"But can't you just do this stuff for fun?" he asks, innocently. "I mean, it seems like it's stressing you out MORE to do these workouts."
I sit, staring at the carpet. He's a little right, and I know that.
"Maybe you should just do these workouts for fun and not worry about times and stuff. Or do the race for fun and not try to beat your old times."
I stare blankly back at him.
Indoor pool, North Olmsted, Ohio. Sometime in the summer of 1985.
It was one of my first swim meets, I think. I can't really remember much except the deafening sound of water and the blurry colors I saw whenever I took a breath. Every 4 strokes, then. Left side. I saw people jumping up and down, my coaches yelling weird noises and screams that were timed up with my breath. I couldn't see her, but I knew she must be close. So I went as hard and fast as I possibly could, and I hit the wall.
And I beat her. But I beat me, too. It was my fastest 25 freestyle I'd ever clocked.
I remember holding onto the side of the pool, gasping for air, looking at my hands on the wall and smiling.
Summer, 2007. I am huge and pregnant and have no idea what's about to happen. All I know is that I miss racing so much, that it literally sometimes brings me to tears. I still swim and run and stuff, "for fun," but I am hungry for the days when I can run hard and swim fast again. When I can feel my quads burning on a hill. When I could cross the finish line and almost puke, knowing I left it all on the course.
February, 1995. Some old high school that's now demolished. I remember how dull and institutional everything was, and that the cafeteria smelled like mildew.
It was my senior year solo and ensemble contest. I picked the hardest possible pieces I could find: both Class A. Not just any Class A. I wanted the really tough ones. So I picked a Brahms piece that looked as if it was black on all 4 1/2 pages. Solid black.
I practiced and practiced that damn piece. I started to feel the fear creep in...that I wasn't as ready as I usually was. That this was going to be a bit of a gamble. I was still shooting for a 1 of course, but in my mind I was ready to take a 2 on this if I needed to. My first 2 in four years of competing in flute and piano.
I remember walking into the dingy room with a piano and playing my heart out. There were some mistakes, but they were relatively slight in comparison to the piece. I played with a ton of musicality and a little less technique, which was usually my style. Every once in a while, I'd miss a little note here or there but I knew I still did well, and I was proud of what I did with that piece.
I waited for the score. I knew it wouldn't be a 1, but I thought I could still get a 2.
My heart sank and my eyes welled up. Four was not even an option. FOUR? Four was what they give you if you had no business being there. If you messed up so bad that you puked and cried and punched the judge in the face. Four? I was humiliated. My piano teacher and band director were so furious, I thought they WERE going to punch the judge in the face. Literally.
I had 35 minutes before my next performance. If I had any hope of doing well, I'd have to move on. I'd have to forget that this ever happened, and remember that that number was one person's judgement; that it was not indicative of who I was or of what I did in there.
I stared at the wall as hard as I could and I remember actually letting go. I don't think I've ever been able to do that since, but I stared and breathed and said "new day, new day today" and went in and nailed my Class A flute piece.
And got a 1.
Spring, 1994. The ballpark diamond behind the school. A chilly but sunny day.
I ran in, breathless, after play practice and cheerleading tryouts. I was trying to squeeze in a lot into that evening, and felt a little bit like I deserved to slack off that evening. I was hungry. I had already been to two different practices. What did it matter if I didn't pitch that well tonight, right? It's just practice. Not a game, practice. (Channelling my inner AI cockiness, I guess)
I remember throwing a few balls and giggling about it. "I'm tired," I thought. "This doesn't really matter."
My coach called timeout and came out to the mound. I figured he'd tell me a way to use my changeup more effectively or something, or just tell me something minor.
"You come in here late. You're laughing. You're throwing junk right now. I'm disappointed in you," he spat. "I don't even think you care about this game very much."
And he walked away.
I threw nine strikes in a row.
I walked back to the dugout and slammed my glove against the fence. And sat down. Silently.
He smiled. Because he knew he said exactly what you'd need to say to get me to focus.
All you need to do is tell me that I don't care about it. That I'm not putting my heart into it.
That, to me, is the worst insult of all. And I will die proving you wrong.
All of these moments flashed before me when Matt told me I should do this "for fun." That maybe I should ease up on the goals.
And I know that some of what he's saying here is legit. But the other part of me says that you don't become a competitive swimmer, a closing pitcher, or a performing musician because you are afraid of goals or pressure. To some extent, this is just me, and I can't flip the switch.
"No," I told him. "The answer is no. I can't. Because it is not the same sport if I just 'do it for fun.'"
He looked at me quizzically. Like I had just grown another eyeball.
"It would be like you playing soccer and not keeping score. Could you do that?"
Yes, he said. Yes, of course he could.
And then I realized the difference between us. He's a phenomenal athlete, and was a very good all-state football kicker who often had the whole game resting on his shoulders. Most of the time he made it; a few times he did not. It's not like he's a stranger to intensity.
But he can turn it off. I can't.
For me, the fun is in chasing the goal and, from time to time, feeling the fear from knowing it's difficult. The fun is in the silent moment I have at the end, with just me, knowing I did it. Or if I didn't do it, knowing that I tried and gave it everything I had.
I did just work out "for fun" for about two years. It was called pregnancy and newborn. And it was okay, and all.
But it was nothing like the fun I get from pushing just to the edge of the cliff and then taking that leap of faith.