Athletics: self-flagellation with a purpose

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February 2, 2007

7:56 PM

We look ridiculous, jumping up and down on the edge of these metal benches like this. Any sane person would be sitting comfortably inside, a warm beverage on the side table, watching TV and putting off the 200 pages of reading every professor has assigned for the first full week of classes. Instead, we’re out on Busch Field. Our crystallized breath hangs in the nighttime air, and soon enough a small fog has enveloped us — we have become lost in our own individual worlds of silent labor. On the field beside us, the women’s lacrosse team toils through a seemingly endless set of drills, and beyond that the stands sit, imposing and empty, like a long-forgotten ghost town.

p. Conversation ceased ages ago, probably set adrift in our milky cloud of exertion. The entire group faces the field, watching the lacrosse team in silence, looking like a pack of prairie dogs strung out on speed.

p. We, the Ultimate Frisbee team, that is, have been doing a program called Air Alert — a series of exercises that guarantees to increase a person’s vertical leaping ability by nearly a foot. Consequently, we spend three nights a week hopping and bounding in place, looking like a group of escaped patients from Eastern State who, in a desperate attempt to fill the time previously spent counting the tiles of nondescript white rooms, have started their own sadomasochistic jazzercise class.
Just then, at that crazy, prairie dog/jazzercisistic moment (and the award for the most ridiculous mixed metaphor of all time goes to …), it struck me — the lengths to which athletes go to behind the scenes to be successful is astounding. Everyone, of course, loves the glory of the competition, the feeling of warmth when the spotlight swings in your direction. But one watching the action rarely thinks of all those hours which, when piled upon each other like bricks in a wall, transform into a momentary flash of perfection.

p. Athletics — 95 percent of it anyway — is self-flagellation with a purpose. Says I, at least, which may explain my frustrating inability to break into the refrigerator magnet industry. In an effort to find a quote slightly more inspirational (or at least refrigerator magnet-worthy) and that may or may not conjure up images of fanatics whipping themselves into a bloody pulp, I decided to do some thorough journalistic research, the kind of hard work that we reporters thrive on and that the general public simply can’t understand. So, of course, I typed the phrase “practice quotes” into Google, and waited for the magic to happen. I knew that I was but a few quick clicks away from glory. Goodbye Flat Hat, hello Pulitzer. Just as I began thinking about who I would thank at the awards banquet, the computer returned with the answer to my query. Eagerly, I opened up the first page, a quote by some guy named Edward Jenner, which said: “I hope that someday the practice of producing cow pox in human beings will spread over the world — when that day comes there will be no more smallpox.”
Excellent. I knew very little about this so called “cow pox” — or its seemingly sinister brother “small pox” — but at least now I did know that on some level it was one of the key ingredients to athletic success. The second page I opened held a slightly different sentiment: “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.”

p. Well, obviously that one’s garbage.

p. Finally, I found the quote that I was looking for. Martha Graham, the famous modern dance choreographer, once said, “Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”

p. What she captures, more perfectly than any of the pseudo-philosophical musings listed above, is the underlying factor at work any time a runner gets up for an early morning run, or a soccer player takes corner kicks into an empty net by himself: the intense and persistent desire to better oneself.

p. Suddenly, in light of this new thread, our repetitive calisthenics began to look slightly less ridiculous. I jumped higher and higher, getting lost in that feathery vapor and blurring the edge that separates earth from air. The empty stands still sat across from us as before, but now promising a day when the spotlight would shine in our collective direction and repay every drop of sweat and lactic acid with the type of glory made possible only through athletic endeavor. Until then, we had to satisfy ourselves with the solitary glow of the stadium lights, lending effervescence to our unforgiving efforts, and forming a scene that I can only describe as senselessly beautiful.

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