Addicted to Accolades: Confessions of a Former SuperJock
When my parents were selling the house I grew up in I had to decide what to do with the many boxes of ribbons, medals, trophies and promotional t-shirts I had hoarded during my youth. When I lived at home I kept them all on full display, lining my walls and dangling from a series of white plastic adhesive hooks like the world’s saddest Hall of Fame.
When I was away at college my room flooded and had to be gutted, so all of my treasures had to be moved to the basement where they coiled in the shadows, awaiting my triumphant return. I did, in the end, decide not to bring them to New York. Some medals are still in my moms new house, but the rest are probably resting happily in the Moretown Town Dump.
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They came from three distinct sources: horseback riding, soccer, and alpine ski racing. They were earned between the ages of 7 and 18 although as I got older the prizes shifted to more practical items like gloves and backpacks and the occasional rape whistle. Without boring you with the details of how each sport works, I will say that in skiing and soccer I reached the level where I had enough potential to receive world class training and compete at national and internationally ranked events, but was never actually a nationally decorated athlete. I lost passion for both by the end of high school.
My equestrian endeavors tapered off during high school for practical reasons, but it is also the sport that is easiest to continue later in life so there was always less urgency. Skiing and soccer have a pretty narrow time window within which one can prove themselves if they want to ascend to the highest level of competition so throwing the bulk of my attention at them seemed logical at the time.
I also took dance lessons until I was 10 or 11 but did not find the single bouquet of flowers my parents gave to me at the end of each quarterly recital nearly satisfying enough to sustain my interest. While I enjoy the spotlight once I have already won something, I’ve always been fairly averse to performance. Attention for the sake of attention when I still have something to prove evokes within me the kind of pitted, numb-faced anxiety that I have only otherwise experienced when someone I’m sleeping with or dating sends me a text that just says “we should talk”.
Whether the loss of passion for skiing and soccer was a function of being less talented than expected or the other way around is something I prefer not to think about too much for fear of unraveling the delicate delusion that affords me the distastefully high self-esteem that I enjoy to this day. Some might call it “burning out”, but I would refer to it is “realizing that competitive sports are expensive, time consuming, and difficult to reconcile with my general ideology.” Also, I was sick of losing toenails to cold weather and oppressive footwear.
“Full of Piss and Vinegar”
If you get my dad talking about my soccer career, he will inevitably relay an incident in which the coach of an opposing team asked him if he fed me nails for breakfast. This was when I was in Elementary school but it sums up my soccer career pretty neatly.
As a child I was tough, and fast, and tall for my age. Vermont is a small pond- the individual towns and counties more so- so on my local teams I became accustomed not only to winning and scoring goals, but to receiving praise for being instrumental in those wins.
When I was 10 I started playing on the state elite team where I split my time between playing forward and playing keeper. I was tapped to play keeper after displaying a complete disregard for my own bodily safety during our indoor warm-up season.
Our season coincided with the historic US Women’s World Cup in which the US defeated China in penalty kicks and Brandi Chastain took her shirt off. The win was largely credited to the goal-keeping prowess of Briana Scurry. I had a similar talent for saving goals at make or break moments. I did somehow get out of the net and use my fresh legs to run circles around people as a striker. I came out of that season feeling like a literal super hero.
In the long run I would end up playing defense when our team sought out higher levels of play and my speed was needed in the back. We went to the US Youth Soccer Eastern Regional Championship tournament four times and also played in the “Super Y League” (Super Youth League), which sounds vaguely ominous but was just a way for the best teams in New England, Upstate New York, and Canada to play each other on a consistent schedule without having to register for a series of obnoxious 2 day tournaments.
In one match I was assigned the task of marking the other teams leading scorer. Our coach had paid attention to the stats and was pretty sure we could at least tie them if we neutralized her. My job was to get in her way, get in her head, and prevent her from scoring even if it meant leaving my zone and following her to another position. Long story short we pulled each others hair, nearly removed each others shorts, and brought each other down so often that the referee stopped trying to interfere.
We ended up losing 2–1 but she didn’t score, probably for the first game that year. She and I left the field completely drained and shot daggers into each others eyes when we had to shake hands. No whining or harsh words were uttered. It was classic, sportsmanly contempt and it felt amazing.
After the game the coach of the opposing team put a hand on my shoulder and said in a thick scottish accent “you’re a bit full of piss and vinegar then!”. He later nominated me to the Super Y League National squad. I wasn’t selected but I still mark that game as the peak of my athletic career.
I did play for my high school team also, which was a frustrating experience because being one of the only people who played year round meant instead of getting praise when we won, I was blamed when we didn’t. I did make the All State team several times and was named as the top Sweeper in the state in the 2006 issue of Varsity Magazine. I don’t consider high school soccer part of my glory days though, because I felt judged rather than supported.
