobody was loading my plate with boiled chicken or watching me, hawk-faced, while I sucked at bench press! College with no Serious Sport was like that ice wrestling drill; it was more fun than I thought I was allowed to have.