Sunday, May 4, 2014

Teaming up

If you're going to go to a track meet, let me suggest you pick a sunny day in April. When you get there, the air will still have enough of an edge so you can carry and sip from a cardboard cup of coffee, knowing that within a half-hour you'll pour it onto the grass, craving something colder.

You probably don't need to know anyone competing because the spirit of the day will engulf you as soon as you walk toward the stadium. You'll hear blurred excited voices, and flurries of footsteps. The P.A. system blares YMCA, with periodic interruptions from a voice announcing the first call for the girls 800; the last call for the high jump; the start of the hurdles, the triple jump, the pole vault.

You'll be alternately amused and awed by the bodily twists and turns, the exaggerated jumping jacks, the high steps and kicks that make up various athletes' warm-up routines. 

If you hardly even know their names, that doesn't matter all that much. But if you are lucky enough to know (or quite probably love) a competitor, and perhaps even have surprised him by showing up, that makes the colors of the uniforms that much brighter, the vividness of the sun even more blindingly beautiful, the entire experience even more memory-making profound.

He seems to sense this too -- this added bonus of faces from home cheering him on -- because he seems to scan the crowd when he jumps extra far, or when he fouls, or when his hand releases the baton into the outstretched hand of his teammate. You're pretty sure he doesn't notice you're wearing the blue and silver earrings he gave you, the pair you lost and almost cried upon finding a month or so later. You don't care. You're wearing them for luck, for support, for that connection that really can't be measured in mementos or things.

The coach walks by, glances his way.

"Go Charlie!" he calls, clapping his hands twice above his head. "Another big day!"

The event begins. You hold tightly onto the chain-link fence separating the observers from the athletes. You're mesmerized as you watch your competitor swing his arms before his favorite event, the triple jump, feel the breath in his lungs as he pauses, as  he inhales composure and channels confidence.

You find yourself taking a synchronous deep breath as he sprints toward the jumping line. When he lands in the sand pit and starts clapping because he knows he's done well, you realize you've yet to exhale.

With each movement, each event, you catch yourself marveling at his prowess, staring at his muscles in action. You make yourself look away; he'd be mortified if he knew. You walk to the car, pull out an umbrella because the sun is unrelenting and the stadium seats shadeless. When the announcer calls for the girls in the 4X100 relay to come onto the field, you put down the umbrella and walk down the metal steps.

You love relays. You could watch a dozen in a row for two weeks straight and never lose that sense of jaw-dropping awe at the timing, as one hand reaches forward and the other back. More quickly than a finger-snap, than the blink of an eye, that exchange has to be perfect.

As the girls round the corner near where you stand, you get an unexpected catch in your throat. You don't even know these runners, but the precision takes your breath away. The boy -- the young man, your son -- you have come to watch has told you where to stand so you can watch him hand off to the anchor the baton he's received 100 meters earlier.

You see him coming. Good heavens, did you realize he was so fast? You're screaming out his name now, jumping up and down as the nanoseconds unfold and he gets closer to his teammate whose arm is outstretched and waiting.

You feel the earth move but stand still at the same time.

You see the cluster of runners, strain to watch the exchange. The anchor reaches back, trusting trusting trusting as he starts moving forward, hardly looking behind.

The dark-haired runner you can't take your eyes off stretches his right arm out.

The baton connects his hand with that of his teammate, who then grasps it tight and runs toward the finish line.

You stand on tiptoes, stretching to see what's happening down there. The colors and uniforms are a blur, but then you see someone familiar jump high into the air, hear that yell that could come only from him.

Third place -- just two-tenths of a second slower than the second place winners; three-fourths of a second slower than the winner. That means the team earned a place on the podium. Later, you learn they broke a school record, and are the first 4X100 relay quartet to stand there.

You're more tired than you thought you'd be -- as if you were the one warming up, the one jumping, the one focusing first on the baton and then on the finish line. It's field day at summer camp all over again, and you feel sunburned, satisfied, and starving.

You'd love to rehash the day, the events, the meters and the seconds with the kid you came to see. But you also know that right now, nothing is more important to him than being with those with whom he spent not only today, but the countless hours of practice and camaraderie that brought them here.

So when he says, "Do you mind if I have dinner with the team?" you answer him no, of course you don't.

And truth to tell, you don't merely mean it. You mean it with all your heart.