by Sydney Wright
I was in bed next to my boyfriend, Shola, wondering if he’d noticed the slow changes in my body since exiting the athletic performance world. I did. I felt them, heavy with loss and light from lack of purpose. Shola was a collegiate long jumper too and had a few years of eligibility left. He was still surrounded by the world that I wasn’t surrounded by anymore, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he liked me as much now as he did when I was still an athlete. My body was changing. I was changing. I worried that his feelings were changing too. Mine had. They’d become a mix of bitterness and longing, like someone had stolen something that was mine.
I’d been searching for something to fill the huge chunk of my identity that had disappeared as soon as I’d jumped my final jump at the East Regional Division I track meet in Florida. That was in the spring of 2016, over a year ago, and it was difficult to go from having a daily schedule made for you and being around people with the same goals, to having to find something new to fill that space on your own. How would I replace the many short term goals I had every month to jump so many inches farther, or make it to finals in a certain track meet, or lift the heaviest dead lift weight in our jumps group? Where could I get that adrenaline rush that came with the cheers of my teammates, getting me excited to come out on top at every competition? I’d had the same template of goals for ten years. At this point, I felt like I was walking around in the dark searching for something invisible. I felt like my family and friends were watching me and wondering where I would go from here, but I was staring at myself in the mirror wondering the same thing.
Pain. I had heard from someone back in Texas that your body can handle pain, and when the pain gets so intense that you can’t tolerate it anymore, you blackout. I didn’t know if it was true, but I hoped it was. Because at that moment I was on my eighth set of sprints with only fifteen seconds left of rest before the next sprint, and the pain in my chest was so intense that I just wanted it to end. My nose was burning from pulling in air so forcefully. My eyes burned from the sweat catching in the corners of my eyes. I couldn’t wipe it away because my hands were just as sweaty.
It was the end of August and I had only been on Memphis soil for a week. It was my first day of collegiate track and field practice, and I’d been told that the first month of practice was labeled ‘Hell Week’ by the athletes. I hadn’t expected actual hell. It was over one-hundred-degree weather, not a cloud in the sky, the peak of the day, and I was quickly finding my exercise intensity limit.
I was lying on my back in the grass, eyes closed, praying for relief, heart pounding so quick it felt like a puppy that’d gotten into cupcakes was let loose in my chest. The ground was so hard, the flat dry grass offering no cushion or comfort. The atmosphere was filled with a symphony of panicked inhales, and clipped exhales. That smell of the track complex that I associated with so many good memories was currently nonexistent in my mind. I wondered what I was really doing here. Was the pain worth it? Was the reward worth it? Then I felt a hand on my arm. It was Luis, the decathlete from Germany, and he was helping me to my feet, telling me I had to stand or I’d cramp up. Telling me that I could do it, and so I kept running.
Track had been a large part of my life for six years and it had made me question a lot of things about myself: how much was I willing to sacrifice to meet my goals? How much was I willing to change? Was being an athlete who I wanted to be? What did it say about me if I chose that path? I hadn’t found any answers, but I was searching. I was exploring. I was taking opportunities as they came to me. Being a collegiate track and field athlete was one of those opportunities, and it took me out of Texas, my only home for nineteen years, and brought me to this strange city of Memphis, Tennessee.
And now I was sprinting across flattened yellow grass, knowing I wasn’t going to finish first but just trying to not finish last, telling myself you’re almost there. You’re almost there. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore, but my chest was a furnace and my face was a squinted mess of pain. For something that I had been doing for six years of my life, this atmosphere felt mostly foreign: the people, the location, the fact that I wasn’t alone but surrounded by athletes that were just as good or better. For the first time I began to question my ability to do it. I was being pushed to my limit every day, and I was afraid that one day I would need to push further than my limit. What if I was doing the absolute best that I could do, and that still wasn’t good enough?
My journey to this point had began on a similar field behind our school, but I was usually alone. I had only myself for any type of comparison because I was the only one out on the track on a Saturday trying to get to the State Meet. I was the only one who looked at track as something more than an excuse to get out of class to travel to a competition. But here in Memphis, I wasn’t alone. There were a lot of things to compare and it was overwhelming at times.
As we finished the next set of runs with three more to go, I was on the ground again, the coaches voice muffled like he was talking through a towel. Twenty! He yelled, reminding me there was more pain to come and only a few seconds left of ground time. I squeezed my eyes shut and my chest pumped up and down. Luis was there again and I was grabbing his hand, thinking that I was thankful I had a hand to help, and thinking about the days when I didn’t.
