The winter before track started my junior year of high school, Nike came out with a new pair of spikes made specifically for the long and triple jump. These were my signature events, and I wanted those spikes more than I had ever wanted anything in my entire life. I prepared the argument I would present to my parents for the high quality, though expensive, shoes that would practically guarantee my qualification to the state meet since it was Nike after all, and we all know Nike makes the best track gear, and it was the only thing I would ask for all year and could I have them please please please?
They said no.
My dad had always been good at sports. Boxes of his medals and ribbons are stashed in my grandmother’s attic, and trophies at his old high school still bear his name etched into state championships and “MVP” awards. I started attending that high school six years ago, and when I first saw his name on the trophies I bragged to anyone who happened to be nearby. I was so proud to be his daughter.
When I was in the eighth grade, I won the all-league track meet in the triple jump. I got a ribbon and a hug from my parents.
When my little brother was in the eighth grade, he won an all-city cross-country meet. He got a medal and my parents took him out for ice cream.
When my parents first said no to the Nikes, I had been prepared. I replied with my second argument that they knew it was my only goal this year to make it to state and I’m jumping on sprint spikes right now and they’re just not doing it for me and if these help then I think they’re worth it.
My parents looked at each other, a mix of pity and skepticism on their faces, and they looked back at me and my mom said it might not be worth the money and at first I didn’t understand but then I did understand and I didn’t argue anymore. Instead I asked if they would buy me the spikes if I made it to state this year so I could use them next season, and they said yes with the same look on their faces and my mom hugged me but I didn’t hug back.
I have always been closer to my dad than my mom. My mom was the sweetest, most selfless person I knew, always volunteering at food banks and writing notes to the widows at church in her spare time. She loved hugging, sewing, and long talks about feelings. I didn’t. I loved sports, food, and sarcasm. Naturally I bonded with my dad.
My mom told me that when my dad proposed to her, she thought he was joking because it was so casual. They were having soup at a dark little Japanese restaurant when he said, So do you want to get married? between bites of ramen. She looked at him for a few seconds because she didn’t understand. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out the ring with one hand, and took another bite of ramen with the other.
My little brother Eric is a year and a half younger than me, and growing up we did everything together. Eric was like my dad too; all three of us shared very similar interests. The main one was sports. Eric was a miniature version of my dad—they played the exact same sports and were both very good. Before high school, the three of us would spend hours on the couch watching basketball and football highlights until our mom threatened she would turn the television off if no one did the dishes, to which we would respond by holding a quick foosball tournament where the loser would have to do the chore. I did a lot of dishes.
I wasn’t a prodigy at track my freshman or sophomore year of high school, but neither was anyone else my age since we were competing against upperclassmen. Approaching my junior year, I had the utmost confidence that I would be able to qualify for the state meet in the triple jump. It was the highest achievement for the traditional high school athlete—elite teens would go on to nationals, but the majority of us just wanted state.
I trained every day after school in the winter to get ready for my junior season. Track started in March, and two weeks before our first practice I came home to my mom sautéing mushrooms on the stove. I began helping her and chatted about how excited I was for track and that I was sure I was going to make it to state.
My mom suggested I might like playing tennis instead.
My dad and I never said “I love you.” We weren’t the mushy type. When my dad was proud of me, really proud of me, he would give me the same half smile he’d give everyone but there would be the faintest glimmer in his eyes. I cherished those lights, since he emitted them only rarely. After every test, every band concert, and every sports game, my first thought would be to find my dad’s eyes and try to find a light.
Eric became a freshman in high school the year I became a junior. He was excited for track as well, but none of us expected him to go to state, since he was a freshman after all. He didn’t plan on it either.
That year, Eric made it to state in three events.
I didn’t qualify.
Instinctively, as I watched Eric accept his medals at the podium I looked over at my dad. His eyes looked like they’d be able to glow in the dark.
I thought about tennis.
I really did love track, so I decided to stick with it my senior year. My parents actually bought me the Nike spikes anyways, probably because they didn’t know how else to cheer up a sobbing sixteen-year-old girl who was crying about something other than boys.
That winter, I trained for track with an intensity I didn’t know I had. I was determined to make it to state. I had to improve quite a bit, but it wasn’t unreasonable, so I was once again confident in myself. I was in the best shape of my life as I approached that first practice on the snow covered track in early March.
I got a new coach that year. He was nice, but he had never run track before in his life. I also got terrible shin splints, and injury where the muscles in your shin begin to peel away from the bone. I also strained a tendon in my foot. Every practice was full of pain and discomfort, but I refused to quit. I could rest in three months. I had until the end of May to get to state.
My dad always picked Eric and me up from practice on his way home from work. When we got to the car, he would turn to Eric and ask him how practice was. I didn’t always get a chance to talk during the ride home.
Eric and I did everything together. His reputation as an excellent athlete was beginning to form, and no matter who we were talking to, the conversation almost always seemed to lead to sports. Assuming I was just as good, people would ask me how my sports career was going as well. I never really knew what to say.
There are three steps to qualifying for the state track meet. First, you have to qualify for the district meet by being one of the top two people in your event on your team. Second, you had to place in the top six in your event at the district meet to qualify for the regional meet. And finally, you had to place in the top three in your event at the regional meet to qualify for state.
I was the best triple-jumper on the team, so I qualified for districts easily. I didn’t jump very well at the district meet, but I still managed to qualify for regionals. As I unlaced my Nike spikes after districts, I thought about how I had one last chance to prove to everyone that I wasn’t a failure.
“Regionals next week,” I said to my dad as we drove home from districts.
“Yep,” he replied, not looking at me.
“Think I can make it?” I asked.
If I hadn’t been paying attention I would have missed the hesitation.
“Sure,” he said. “Anything’s possible.”
When I told my dad about my shin splints and my foot, he said he was sorry and suggested I ice it.
When Eric told my dad about a small pain he had been feeling in his hip, my dad took him to urgent care and signed him up for physical therapy.
I didn’t qualify for state.
I cheered with my parents as Eric crossed the finish line for the fourth time at state. I cheered with them as he stood on the podium and got his fourth medal for the day. I was proud of Eric. I cheered with them as I saw my dad’s eyes light up and felt a pang in my chest and had to leave the track and sit behind a garbage can for a few minutes.
After crying for half an hour I walked over to our team’s tent to find Eric and congratulate him. He was surrounded the team, all admiring the four shiny medals that now weighed down his neck. I told him good job and gave him a hug and my teammates must have noticed I’d been crying because they got sort of quiet and told me I deserved to compete here and it wasn’t fair I didn’t qualify and it wasn’t my fault and they thought I was a great athlete and none of this really mattered anyway because it was just high school sports and everyone forgets about it a week later.
I graduated high school a month after state. A lot of my friends had competed at state and won medals. They wore their medals to graduation, even though the principal asked them not to. C’mon, they said. Why would anyone care?
I’m in college now, and state doesn’t come up anymore.
They were right; no one cares.