Perhaps it has always been so, but it struck me last week that so many of the sports stories I wrote in the past year had to do with people who had surprised themselves. In brief, they had not known it — whatever that might be, a faster time, a stronger performance, a more chiseled body — was in them.
Ed Petrie, the East Hampton High School boys basketball coach who recently retired after a Hall of Fame career, was said to have gotten the best from each of his players, presumably not only surprising themselves but others — perhaps even him!
The first woman to win outright a triathlon here — and they have been contested in Montauk and Sag Harbor for the past 30 years — said she hadn’t known she had it in her. The high school golf coach would probably have been content with yet another league title, but his team outdid itself, winning Suffolk County and Long Island championships as well. Driving back from the Bethpage golf course with the silver trophy given to the best high school golf team on Long Island had been a mystical experience, he said, and perhaps in all the cases I’m talking about the achievement had been, at least to some extent, a mystical experience.
I ended the recap of the year in sports with the words of Joe Vetrano, a 51-year-old Pan-Am karate champion, who continues, he told me, to learn more about the sport as he continues to practice. He said he presumed it was the same with writing, with everything. It never ended, he said. One could always work to improve.
That sounds better to me than Churchill’s injunction never to give up. Well, yes, it’s so: One shouldn’t give up, but more than that one should, rather than just stubbornly hang on, work toward getting better, toward being better at whatever one’s hand findeth to do.
That’s why it’s good, at least good for me, to hang around athletes. As far as I can tell, they are always upbeat. They are earnest and ever optimistic. I’m sure they have their low moments, but I doubt they last long. There is joy in what they do, in graceful movement, in mastering challenges, in daily practice.
I would have said in past years, perhaps, that graceful movement and athletic feats were the province of the young, but, as we have seen, that is not so. Aging athletes turn in surprising performances too — all the more surprising because they are older. One has to look no further here than Albert Woods, who in his 80s has become an All-American swimmer. In his 70s, he took up the breaststroke, said to be swimming’s hardest stroke, and has gone on to win many national championships. He has surprised himself.
My father once, borrowing from Aristotle, advised that I practice the quality or qualities I admired, just as I would baseball, which he knew I liked.
I would love to say that I have become courageous as a result — it’s a quality I admire. But because I’m a coward I haven’t practiced acting courageously that much!
But if it’s optimism you want, at least as much optimism as can reasonably be expected — I’m surprised I was hesitant when first offered the sports beat 32 years ago — I’m your man.