I sat down with my dad in our living room. Our house was old, built in Morgan, Texas sometime between 1900 and 1925. From the state of it now, it hadn’t ever been modernized. It was fully cement, a large two-story square dropped on the lower left corner of an acre of land. The forest green wooden balcony was slowly caving in and the cellar filled with water like a tub every time it rained. We had moved there because it was the only house in town big enough to fit our eight-person family, as well as the only one we could afford. I was enchanted by the old house. With my imagination, I walked through the paint chipped doors and envisioned something beautiful, a post-Victorian mansion. I believed with time we could fix it up. My room was the ‘haunted room’. White patches of paint were like puppies’ spots on the walls and I had no overhead light, just a lamp that cast shadow threads on the walls when the sun fell in the evening. It was the ghost house of the town and our home for the next five years.
I was in fifth grade and my dad felt it was time to start thinking about my future. He didn’t want me to have to live in an old cement box like we were now, and we couldn’t afford to fix it up yet. So while I had been positive about living here at first, I was ready for something better. Something new. I would take whatever advice he could give and run with it.
“You’re long and lanky,” he told me. “With a lot of practice, you can be really good. I know you like basketball, but I think you’ve got a really good chance with track.” I asked him what he meant by ‘chance’. He said, “A chance to get a free trip out of here. College is your only ticket, and sports is the way to get there. I can’t pay for it, so you’re going to have to work and get there on your own.”
I was motivated. It was up to me. I was excited because I had always been fast. There was a time in fourth grade where they had lined us all up on the track to race during P.E. class. I’d beaten all the girls, so they threw me in with all the guys. Race after race flew by, and finally it was down to me and one other boy: the star quarterback of the PeeWee football team. I beat him, even when a bug flew into my eye halfway through the race. I knew I was fast, but I didn’t know the tickets it could give me. I didn’t know I could be rewarded for being faster than someone else, for jumping further or higher than someone else.
I practiced and I practiced. I pulled tires across grass fields and up asphalt hills. I push-mowed an acre of land every summer because my dad told me it would help me go farther in long jump. I was in the weight room during the week with everyone else, and on the weekend alone. I was doing pull ups on a tree branch with my brother because we didn’t have an actual bar. My dad and I weren’t sure what would work, or if it would be enough, but all we had was our hope. And the more I felt trapped in this small town of four hundred people that I despised (aside from my family), the more I was dedicated to getting good enough to get a ticket out. This barren town with nothing but lazy misfits, drunks and drugees, racists and hypocrites, couldn’t be my final destination. It wouldn’t be.
With the work came the success, and even though my school was the smallest division in the state, my results were still competing with the top schools in Texas. It felt good to jump two of six jumps and know I was an entire foot ahead of everyone. There was no pressure, it was a guaranteed win. The only pressure I felt was to get noticed by a big school with big scholarships, and even that pressure seemed far away, but just close enough to keep in my peripheral.
One weekend the Morgan team would travel to another rural town to compete. I ended up breaking their track meet triple jump record and a group of guys approached me after the competition.
“Can we get a picture?”
I said sure, reaching for the guy’s phone. He laughed. “No, I mean we want to take a picture with you!”
I was so confused. Why would they want to take a picture with me? I took it anyways and decided to ask before they walked away. “Because you could have gotten third in the guys’ triple jump competition. You’re gonna be an Olympic beast one day.”
I loved that those three guys would have that picture of me and think of me years from now, the Morgan Track Star. I loved that that had become my identifier and that people were so impressed. It was like sugar on my tongue. People began to recognize me as not just another regular citizen of another small town, but someone who was doing something different. I was someone who was breaking the hold that small towns seem to have on many people.
The process of getting noticed by a division one university is a lot harder than the actual work to get the performances you need to be good enough to join their team. Especially when you’re from one of the smallest high schools in one of the biggest states in the country. It’s like looking for a raisin in a large vat of chocolate pudding.
I made it to the big meets, though. Throughout my high school track career, I was the only single event girl to compete at the state track meet in Austin. I was the first person in Morgan High School’s history to win a state medal, adding that it was in multiple events over three years’ time. I went from placing third in the 400-meter dash and second in the triple jump my sophomore year, to first in the long jump and triple jump and second in the 400-meter dash my junior year. My final year of track I didn’t get the exact results I’d hoped for, but I still won long jump by over a foot, and placed second in the triple jump.
I’ll never forget getting my ass kicked in my last 400-meter race of high school. I rounded the final corner for the last 100-meters of the race, and my body just began to quit. It was finished even if I wasn’t ready to give up. I crossed the finish line second-to-last and dropped to my knees, my chest heaving but not from the run. I watched tears drop onto the track and realized it would be my last time competing at this meet, at this facility that I’d felt like was home for the past three years. I’d never felt more comfortable pushing myself in a space as I did here. It was like saying goodbye to your best friend. I looked around at the people in the stands surrounding these girls grabbing cups of water and trying to catch their breath, and I said goodbye.
