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Exercising My Heritage

by Roberta McReynolds

Athleticism is a recessive trait in my family. My parents were mostly sedate and showed little interest in physical activities for pleasure. Sports for our household equated to watching the Olympics on television every four years.

There was a time when Mom exercised along with the Jack LaLanne Show in the early 1960's, but that was short-lived. The problem was the family dog (also in need of calisthenics). One regular exercise entailed Mom lying on her back while pedaling her legs in the air on an imaginary bicycle. The obese terrier would lie on his back alongside of my mother, thrashing all four legs wildly in the air. Clipper wiggled about upside down, twisting his hips left and right while his tongue flopped loosely from his mouth.

Mom found it difficult to follow along while overcome with a case of the giggles. She tried keeping her eyes closed to the spectacle beside her, but she couldn’t follow the program. Even as a 7-year-old girl, I had my suspicions that the true motivation behind Mom’s fitness craze was just a respectable excuse to ogle Mr. LaLanne’s physique.

I’ve heard rumors that, in his youth, Dad was a daredevil on a toboggan. I can’t picture this at all and since he never admitted anything to me personally about the incident in question, I have no proof. Yet I can’t help but wonder if that explained the gleam in his eyes when he watched the Winter Olympics bobsled events.

Other than general property upkeep on an acre of land and the two-story house he built, Dad’s only form of recreation was an occasional fishing trip. His flat-bottom aluminum boat offered fleeting activity when he and I loaded it on the pick-up truck. A winch did most the labor and while on the water the vessel was propelled by a small outboard motor, so no rowing was required.

Dad’s favorite regular pastime during the 4-year intermissions between Olympic games was sitting in his recliner and thumbing through the Sears & Roebuck catalog. He had the tool section completely memorized and was diligently working on the fishing & camping section next.

Keeping my ancestry in mind, understand that throughout grade school I shied away from sports. I was always the kid who was got picked last for team sports: it didn’t matter what kind. This wasn’t a case of unpopularity with my peers, but based soundly on my limited exposure to games and lack of natural ability.

I preferred to duck and cringe instead of genuinely trying to catch the softball. The one time I bravely stood my ground as a fly ball hurtled toward me it smacked soundly, not in my protective leather glove on my left hand, but my other bare palm. The satisfaction of finally catching a ball was completely lost on me. I was instantly focused on the current objective of arriving at the nurse’s office to get ice for my rapidly swelling hand. From that day forward, I gave the position of ‘outfielder’ a whole new meaning. When I played outfield, my location had a different zip code than the rest of my team!

Two years later I decided to give it an honest try. The first day of practice the girls warmed up by throwing a ball back and forth with a partner. I jumped up to catch a ball thrown too high. I don’t even remember if I caught the softball, since it was the landing that was so spectacular. My left ankle turned as the full force and weight bore down on the outer side. This time I made the familiar trip to the nurse’s office while hopping on one leg. The bad news was my ankle broke and the skin bone had a hairline fracture. The good news translated into no more sports for eight weeks!

Past experience plainly supported any number of reasons to dread high school gym class. The only positive aspect I could discern was that every six weeks the class changed from one form of torture to another. I did my best to maintain faith I would someday discover a sport where I could be accepted and eventually attain a level of mediocrity.

My freshman year of physical education began with field hockey. I had no previous experience and tried to keep an open mind. That lasted approximately two minutes. Wooden hockey sticks assaulted my shins, causing me to revert back to my outfielder’s strategy while disappearing into the wintery morning fog. The coach shouted across the field, "Play your position!" Reasoning any kind of movement would make me less conspicuous, I learned to dash around a bit, dodging all possible contact with elbows, sticks, or the puck.

I focused on running during our six weeks of track and field. Aside from that bum ankle from that ol’ softball injury, I trusted my legs. I went out for the 660-yard race and entered my first track meet. I proudly came home with a 3rd place ribbon to paste in my sadly deficient scrapbook. I never admitted to my parents that there were only two other girls in the competition that day. That was also, for general information, my last track meet.

Gymnastics seemed intriguing, but I had little flexibility and no strength. I was pathetic when attempting tumbling routines, tipping over halfway through basic somersaults. I saw a glimmer of hope when the class was introduced to the trampoline. How hard could bouncing up and down be?

I can’t tell you, because I didn’t make it that far.

The other girls took turns climbing on and successfully jumping according to the coach’s instructions. When it was my turn, I realized I had a dilemma: I was short and the piece of equipment was well above my waist. I feebly tried to pull myself up, but the thick safety padding attached to the sides slipped under my weight. I briefly considered grabbing the springs, but knew I would manage, in all probability, to pinch my fingers (plus, I didn’t know where the high school nurse’s office was located yet).

Surveying the situation, I saw the corners of the trampoline didn’t have any springs or bulky padding. I decided the best chance I had was to back up to a corner, reach my arms behind me and hoist myself up backwards.

This theory worked . . . up to a point. What I hadn’t foreseen was the slick surface of the rounded corner. The synthetic fabric in my leotards slid across the polished metal and my backside plunged through the gap between the springs and pads attached to the sides. I would have dropped all the way through to the floor, except my body didn’t fit through the opening folded in half. My knees were pressed firmly against my chest with the metal wedged under my knees. My lower legs stuck out perpendicular to my body and I was up to my armpits in springs.

I thought the laughter would never end. In fact, I can still hear the uproar echoing in my ears. Future gymnasts were dropping to the floor and rolling with uncontrolled snorts and chortles. Even my coach was leaning on the trampoline for support, gasping for breath with her head buried in her arms.

I hung there, suffering the deepest humiliation of my young life, helpless to free myself. My rescue depended on the very people who found my predicament so entertaining.

Two girls eventually composed themselves enough to shove my backside upwards so I could scoot to the center of the trampoline and eventual retreat to the locker room. I think it was while I showered in cold water, reducing the burning red embarrassment from my cheeks, that I accepted there would be no sports scholarships in my future.

So I take after my parents when it comes to physical talent. Is that really such a negative thing? I actually excel at my father’s indoor ‘sport’ of catalog browsing. If it ever becomes a sanctioned Olympic event, I’m certain to be a serious contender for a medal after so many years in training.

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