I used to hate gym class. From my first exposure to physical education in kindergarten, right through graduation from high school, the time spent sweating with my classmates mid-school day, was never a pleasant experience for me.
My elementary school gym teacher was a regimented fellow named Joe Reiners. Mr. Reiners ran a tight ship and was fully committed to delivering both halves of gym class: both physical activity and education.
Every couple of weeks we would start a new unit in class, and for each every student received a “skills sheet” that was stapled into our gym folder. The skills sheet was a grid filled with all the skills we were expected to learn in the unit. It started in the upper left corner of the sheet and moving across and then down to the next row as the skills increased in difficulty.
At the start of each class, we would go and work on the next skill on the grid. Once Mr. Reiners saw you had mastered the skill on which you were working, he would lean into your face and yell “STAMP IT!” while making a stamping motion punching his right fist into the palm of his left hand. It was at this point you were supposed to go pick up your gym folder, take it over to the stamping desk and, using the provided rubber stamp, mark that skill complete. You were then to join the kids working on the next skill.
Each skills sheet would have somewhere between
twelve and twenty skills.
I clearly remember a volleyball unit in fifth grade where the first skill was to set a volleyball over a line on the gym wall, forty times without missing. That was the first square in the grid of the volleyball skills sheet.
I worked on that skill for the entirety of the volleyball unit and never heard the sweet sound of the approving Joe Reiners expelling “STAMP IT!”
Most of my other PE experiences were similarly unremarkable, though the clean, completely stamp-free, volleyball skills sheet stands out as a particular low-point.
The one day a year I did enjoy gym class was the annual running of the 600-yard dash as part of the Presidential Fitness Test. Although I never earned the Presidential Fitness Award, on the day of the 600, I was the best athlete in the class. Despite my comprehensive shortcomings in all aspects of things athletic, I could run – and fast.
That one day each year of kindergarten through sixth grade gave me the tiniest sliver of hope that one day I could one day be champion runner. Deep down inside I knew I was a runner.
In middle school, I ran modified cross-country and did well. Twice I tried the state physical test that would have allowed me, as a middle-schooler, to run indoor and spring track with the high school kids. Twice I failed.
As a freshman, I ascended to the varsity squad for cross country, did a one-season stint on the Nordic skiing team, and in spring track was the county champion for 9th graders in both the 800 and 1,600.
The autumn of tenth grade brought another solid season of XC, which flowed seamlessly into my first season of indoor track. Early in the indoor season, while the coach was still trying to figure out in which events to place each of us, he approached me with a curious proposition.
Pulling me aside a couple of days before our second meet he said, “Hey Steve, what do you think about the racewalk?”
The “I just bit into a lemon” look on my face seemed not to surprise him and he continued, “Here’s the thing, I’ve got a senior who is a really good racewalker, but he’s slacking off and I need him to get out there and win, because a win in the racewalk is just as many points as a win in any other event, but since hardly anybody does it, they are easy points to get. So, with your long skinny legs, I figure you can get out there and scare him a bit and make him go faster.”
My face softened a little since what he was saying made sense, but I wasn’t convinced. I had not said one word in response when he put his hand on my shoulder and finished up by saying, “You’ll really be doing me a favor and it will help the team, so let’s give it a try on Saturday, okay?”
Without uttering a word I had agreed to become a racewalker.
For those who are not familiar, racewalking (also called speed walking) is that awkward event where people go around the track swiveling their hips, locking their knees and doing this goofy heel-toe move with their feet. The rules are very simple: go as fast as you can, but you must keep one foot on the ground at all times. Most people don’t realize that when you run, about half of the time you are actually flying above the ground. In the racewalk that flying will get you disqualified.
A few more racewalking details:
- It is an Olympic event, the shortest distance being 20 kilometers (12.4 miles)
- It is horrible for your knees
- As you race, judges walk around the track in the opposite direction looking for the aforementioned “flying” violations – known in the sport as “lifting.”
- The judges may or may not warn you, but if they do, you don’t know if he or she has recorded an actual violation
- At the end of the race, the judges compare their notes and any racewalker who receives three or more lifting violations is disqualified
- Every racewalker, no matter how skilled, or fast – looks like an ass (see featured picture)
In the days between my conversation with the coach and the next meet, the coach helped me practice the correct form so that I might actually produce the scare he was looking for. However, I did not let this get in the way of my other training. I was a runner damnit, not a racewalker, and I was hell-bent on making sure this short-lived favor for the coach did not get in the way of my inevitable “championship status” as a middle distance runner.
