Sport: Good For All Our Hearts
Three weeks ago, it occurred to me that Kid #1 (who is the male version of me, 26 years younger) could use a challenge. Poor kid has parents that have been very busy, distracted, and tired his entire life, so he literally has never taken a single class, or been on a single team, or really tried any sport except for Backyard Antics, Brother Wrestling, and Tag. But he's a whiz on his bicycle, and he's the reigning Kindergarten Field Day champion in the 50 meter dash, and he was due to start swimming lessons the following Monday, so I decided to sign him up for the Music City Kid's Triathlon. It would be a 50 yard swim, 2.6 mile bike, and 0.75 mile run around the Parthenon in downtown Nashville.
I paid the registration fee before I ran the idea by him, but thankfully he was ecstatic. "Will there be MEDALS!?!?" Man, he is SO my kid.
I read some tips online about how to prepare your child for his/her first triathlon. Rule #1: Don't focus on winning. Uhoh. We needed to backpedal already. Thankfully, I had already introduced this lesson prior to Field Day one month ago. We literally had to practice--several times over--walking up to the pretend winner, looking him in the eye, shaking hands, and offering a sincere "Congratulations. Good race." He found it to be almost intolerable, but finally, it sunk in. The word "sportsmanship" came into occasional use in his vocabulary over the ensuing weeks, which I took as a reassuring sign.
Rule #2 of triathlon prep: make sure your kid can actually ride a bike (check) and swim (..........?). He had 4 lessons in the pool the week before the race, and we quickly determined that backstroke was a better bet than freestyle for our novice swimmer. More oxygen = better change of speed (and survival).
Rule #3: coach your child on pacing. They all love to sprint out at top speed, especially on the run, and then "bonk" quickly when they realize that 3/4 of a mile is a really long way. We practiced this by riding our bikes to his school (2.5 miles), then immediately starting a run around the track. My goal was to do the first lap the slowest, then gradually speed up each lap, for a total of 4. Barely into lap 3, he asked if we could take a break. My inner athlete--though it has long been dormant--was aghast. I successfully hid my reflexive response, and said instead, "You know buddy, when I'm running and I'm tired and I want to stop, I think about something that is special to me, and that motivates me to keep going. Like Papa. Or like you guys!" With a sudden spring in his step, he gushed, "Oh! Like MEDALS!? And TROPHIES! And blue ribbons!!!" Oy, back to Rule #1. He then dared me to beat him to the finish line, and I literally couldn't.
One week later, it was the eve of his race. We carefully rehearsed Rule #4: practice the transitions. We set out his bike, his helmet, his shirt, shoes, and socks, his water bottle, and his towel. He ran to our "transition area", struggled to get his swim cap off until he realized the goggles should come first, then I splashed his feet with water so he could more accurately prepare for the hassle of putting socks on wet feet. "Shirt before helmet" was repeated at least a dozen times. He invited me to join him for the run-with-your-bike-and-mount-while-running part of transition training. Turns out that's easier when you're 6 than when you're over halfway to 60. Before long, my kid was ready.
The morning of his race, the whole clan was up early. He seemed confident and a little nervous... exactly how I remember feeling before decades worth of gymnastics meets. We verbally rehearsed the race course, and I told him where he'd see me at each stage. I had a my camera in my hands and Kid #4 strapped to my back. Kids 2 and 3 were playing with sticks nearby, as per usual. Our au pair was a saint in helping me keep track of everybody so I could focus on my little triathlete. (Papa was out of town, but was able to watch and cheer via FaceTime.)
The Swim: Backstroke was even more brilliant than I had predicted. There were lots of REALLY CUTE little 5-, 6-, and 7- year old swimmers, entering the pool every 5 seconds to start their races. After about 1/3 of a pool length, he reached a traffic jam. Had he been swimming freestyle, common sense would have led him to stop and wait until traffic cleared. As it was, he had no idea that he was about to plow over 6 kids with his windmill arms. He finished the 50 yard swim, climbed out of the pool, and took off running. So did his cheering squad, with Kid #4 giggling at the very bouncy ride.
Transition 1 was even smoother than his practice, then he left on his bike. He pedaled faster than I knew he was capable of, and he was soon out of sight on the 2.6 mile course. Four minutes in to being the parent of a kid in a sport, I already understood how parents can become passionate, vocal, (crazy,) nervous wrecks. Everybody got a good laugh out of watching Aly Raisman's parents "root" for her in 2012 and 2016, but man, I get it. I screamed really loudly, but hopefully I wasn't too embarrassing.
Transition 2 was tarnished by a bike collision while running with their bikes. Thankfully I didn't see it, otherwise my throat would have dropped to my stomach. My kid was unfazed, and he left for the run. Three-quarters of a mile later, he rounded a corner and was sprinting to the finish line. Mommy was going bananas, and let's just say the camera work was NOT steady (nor was he even in the frame, actually). My husband watched the footage later and chuckled, "THAT was ineffective." I told him that it actually captured the moment quite suitably: there was an abundance of chaos and excitement, and a bit of disorientation. My boy had flushed cheeks and kind of glassy eyes when I collected him at the finish line, and I don't think I've ever squeezed him so hard. My son was officially a triathlete.
A couple hundred other energetic youngsters completed their races that morning, and lots of proud parents were gathered around, surely feeling a lot of the same things I was. It was a well-organized event, and we all were impressed by, proud of, and happy for our offspring. My son got his finisher medal, and he won the trophy he was hoping for, and he spent the rest of the day on cloud ten (or eleven). For these things I was very thankful. Even more valuable than the awards, however, were the intangible gifts that sport bestows on all its participants.
Every day on tracks, in gyms, in arenas, on fields, in pools, on slopes, and rinks, and courts, the human heart is challenged physically and metaphorically. As athletes train their bodies, they also refine their minds. They learn to set goals. They learn to work. They learn to listen and be coachable. They learn to be teammates. They learn to sacrifice. They learn to cope with pain. They learn to surge forth despite setbacks. They learn to cope with disappointment. They learn to be good sports.
I cry during every Olympic medal ceremony I watch. No matter the winner, no matter the sport. I imagine how much toil these athletes have persisted through. How many people have supported them along the way. How proud their mommies must be. (I really do think about that. That's usually when the tears start falling.)
I don't want to be a crazy parent, and I will try hard not to be. But I am so grateful for the lessons learned through sport in my own life, and I'm thrilled to start watching my child on his own athletic journey.
P.S. More photos to come once I return to my home computer. And, "MY Will Be Done: Part III" coming soon!