After my junior year of high school I sent out my personal best performance marks to various universities: Baylor (my dream school), Louisiana Monroe, Sam Houston State… I visited Sam Houston State and was impressed, but then I went to Baylor and met their team. Their facilities were huge and seemed to glow with promise. I saw Robert Griffin III in their training room and nearly fainted from admiration. I loved that guy. The team took me out to a party that night and I got a glimpse of what it would be like to be one of them, these fine-tuned muscular machines during the day and some of the most fun people I’ve ever been around at night. They took me to my first bar and I danced with a guy for the first time. I wanted to be part of their world. I wanted to be a fine-tuned machine.
After this I got a call from the University of Memphis asking me to come out and visit their campus. They’d seen my competition results online and were impressed. I’d never heard of the school, and the only thing I knew about Memphis was that Elvis lived there and my dad had passed through once while driving somewhere for work. I still had the shirt he bought me. It seemed like a good opportunity to get out of Texas for the first time, so I agreed and my family and I drove down one weekend.
Things clicked for me when I got there. The campus was small for a division one university, but that was a plus to me because I didn’t feel intimidated. I’d been thinking a lot recently about having to start at the bottom again as a freshman. I wasn’t looking forward to having to step out of the spotlight and work my way back there again. But the University of Memphis track team made me feel confident that I could. They also introduced me to a lot of ways I could get involved in the community, which was a priority for me since I knew I would be a stranger to this town if I didn’t. What really sold me to come to Memphis for college, though, was this feeling of comfort that surrounded me as soon as I stepped out of my dad’s truck and onto its soil. My family was constantly reminding me of Memphis’ high crime rate, but that knowledge didn’t shake this feeling of comfort. The team seemed like my brothers and sisters even though I had just met them. I saw a bit of myself in them, as well as who I wanted to be, and it seemed feasible. I realized then that I didn’t want to become a fine-tuned machine. I just wanted to be a better, stronger version of myself. I signed my letter of intent to go to the University of Memphis shortly after I arrived home in Texas.
When I got to college a lot changed. I wasn’t the only one who had had success. We all had, and I found myself beginning to miss the solitary victory. The truth of it was I wasn’t just competing against other athletes at different colleges. I was competing against the girls on our team as well, and with those thoughts brought on a whole lot of insecurities.
We would be in the weight room squatting until we reached our max weight. In all honesty, I wasn’t squatting to find my own max. I was squatting to beat all the other girls’ max lifts. I don’t think I entirely believed that if I lifted heavier I would become stronger, and from that run faster and jump farther. That was rarely the focus for me. Instead I craved the shouts and praise I could get when I was the girl with all the plates on her squat bar, next to the girl who only had two. I wanted to be wrapped up in the echoes of those shouts that became louder than the Breaking Benjamin music blasting from the speakers on the ceiling. Those moments felt like home to me.
With the good came the bad, and bad jump days were the worst. I would struggle to even get close to the distances I was jumping my senior year of high school, and I would always sit in the locker room after practice and wonder what the hell I was doing. I wondered if I would ever get better, if I would ever feel as successful as I did in high school. If the numerous days that I came close to what felt like death out on that damn track would ever count for anything.
My first collegiate track meet was an indoor competition in Birmingham, Alabama. I’d never been inside an indoor track facility since Texas didn’t have a strong need for them. It was a different atmosphere. The air was filled with music playing from speakers, thwap thwap thwap bounced off the raised track surface that looked like a long oval bowl. The place was packed to compacity, athletes constantly having to look both ways before crossing a walkway so they didn’t get run over by someone warming up with a few sprints.
I was one of those athletes warming up. I picked a corner out of the way and started my routine. I tried to focus, zoning out everything else like I always did in high school. It was just me and the track. Me and the runway. Me and the sandpit. No one else existed. My only competition was myself. I had become so comfortable with this frame of mind the past few years, and I knew that it worked. It depressurized the atmosphere.
I couldn’t help but observe my surroundings, though. There were three girls from the same team to my right, going through their warm up drills in tandem. They wore tight maroon spandex that hugged their large hamstrings and quads. I secretly hoped they were sprinters and not jumpers. They wore full faces of bold make up, and their long straight pony tails whipped back and forth as they skipped a few steps before pulling their knee to their chest to stretch.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I began to try and mimic their confidence. They looked like winners to me, and I just felt like a gnome in the grass. I did every stretch and every drill with a little more pep in my step than usual. In that moment, what I wanted more than anything was to not seem like an outsider. I wanted to fit in, and then proceed to blow them away. I wanted to be the threat they didn’t see coming, and in the process I tossed my natural confidence for someone else’s. I bent down to touch the ground and stretch my hamstring and I felt a pop! The panic rapidly set in.
