Saturday, July 28, 2012

Figment of the imagination: unity among athletes

My wife and I are training for a Super Sprint Triathlon in Chicago.  The race is late in August. I am excited for the race for a couple of reasons.  Since my wife and I first started dating I have always wanted to compete with her in some kind of organized event.  We did so for the first time last year when we both ran in a Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot in Madison, Wisconsin.  This will be our second organized event in which we are both participating.  Training together has been a lot of fun.  Every Sunday morning, we wake up early, run about a mile to a nearby beach, swim for 30 minutes or so, then run back to our place. 

I also love the camaraderie of organized events.  That's one of the things I loved the most about organized sports when I was young.  For two years, I was a coxswain on a high school rowing team.  I wasn't particularly good at it, and the day before a race time ate away at my nerves enough to do permanent damage, but I loved the bond that developed between the team.  I grew up in the Midwest.  There were no other high school teams in the Midwest so our club had to take these van trips to the east coast in order to find other teams against which to race.  Those trips in the van were miserable.  We were crowded, we got no quality sleep and we ate at fast food joints every meal.  But we bonded like a family because we were all in together.  We shared the same misery, and when the races were complete, we shared the same joy and relief.

My wife competed in a Sprint Triathlon soon after we started dating.  The morning of the race, we woke up around five a.m. and biked over to the transition spot where we stowed her gear.  So early in the morning, the only other people on the street in the middle of downtown Chicago were other athletes, also on their way to the transition area.  Though I loved Katie, I felt so lonely that morning.  It was as if all these Triathletes had something in common.  Though they were strangers, they were all a part of something unique that brought them together this early in the morning.  Because I wasn't racing I couldn't share what they all had in common. 

With those memories in mind, it's clear that I have a romantic notion of brotherhood or sisterhood between strangers when it comes to athletics, or any type of shared experience.  A couple of weeks ago, I heard about something that cut through the sentimentality pretty quickly.  I recently became Facebook friends with another person of short stature who lives out on the East Coast.  He is a school teacher and he competes in Full Triathlons.  On a good day, I could bike 23 miles. I could maybe run for 6.2 miles.  But I couldn't swim a mile.  And I certainly couldn't do all three in one day.  That's what's involved in a Full Triathlon.  And that's what this guy John competes in fairly regularly.  Pretty impressive.  If I thought there would be a sense of unity among all the athletes in a Chicago Super Spring Triathlon, I could only imagine how strong the unity would be among the Full Triathlon group.

Alas though, this unity may not be what it seems.  It may just be imagination.  I've written often about my disdain for people taking pictures of me because I am a dwarf, especially if it happens while I am on my bike.  I hate it because I know that the motivation for the picture is based upon ridicule, and because I fear where the picture may appear.  That's what happened to John.  While John competed in the bike leg of the New York Triathlon someone took his photo.  Worse, the photo was posted on a blog. Needless to say, the attached commentary did not reflect the glowing words so often these days written about Peter Dinklage. 

Now, awful as what happened to John may be, I know we all live in a world where fear and insecurity drive people to hostility toward others.  What happened to John is not out of the realm of belief.  But if it were to happen, I would expect the perpetrator to be a member of the crowd watching the event.  Someone maybe who had too much to drink, who got caught up in crowd yahoo mentality, who, like me the day of my wife's event, wanted to fit in.  But it wasn't a member of the crowd.  It was another athlete biking near John, (what they hell was he doing with his phone in the middle of a Triathlon?).  The first time I heard the story about what happened to John, my romantic notions of camaraderie  between athletes were destroyed. 

There are many silver linings to the story though.  Soon after the awful blog post was discovered, John's network of friends and supporters overwhelmed the blog, the New York Triathlon organizers, and the charity for whom the perpetrator competed with negative emails and notes.  Within a day, the blog post was removed.  More importantly, John is still competing.  And for every one yahoo out there, among the crowds or even among the other athletes, there are ten, if not a hundred, supporters of John who are with him every stroke, every step and every (what I should I say for biking, revolution??) of the way. There is no guarantee that what happened to John won't happen to me.  But if it does, like John, I will keep going.  

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