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Existential Track Meet

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My son joined the Track and Field team last year as a “thrower.” Walking down his high school hall one day, the track coach pulled him aside and asked if he’d be interested in joining the team, throwing shot and discus. My son’s a burly guy and must have looked like the type of boy who could round out the brute squad throwing team. I’m not sure why he said “yes,” as it would severely cut into the couch-sitting season that spans the chasm between football seasons, but he did. And now he has a new passion: throwing shot put.*

After watching him throw at just a few track meets, I soon realized that instead of “Track and Field” this sport should be called “Track and Wha–?” While spectators gather on bleachers to clap and holler for sprinters and hurdlers, the throwing team performs on a back lot of the school property, somewhere behind the Maintenance Shed. There is no fanfare, and no attention as the “big men” have their competition. They are the gypsy orphans of the track team, relegated to some distant spot. In fact, they don’t even look like they belong on the team. While the runners are slim and lithe, the throwers look like unathletic, beastly ogres. Like they might be there just to protect the size-small runners if something goes down.

While my son has competed as a thrower, I, myself, have earned a varsity letter in hunting down throwing pits all over Christendom. At yesterday’s meet, for instance, I boarded the 120 west-bound and transferred to the 470 south-bound and took it until the end of the line. Then I hitchhiked the last fifteen miles to the hay-field where I finally found the throwers packing up to leave. All this while leading my two preschoolers who munch on pretzels the whole way.

But once I found the stupid shot put pit learned the basic rules of the sport, I found that throwing is an interesting sport to watch. It is an exercise of brute strength, perfected by form. Tiny, incremental improvement to gain mere inches of distance. Man vs. Man, and Man vs. Self. Quietly we watch as big men enter the ring and silently play out their own pre-throw routine: balletic movements, rocking rhythms of building momentum. We hold our breath, anticipating the end of this prelude, and then: a roar, a blast of blunt-force primal power.

As I was watching my son throw at the meet yesterday and trying to keep my small children protected from seriously dangerous projectiles I started thinking about what we do and why. My son is obviously passionate about throwing a shot. But why do we have passions and why are they so important? You’ve heard non-sports fans give their evaluation of football (or hockey or baseball or you name it): “It’s just a bunch of grown men hitting each other and chasing a ball.” And they are right, but they’re missing something us sports fans understand. Athletes (and fans) just love the game. Sports provide a necessary outlet, and we love it. When my son throws the shot, I’m sure he looks downright “caveman” to some. (And truly, it’s as primal a sport as you can get.) But he is honing his natural abilities, putting all he’s got into all he has.

Sometimes our passions look silly to others. I knit and bead and garden and run. And if someone else isn’t a knitter or beader or gardener or runner, I just can’t explain to them why I do what I do. And likewise. (I will never, ever, understand Train Spotting. Ever.) So what’s it all about?

In the movie Chariots of Fire, the character Eric Liddell, Scottish runner and national hero, explains why he runs. He says, “When I run, I feel [God’s] pleasure.” I think our passions, as baffling as they may be to others, are what we are made to do. They’re just who we are. Now I’m not going to lie to you: sometimes I feel a little silly about my own passions. Sometimes I think to myself: “So this is who I really am? A girl who spends her free time obsessing about how many silver dangles should hang from these stupid earrings – fourteen or twelve?!”

Yes_ I_am. I am that girl. And this is what I do.

*Now dear reader, please do not write me some prissy memo about my grammatical misuse of the term, “shot put.” Yes, I am aware that “shot” is the noun and “put” is the verb. So I am also aware that the term is actually “putting the shot” which renders redundant the verb “throwing” in this sentence. So save it; I’m going with the masses on this one, not the three English majors out there who care.