Thursday, July 8, 2010

Flying high

The word "volley," I just learned, comes from the middle-French word volee, meaning "to fly."

This definition -- admittedly, a bit of a head-slap for the mother of a live-it-breathe-it volleyball player -- was refined, repeated and reiterated in Austin the first week of July. That's when my Charlie's team, High Intensity 16s, and hundreds more played their hearts out in this event. 

More than balls flew. So did bodies, scores, spirits. They were lifted and they were pummeled, raised and thrown, tossed and crushed and lifted again. Everything these teams -- from as far away as Hawaii and Canada -- had learned, practiced, strived and sweated buckets for came down to these days.

The jaw-droppingly defined calves of these kids, their arms powerful propellers, bore witness to a work ethic shared, one surpassed only by a hungry desire to be there.

In backpacks under team benches, I could almost see Charlie's plastic bottles, two filled with Gatorade and one with water; his energy bars and almonds; the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich he asked me every day of practice to make for him.

I could picture these players I didn't know by name, but knew just the same, gathering gear for a variation on High Intensity's practices: Two hours four days a week, four hours on Sundays. I saw them at thousands of kitchen tables, eating late after-practice dinners, telling their moms about the drills, collapsing on their couches in front of TV sets, a bag of ice held on a sore muscle, or on a scraped knee. 

By the time each practice rolled around, the previous day's difficulties were all but forgotten and the kids were ready to play again. By the time the boys arrived in Austin, nothing mattered but the games. The first ones began each day at 8 a.m.; the last, 12 hours later.

From Saturday through Tuesday, we family members yelled, we whistled, we did a modified wave. We watched our boys show grace in victory, dignity in defeat. We marveled at how the tide can turn, at the intricacies of momentum, and the beauty of having it on your side.

On the tournament's last day, during the third game of the set that would determine whether our team would go home or play again, one mom turned to me. "I get so worked up over this when I'm here," she said. "Then I get back home with everything else going on and I wonder how I could get so caught up it."

One look around the massive convention center, though, and we both knew. How could we not get caught up, seeing balls soar through the air like numbered spheres at a bingo night, hearing whistles of refs and spectators, smelling the passionate hunger to win?

In front of us, behind us, surrounding us were boys who had put in countless hours of practice to be in this exact place at this exact time. These kids, who for four days gave everything they had, were reaching even deeper inside themselves -- just for the privilege of playing one more match, one more game, one minute more. Of doing what they believed they were born to do: Fly. Higher than even their dreams dared them.