Ultimately, my focus on skiing eclipsed my ability to hone my soccer skills so I didn’t feel confident enough to try to play Varsity in college. Originally I intended to play club soccer, but when the morning came that I had to get out of bed at 5 AM for a tryout I suddenly realized that no one would be mad at me if I didn’t go, so I didn’t. I still play co-ed rec league and it has been a great source of release and comfort in contrast to urban life.
I have been on a lot of first dates in the last three years or so and inevitably the topic of high school comes up. I have a taste for brooding hackers, ambiguously gendered theater types, colorful nerds, depressed comedians, gentle real punks, volatile fake punks (who admit it’s all an act and then also admit it’s because they’re insecure about their looks and the eyeliner and mohawk helps with their confidence and oh my god it’s so cute you can’t even blame them even though you’re maybe getting played), bass players...you get the point…NOT people who are likely to understand what I mean when I say “Well, I went to a very small private ski racing academy for high school.”
So I’ve spent a lot of time trying to explain this and I can’t say I’ve ever felt I succeeded. It is so specific in so many ways. There were less than 100 kids in 5 grades. It was a boarding school but I was one of a handful of day students. Athletic training blocks were scheduled into our day. There was no art or music except for the fall musical. Some teachers were very good. Others were entirely green. Everyone was white.
Someone who went to a really small school might understand the social weirdness of spending 4 years with the same 20 people in your grade. Someone who did a lot of sports at a normal school might understand the challenges of maintaining a balanced lifestyle. Someone who skied will understand some of what I say about the training demands. But really only other ski academy kids will understand the nuance of the incredibly bizarre yet homogeneous world it funneled us into.
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I started ski racing as young as one could. I was always a good skier, which is different than being fast. I was sometimes fast, or at least fast enough to occasionally win. Winning a ski race is very different than winning a soccer game. You get to the bottom of your course and your time is announced. Someone writes all of times on a giant spreadsheet board next to your name. You find your name and see where you are and then you wait to see if it holds. Or, if you are running late in the group, you come down and scan for your name and see where you are and your pulse jumps a beat as you realize that your time is the fastest and that it isn’t a mistake. Usually 1st-3rd place get BIG medals, and 4–10th get progressively smaller ones.
There are few things like it. Skiing is a truly remarkable sport and when your body knows what its doing and everything locks into place it can be completely transcendent. When this happens on the race course and you can feel that you’re fast and the numbers prove you right it feels for a second like the world is a logical place.
This was how I felt about the sport when I was 13 and decided to apply to The Academy, which was connected to the weekend program I raced for and was only 20 minutes from where I grew up. I won’t name it here because I want to speak candidly, but it is well regarded and has produced some of the best ski racers in the world. It is a fine place — really one of the only places — for one to attend if they want to be truly competitive in the sport. To forgo the opportunity to go there, even if it meant passing up the opportunity to win more races at a lower level in public school, would mean admitting that I wasn’t one of the best.
And of course I was one of the best. I had to be.
The minimal required basics (tuition, boots and skis) were all expensive and for those there were scholarships and sponsorships and other means to ensure that the most talented people don’t get excluded, but it isn’t a very practical sport for those with “potential” unless that “potential” has a big old side serving of “unlimited funds”.
There are off-season ski camps in Europe, South America, or wherever has snow. There is supplemental training equipment and physical therapy for when you inevitably destroy your knees, ankles, shoulders and feet. There are race fees and travel fees and the cost of smaller equipment like helmets and goggles and gloves and shin guards. If there is a more expensive sport to decide to throw yourself into I haven’t heard of it.
For me, even training camps were a source of guilt born of the financial burden I knew it put on my family AND from the time is kept me away from soccer. These are usually 2 or 3 week commitments in places like Switzerland or Argentina and they happen in the summer and the fall. Nevermind the race trips that come later in the season. There are also trips to Colorado or Utah in early winter. If you opt out of any of these trips your coaches, who tend to be stern and at least tangentially German, don’t let you forget how much better you might be doing had you participated in whatever trip/s you missed.
The school offered scholarships to cover some of the cost but but all scholarship money comes with work hours and if you’re already a scholarship student then those hours quickly become overwhelming unless you have no other commitments and becoming a better skier is the only thing you care about. This is a really good system for people who know that they want to ski in college or try to get on the US ski team. It is also a decent system for people who live on campus and can pick up small jobs in the evening or on weekends. But again, for someone with “potential” who would also like to continue playing other sports or pursue other interests in general it is a system that leads to guilt, over-extension and ultimately, a lot of unfinished scholarship hours.