The day of the meet came, and I turned in respectable times and placements (for a sophomore) in my two running races, and then came the time for this racewalk thing. I stepped up to the line, right next to my slacking twelfth-grade teammate, the gun went off, and that’s the last I saw of him.
I beat the senior by almost thirty seconds, placing second overall in a meet that included every team in the county.
The remainder of the season the coach stuck me in the racewalk every chance he got, and I continued to bring him the points he was after. I did manage to scare my teammate, and we regularly traded first and second positions in races.
That year I came in second in the section and placed seventh in the state. As a junior, I won the section and placed fifth in the state, being beaten by four seniors. If I continued, a state championship was mine to lose, but it was racewalking so I didn’t really care.
Throughout both of those indoor seasons, I continued to look down at racewalking as an annoying distraction from my more serious (and legitimate) running pursuits. Spring track does not have the event so I could focus on the things I was born to do, the 1,600, the 800 and the 4 x 800 relay. After all, I was a runner, not a racewalker.
Senior year came and as we were heading into the indoor season, the coach pulled me aside again (much like he had done two years before), but this time he looked concerned. He told me that the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (better known as NYSPHSAA) had decided to remove the one-mile racewalk from the indoor track event list for boys. It would continue for girls, but for boys it was over.
I think he thought I would be upset, but in fact, I was overjoyed. No more herky-jerky, swivel-hipped events to get in the way of my running. – Finally. I did okay that season in my running events, but I was not contributing to the team’s points the way I had in the two previous years.
I never saw it coming, but there were some aspects of the racewalk that I missed, a little.
Towards the end of the season, the coach told me that my state time from the year before had qualified me for the indoor national meet. If I could get myself to New Haven CT, I could compete in the nationals.
I made a few calls to other coaches who I knew were going, but I was unable to find a ride. So, I told my parents that it looked like I wasn’t going to make the trip and too be honest I wasn’t that upset about it.
My parents seemed to know better (as all parents do) and they figured out how to get me there. On the afternoon of March 15th, 1987, I lined up with the best high school racewalkers in America. I crossed the finish line in seventh place, but remember, a racewalking race isn’t really over until the judges confer and add up all the violations.
After ten painful minutes the results were posted, and from that moment, until the race was held again the following year, I was the fifth fastest high school racewalker in America.
As I made the six-hour drive home from New Haven back to Rochester, it finally dawned on me that what I had been seeking since those once-a-year days back in elementary school had happened, and I had foolishly paid little attention to it the whole time.
Sure I was a runner, and a respectable one at that, however I was also racewalker
AN ALL-AMERICAN RACEWALKER!
I had been so focused and determined to achieve my goal of becoming a champion runner that I nearly passed up the opportunity that led to a national ranking.
Call it God, or the universe, or karma or whatever you want, but I was being nudged from my pig-headed path for nearly three years and I was too stubborn to yield and give into the nudges. I fought or dismissed them (at least mentally) at every step.
In the movie Happy Gilmore, Adam Sandler plays a mediocre hockey player who, when he applies his hockey skills, is an exceptional golfer. Throughout the entire movie, He keeps insisting that he is not a golfer, he’s a hockey player who happens to be playing golf.
Here is my advice to you all – DO NOT BE HAPPY GILMORE
(or Steve the reluctant racewalker)
We all have ideas of what we want to accomplish and how we want to get there, but sometimes we’re wrong. Maybe not completely wrong, but enough wrong that we find ourselves being nudged away from what we think is the path from which we should not deviate. Give in to the nudges.
I learned half of that lesson on the drive home from nationals that day in 1987, but it wasn’t until I saw Happy Gilmore did that idea cement itself in my mind. Ever since, I have been open to the nudges around me and they haven’t failed me yet.
I think you can count me in the small minority of people who have taken a life lesson from an Adam Sandler movie, but we don’t get to pick where the nudges come from. Our job is to simply pay attention.
So, open your eyes to the suggestion of the nudge. Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more.
A quick little funny – years after my fifth place at the nationals, I shared this accomplishment with friend and coworker in New York city. He immediately started calling me “Luke Racewalker” and within a few weeks everyone in the company stopped calling me Steve and started calling me Luke. To this day when I see people from that company, they call me Luke.
Copyright © 2016 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.(Nudge-Nudge)