Thursday, January 20, 2011

Just Breathe

It’s 8:00 AM on a Saturday. Beads of sweat are glistening on our foreheads as we slather on sunscreen and await the arrival of our commander in chief. Fifteen minutes late as usual, the antique red Volvo creaks into the parking lot and out floats Mrs. Fagundes, running coach extraordinaire. Race horse-like muscles remind us that she is also a runner. Time has faded the neon pink and green swirls on her spandex running shorts and turned her ponytail from chestnut to charcoal. She gathers us in a circle like baby birds waiting for breakfast to go over the day’s schedule. This is our home meet- the Bronco Invitational. It’s our chance to shine in front of a huge crowd.
The bleachers quiver under the weight of hundreds of spectators squinting in the blinding spring light. The scent of cut grass tickles my nose as the varsity boys begin their warm up for the 1500. Greg moseys over to Coach Fagundes and says, “I don’t think I can run. My knee hurts.” Now it’s Jack’s turn. “Mrs. Fagundes, I have a headache.” Then Dallin chimes in. “My side still hurts from when I pulled it a long time ago.” She hates us for our spry limbs and lazy attitudes. “Guys! I’m 52 years old and I can run faster than you. Grow up and run your race. No excuses, no negativity.” She scuttles off like a broom-sized silver-haired sand crab to lead another group of eager runners to the starting line.
I watch all of this from the shade of our big red E-Z-up, knowing that soon I’ll be out there with butterflies in my stomach. Twenty or so high school boys glide around the track just under four times. Sweat trickles down their faces like ice cream melting out of a cone. In less than five minutes it’s time for me to emerge from the shade of our camp and round up the other varsity girls.
We meet up with the athletes from other schools at the pole vault pit. They look fast with their strong lean legs and hair pulled into perfect ponytails adorned with ribbons and glittery clips. Mrs. Fagundes ushers us to the starting line and whispers ‘good luck’ to us Broncos. We are horses at the gate, necks arching and feet prancing in anticipation. When the gun signals the start of the race, we thunder off like a herd of buffalo, each in search of the glory that comes with taking the lead. No one wants the shame of last place. No one wants to get claps of pity down the home stretch.
I pass Mrs. Fagundes and hear her say, “Keep it up! You can do it!” I look at her with wide eyes. With each step it’s getting harder and harder to breathe. Soon I’m sucking air out of an invisible straw, lucky to get one drop of oxygen at a time. My heart and legs want to finish the race, but my lungs are screaming in agony. I know I should drop out, but I can already picture the disappointment on Mrs. Fagundes’s face. One by one, all the other girls pass me and I am utterly humiliated. I’m the one getting claps of pity on the home stretch.
I stumble over the finish line to comments of “good job,” but I know it’s not sincere. I gasp back, “I can’t breathe.” Tears bubble out of my eyes as I walk past the crowd back to the E-Z-up. I can feel them thinking, “There’s that slow girl who came in last.” I can’t look at my teammates or coach. I have let them all down. I study the ants on the sidewalk and imagine they could have beaten me.
At the E-Z-up, I collapse onto the ground and look for my inhaler. Relief is two bitter tasting puffs of Albuterol. Mrs. Fagundes approaches and I brace myself for a lecture. Instead, she leans over and whispers, “You sure have some guts. You’ll be all right now. Just breathe.”