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10 Strikes: One Athlete's Journey on Claiming the Word Athlete

10 Strikes: One Athlete's Journey on Claiming the Word Athlete

Posted by Merritt McLaughlin (Lt.Jan) of Muncie, Indiana and the Cornfed Derby Dames on May 21st 2019

When I was in fourth grade, I learned that baseball is much more than a silly song about Cracker Jacks.

On a breezy Tuesday morning, my gym teacher, Mr. Brown, a robust man with a questionable hairline and a blue whistle, marched my class out to a dusty baseball diamond. We spent the class rotating into the different positions and learning the game. As I stood in line to bat, a billion questions ricocheted around inside my tiny head. What if I didn’t hit the ball? What if everyone laughed at me? What if I wasn’t good enough?

Spoiler alert: I did not, they absolutely did and I was not.

When it was my turn, I stepped sheepishly onto home base, my beat-up green suede Velcro sneakers squeaking against the ceramic tile. My sweaty hands tightened around the bat, my body slumping to what I thought a good “baseball” pose was based on what I’d seen on TV.

Swing, I thought. Hit the ball. Don’t think don’t think don’t think. Just do.

The pitcher, Craig Stevens, a small boy in a big orange tee shirt, raised his arm over his head, winding up like a well-designed catapult. He then snapped it forward, releasing the ball in a perfect arc, shooting toward me. Good for you, Craig. Well done.

I took a deep breath, and swung the bat as hard as I could, expecting to hear a satisfying thwack of ball against wood (stop right there, this is an elementary school story) but instead heard an empty whoosh as the bat sailed through the air, hitting nothing at all.

“That’s alright! Try again!” said Mr. Brown, clapping his hands together. I sighed.

Again, Craig threw a beautiful textbook curveball, and again, I missed it. Mr. Brown clapped harder, it’s okay, he said, we’re learning here there are no strikeouts, he said. Another ball soared through the air and again I could not make contact. After about three more attempts, my classmates were starting to get antsy.

They wanted to play the game after all, not just stand around watching me fail miserably for an entire class period. I couldn’t blame them, in fact, I agreed. All I wanted was to give up and stop having people look at me. Mr. Brown glanced my way and for I moment I felt relieved, he was surely going to tell me I was out, I could stop trying.

“Again,” he gestured toward Craig, imploring him to throw the ball.

Don’t think don’t think don’t think. Just do.

I missed. By now the awkwardness of the situation had set in like a dark cloud rolling in over a summertime cookout. An exasperated sigh cut through the tension as Chris Cagary, class bully, decided he would speak up.

“God,” he said, smirking, “Can it be 10 strikes and you’re out? This is stupid.” Titters of laughter jumped around the field. I shifted, still holding the bat and wishing for 11:00 math class. I hated math, but anything at all would be better than this feeling.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, the term “athlete” is not a word I would generally describe myself with. Goofy, sure. Moody, sometimes. Sassy-100%. But athlete…that was reserved for the real deal. The people who eat, breathe, and sleep sports. People who sweat Gatorade and know what Creatine is. Not me.

In 2015, that changed. It was March, I was 22 and there was 3 feet of snow on the ground. A red PT cruiser pulled up to my apartment building, idling as I awkwardly shuffled through the snow with a borrowed Adidas bag full of brand-new roller derby gear. My friend Venus, an established roller derby skater who was just coming back from an injury, drove us through “the bad part of Muncie” to a little family owned skating rink on the south side called Gibson’s Arena.

We entered the building together, splitting up once inside. The afternoon was a new skater clinic on one side of the rink with charter practice underway on the opposing side. I unpacked my bag and began a process I had read extensively about: Gearing Up. I had dressed specifically for the event in an outfit I thought was “cool” and “roller derby.” On top, I sported a long-sleeve gray and black striped sweatshirt that hung off the shoulder a bit, paired with long black leggings. Mistakes were made that day, as I would soon find out.

I had my skates on, ready for their maiden voyage, knee pads buckled, helmet on and elbow pads secure. As I stood, a skater appropriately dressed in shorts and a tank top whizzed by me, calling over her shoulder “Your elbow pads are on upside down!”

Mhmm, I thought, seems about right. I hadn’t even gotten to the floor yet and had already swung and missed. I uttered a mumbled “thank you” through the three-inch hunk of pink plastic masquerading as a mouthguard I had bought at Walmart and fixed my pads.

As the clinic progressed, I got more and more excited-despite the intense overheating from my stupid outfit. We worked on falls; I could fall! We tried stops; I could stop. I wasn’t the best one there by any means, but I also wasn’t the worst. There wasn’t even really a “worst” because everyone was working together and encouraging each other.

Throughout the next several practices, a lot of the rookies dropped off. I did not. I got stronger, smarter and better every time. Sometimes it didn’t feel like it right away and at first I felt like an imposter.

I mean, who was I to try and keep up with these rugged, determined, experienced skaters? I was riddled with self-doubt and deprecation. I think that’s a big part of being an athlete. You must trust your body and your muscles to learn, even if your brain is reluctant or telling you you’re not good enough. Even though sometimes my mind was against me, my legs were learning t-stops. My thighs were adjusting to new movements required to do plow stops. My body was becoming athletic, and my mind soon followed.

Fast forward four years and I’m currently a charter skater who rosters regularly as a starting blocker for my team. I train for this position three to four times a week. I eat to fuel my body for the sport. I exercise outside of practice and stay accountable for myself and for my teammates.

Being an athlete doesn’t mean being perfect. It doesn’t mean looking a certain way or training 24/7. Athlete is an attitude. It’s believing in yourself when it’s hard, it’s being positive and encouraging to others and yourself, it’s celebrating little victories and striving to be better.

When I line up at five seconds, waiting for the whistle to blow, part of me still expects someone to pipe up with an exasperated sigh and call me out for not being good enough. I still get really intimidated. The same thought still floats through my head: Don’t think don’t think don’t think. Just do.

But now, I’m not so afraid of that failure, because if roller derby has taught me anything, it’s that there is always another jam. Improvement doesn’t come without mistakes. Being an athlete is being unafraid to strike out ten, twenty, one hundred times and learn from each one.

Maybe I’ll never be a baseball player, but I am an athlete. So, thanks Chris.

Photo courtesty of Matt Ruddick Photography

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