I tried to keep stretching, telling myself it was nothing. The panic was already spreading across the inside of my skull like warm peanut butter. I felt my hamstring tighten as I continued to fail at staying calm. I laughed uncomfortably as I told our athletic trainer, trying to fight away tears. She examined my hamstring and said she thought it was fine, that I should be alright to compete.
I did compete, and I didn’t make it to the sandpit on any of my jumps. I couldn’t even jump as far as I did in junior high. It was only nine feet to the sand pit. I just kept looking at all the other athletes that I was competing against. They were so confident. They actually looked like athletes. I felt envy growing as they took off their shirt to put on a competition tank, their abs looking better than most boys I’d seen in high school. My stomach was flat, but there was no definition; a one-pack instead of a six. I changed in the bathroom before going outside in the cool, brisk air to let the tears fall I’d been holding in for a long time. I broke down.
Years later I would graduate, finishing my senior track and field year successfully. I would continuously jump over twenty feet at every outdoor track meet for long jump, be just centimeters away from breaking the University of Memphis school record, and make it to the regional track meet. There I would choke, not even making it to finals. And for months after I would mourn my lost opportunity. My failure to be on top once again.
After I was no longer a competitive collegiate athlete, I still tried to work out at a high level. I thought maybe I could keep competing, maybe I could still be on top. It was a hard task to keep up. Between school, work, and teaching as well, I started to wonder if it was too much. I was overwhelmed. And how track used to be this emotional stress release, a safe place, now it was an added stressor; something else to add to my to do list. So I cut back.
My workouts were only an hour for all of the days I could get in during the week, which was usually two or three. It was enough to keep me feeling fit and energetic, but some weeks I had no time to work out at all.
There was one week where I hadn’t had a good workout for half a month, and I felt it already – the slugs wrapping themselves around my bones and weighing me down, coaxing me to the bed, whispering, “I know you’re tired. You just need a nap, a break. Give yourself a break!” I knew the true cause of my fatigue. My body had grown used to twelve years of periodized high intensity workouts, and now I was depriving myself of it.
I walked across my bedroom floor to face the mirror on my dresser, rotating from side to side. All I thought was one word: sausages. I would work out the next day, doing a squat circuit in between one hundred meter runs on the freshly rained on turf field. I would keep going until I squeezed my glutes and felt the beginning of soreness setting in.
Later I would lay in bed and watch Shola scrunch his bushy, dark eyebrows while trying to do economics homework on his laptop, and I’d wonder if he missed that Sydney. The Sydney who could go out and easily squat 275 pounds or jump over 20 feet. The Sydney who could push through the pain of 6 a.m. weights and 3 p.m. sprints, and the I’m proud of you, love, would follow every time. I’d wonder if I should care, and if I should want the same things for my body as others did.
I asked him, “Shola, can you tell that my body is changing?” I wanted him to say no, that I was still the same. The same person that he loved, that he fell for the first time we met on the track when he arrived his freshman year. I was scared that he would say yes. I was scared that he would say I should probably try and work out more, that I didn’t want to lose that part of myself. I was scared that he believed the athlete was the best part of me, and now that that was gone, I wasn’t as great as I used to be.
“Yes,” he said. I stopped breathing, praying for a but. He moved his computer aside and sat down beside me, placing his hands on either side of my face. “But it doesn’t change the way I feel about you. You are beautiful,” he said, kissing both of my cheeks. “What matters is how you feel. If working out makes you feel good then do it. If it doesn’t, then don’t do it. I love you either way.”
His words made me feel better in a way. I still didn’t know how to get rid of the bitter longing for something to replace this gaping hole in my life. Maybe there wasn’t anything that could replace it. It was a part of my life that couldn’t be replaced because it would always be a part of me, a past me that has led the way for the future me.
Being an athlete isn’t my entire identity, it is simply a moving part that doesn’t need to be filled with something new. I will continue to transform and move from one identity to another, and my body will change along with it. I won’t always know where I’m going, or where I should be going, or if I should want to go where others want me to. I’ll feel bitterness and longing for my past selves, but will also look forward to what my future selves will bring. I will still be me, and I will find that new runners high.
I love you either way…
About the Author:
Sydney Wright is a Creative Writing graduate student at the University of Memphis specializing in fiction and literature. She has been a Creative Nonfiction editor for The Pinch Literary Journal for two years, and has also read for their literary contest. Sydney was a track and field athlete for the U of M, competing in multiple events during her eligibility.