Saturday, May 5, 2012

Belonging here

At the end of last year's track season, my son Charlie's PR (personal record) for the triple jump was 39 feet, 1 1/2 inches. This is an event in which the silver grail is 40 feet. With each additional foot leaped, the chalice slowly turns to gold; each inch adds a gemstone.

Charlie didn't want to graduate without grasping the silver, and on a sunny day a few weeks ago, at a track meet on home field, he did. I am so grateful I was there, watching from the bleachers as he jumped that morning. After he landed and the sand around him had settled, his jumping coach stretched out the tape, and proclaimed "Forty feet, one inch!" The group of boys standing around clapped and cheered.

That was the first of four times this season Charlie reached it. In the best jump of his life -- 40 feet, 11 inches -- the grail was just beginning to turn to gold.

On his school's track team, two juniors excel -- a word that seems almost silly were you to watch them -- in the triple jump. Without question, they'd be going to the conference meet that ends the season. But the third slot was up for grabs. Charlie's major competition was another senior, one who would already be representing their school in the pole vault and long jump.

Charlie made up his mind he wasn't going to let that boy be the third triple-jumper, too. So Charlie worked harder than ever. He began eating the egg-white-turkey-bacon breakfast his coach eats every day. He spent more time chilling his muscles in ice baths, and incinerating them during sultry spring workouts.

His hard work paid off, and on Friday, his event of the conference championship took place. The day was clear, the sky blue, the breeze noticeable enough to keep the inevitable heat at bay. Before the triple jump began, his coach summoned his participants off the bleachers. He instructed them to sprint 100 feet at 70 percent effort, then at 80, then 90. The boys joined others warming up with high kicks, with exaggerated skipping, with vertical leaps.

Then the jumping began. One of Charlie's teammates immediately jumped more than 44 feet, a distance matched by the other one. Charlie jumped last, reaching 39 feet, 4.75 inches the first time and, oddly, the same on his second jump.

I stood by, feeling proud and supportive and nervous. His coach walked by and started talking; we walked together so I could listen.

"He's scared," he told me. "He's looking at his teammates jumping 44 and 45 feet, and he's wondering what he's doing here. But he needs to know he belongs here. He belongs here every bit as much as they do. He's worked hard, and he's good."

When I saw Charlie take his familiar deep breath before starting his last jump, I held mine. When he moved his arms across his body in his traditional preliminary move, I kept mine stiff and at my side. And then he began sprinting toward what would be his last triple jump of the meet, of the year, of the track chapter of his life.

He fouled, so his jump -- which he later told me he thought would be his best -- disqualified him. And I'm glad I was wearing sunglasses, because when he walked past me, I could hardly keep the sob in my throat. But I swallowed hard and I went back to the bleachers. He sat next to me, a foot or so away, and we didn't say anything. The coach came up and knelt in front of Charlie.

"You belong here," he said. "Don't think for a minute that you don't. You have worked so hard, and you are a great jumper. I have loved being your coach, and I'm going to miss you."

Charlie hugged him. "I'm going to miss you, too," he said.

Charlie stood up, gathered his gear, wandered off. I wanted to put my arms around him and tell him how proud I was of  him, but at that moment, it didn't feel like the right thing to do. So I let him go. All around, kids were talking and laughing, warming up and working hard, running and jumping and being right there in that very moment.

I'm not sure anyone else felt it, the lingering feeling of finality amid the excitement, the knowledge that, unless Charlie goes out for track in college (which I don't think he will) he'll probably never triple jump again.

But last time I saw him out there, his head was held high. And -- maybe it was the way the sun hit that green water bottle he always carries -- but I could swear he was raising a golden chalice to his lips.