That being said I got to learn proper weight-lifting, meditation, memory drills for remembering course settings, how to tape my own ankle (to be fair no one taught me this I just had to have it done so many times I picked it up), how to properly warm up and cool down to avoid soreness, the wonders of arnica, and how to deflect male attention.
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By my senior year I had no intentions of racing for a top-tier college but I didn’t completely hate the sport yet. I had gotten into UVM, whose ski team was out of my league entirely so I didn’t even have to worry about deciding whether or not I’d continue in college.
With the pressure off I no longer worried about remaining in my coaches good graces or fighting for a seat at the top-tier racers table. I just went with the flow, focused on my other interests, and waited for the year to be over so I could move on to the next phase.
This attitude had a couple of surprising side-effects: the first was that I won a race for the first time in a while. The other was that I got into an accident because I was free-skiing in the trick park between runs and wound up in the hospital with a fairly serious concussion and horrendous abrasions on my face.
So that was the end of me ever wanting to do any sport that puts my health in direct peril. I still ski when I can but it has to be perfect weather and if anything hurts I stop immediately.
I graduated in high spirits, looking good and giving zero fucks. I appreciate the unique experience attending The Academy afforded me, but given my current priorities I really wish I had given myself more time to choose a path. I wish I had put as many hours into music, writing, and art as I did into skiing and I could have done that for free at public school. Don’t even get my started about the First World Guilt this all incites in me, as if anything I feel about my past even fucking matters in the grand scheme of things.
I don’t want to leave you on a dreary note so I will leave you with some thoughts about riding horses. Horses and ponies are magical assholes and I’m sure they will save me from crushing boredom in my older age.
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You Can Lead a Horse to Water but You’ll Have to Chase it Around the Pasture for 20 Minutes First
In most Horse Shows (which are actually equestrian competitions- the horses do very little on their own and would do nothing at all if it were up to them), prizes are awarded for at least 1st-6th place and sometimes beyond. They are usually ribbons, and every place has a different color, so even if you didn’t place WELL, the outcome was colorful.
They also award Champion, Reserve Champion, Grand Champion, and Reserve Grand Champion prizes depending on what divisions and classes you compete in. These result in LARGE, multicolored rosettes and sometimes trophies. Of the three sports I competed in, riding is distinctly less athletic, but the rewards were numerous and highly satisfying.
It is also the sport that required keeping a 1,000lb animal not only alive, but alive and willing to let you capture it and sit on it. Whether or not you plan on competing, this in itself is a lofty commitment. I had a series of ponies who were smarter than I was, and knew what I was up to went I went out into the pasture shaking a pail with a tiny bit of food in it. By the time I had the halter and lead rope on I was usually already exhausted.
If you ARE hoping to compete in a Horse Show you will need to do the following:
- Have a horse, or have access to a horse, that can be in a ring with other horses and ponies without losing its fragile little mind. This requires either a lot of money to buy one that is already “broken” or a lot of time and patience to work with the cheaper, untrained pony you and your mom drove to New Hampshire to acquire from a shirtless man with a negligible number of teeth. If you attempt to enter the competition on a miraculously intelligent ostrich or a very cooperative goat you’re going to be met with resistance from the organizers no matter how impressive your journey to that point has been. If you don’t have access to a horse you cannot enter a horse show. I’m sorry if I’m crushing some dreams here. *If you are looking to engage in some kind of species transcendent, barrier smashing narrative I would suggest training a miniature goat to enter a dog agility trial. Even if you’re not eligible for prizes I think they would let you enter because a tiny goat hopping over little jumps is empirically adorable and they would be fools to turn you away.
- Have a saddle, bridle, bit, girth, saddle pad, helmet, crop, jodhpurs, jodhpur boots if you’re under a certain age, tall boots if you’re older and/or fancy, a very particular kind of shirt, a very particular kind of jacket, very particular gloves, a needlessly complicated hairnet with jewels in it for some reason or giant bows to tie on the end of your braided pigtails, hair that can be braided into pigtails, a trailer specifically designed to transport horses, a car that is capable of towing said trailer along with the weight of the horse inside of it, several million rubber-bands, several dozen plastic buckets, grain so the horse is fed, hay so the horse forgets how long it has been since it has eaten, treats for the horse that are really to calm your own guilt and existential angst when it dawns on you how very very absurd and pointless this entire exercise is.
- Know what all of the above means. You’re going to have to go to some weird camp with other horse nerds where you mostly take apart tack and clean stalls. It won’t be fun.
- Wash the horse and braid the horse’s main and tail an elegant, tedious manner. You will either want to do this very late the night before, or very early the morning of. Either way the horse is going to ruin the braids and you will be too tired to care.
- At some point, learn how to ride the horse. Honestly though, even if you have, you’re at the mercy of the beast once you’re in the ring. Good luck.
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