Lesson from a Small Town: The Trophy
The word athletic was only used once in my life to describe me and it appeared on a trophy. It will probably never be used again, but at least I had my moment.
The lead up to my athletic pinnacle was slow and painful.
My elementary school in upstate New York participated in President John F. Kennedy’s Physical Fitness pilot project. I was determined to qualify for the proficient level which entitled me to an official letter from President Kennedy and a certificate, complete with the Presidential seal!
In the weeks prior to the final screening, we trained by logging endless sit-ups, mimicking escaped monkeys as we climbed thick jute ropes that went all the way up to the gym ceiling, grunting while performing push-ups—boy and girl styles, launching grapefruit sized softballs at taped targets on the gym wall for accuracy and recording times on official stop watches for multiple indoor running activities. During these serious sessions, I dreaded going to gym class. But I was driven by the thought of a patriotic award and forced my 65 pound body to a state of total exhaustion.
I needed to earn enough cumulative points to score in the top 15th percentile of all participants for the coveted piece of paper. I pushed myself extra hard when doing sit-ups to offset my inferior upper body strength, as demonstrated in the flexed-arm hang. The deep bruises and scabs on the exterior of my bony vertebrae were worth it as I bounced off the gym floor like a rusty piston while my partner held down my ankles and counted my attempts.
In the end, my score was good enough to tiptoe into the designated top percentile. But that still did not earn me the right to use the adjective athletic.
As a student at Canajoharie High School, I was encouraged to participate in every girl’s sport that was offered. I think our gym teacher just wanted warm bodies to fill the slim intramural rosters so our small school could compete against other rural school districts.
Mrs. Shineman patiently coached us in our navy-blue one-piece gym suits, which were gathered at the waist with a cloth belt and a flimsy metal buckle. Thick elastic, sewn into the leg cuffs, secured the assortment of developing thighs. Random yellow numbers were stenciled on our breast pockets and dutifully recorded in pencil in Mrs. Shineman’s attendance book.
Darting back and forth on the worn asbestos tile floor, we looked like a scattered bunch of Concord grapes as we executed basketball drills. The excess material of my cinched belt flapped around like the tail of an abandoned kite in a tree during a storm. My elastic leg openings were not challenged and the loose material chafed my thighs.
It was the sixties and we played six-on-six basketball. There were three forwards and three guards. The center line divided the court and each player stayed in her own territory. Only forwards could shoot. But there was one designated forward and one guard who was allowed to play full court as a “rover”. I embraced the restriction of half court action. I never “roved”. And furthermore, I got confused when we switched sides at halftime. Sometimes I subbed in as a forward. Sometimes as a guard. I was never a starter.
One time, after an extended stint on the bench, I was called in for some fourth quarter action. As usual, I had not been paying attention, but happily skipped on to the floor in the direction that Mrs. Shineman pointed. Suddenly the ball flew right into my hands as I stood alone under the basket. Having a clear shot and feeling an artificial sense of confidence, I hoisted the orange orb up with all my might. Swish! It went in. Score!
I couldn’t believe how gracious my opponents were as they surrounded me and slapped me on the back while smiling. Then my older sister Christine walked past me and muttered, “Nice job Kim, you just made a basket for the other team.” Whoops, I was a guard.
I was not any better at softball. I begged to be in the outfield…way out. So, I was sent to the safety of centerfield where hardly anyone could hit. Just to make sure, I always backed right up to the chain link fence perimeter. At the end of one inning I had to leave a small piece of my gym suit tangled in the grill work in order to return to the dugout.
In the summer months, I enjoyed swimming at the Canajoharie Country Club pool that my Dad built. I successfully completed all of the Red Cross swim categories from Beginner through Senior Lifeguard. But I did not like swimming competitively during the other months. When I was urged to be on the school team, I carefully scoped out the competition and selected the back stroke. There were rarely more than three swimmers in the field of that event. I have a lovely selection of bronze medals.
Senior year brought Senior Skip Day, New York Regent exams, and a variety of award ceremonies. The announcement of the Best Athlete was the annual highlight. Each year the Physical Education Department selected the best boy and girl athlete in the Senior class. The award was sponsored by a local jeweler. The recipients of the Les Frankel Memorial Award were presented with a trophy and an engraved wrist watch.
My friend was a shoe-in for the girl’s prize. Her athletic ability was superior to all of the girls in my class. The only thing that she and I had in common was our mutual participation in all offered sports. But something happened in the weeks leading up to the ceremony. I am not sure of the exact details but they were severe enough to disqualify her.
“Kim, you have been selected to receive the Les Frankel Best Girl Athlete Award,” Mrs. Shineman told me after she called me into her office one morning after class.
I was sure there must be some mistake. Perhaps a pity vote? Maybe a joke for my friends and family who knew that the word athlete did not belong next to my name?
But I was the only other girl who played all of the sports that year and therefore became the heir apparent to the prize.
That night at dinner I explained to my family that due to an undisclosed, forfeit-worthy altercation with Mrs. Shineman, along with my runner-up status, that I would be receiving the annual Phys-Ed Department award.
My sisters scoffed at the decision and reminded me of my poor athletic performances. Mom and Dad only offered an obligatory parental smile as they puffed on their after-dinner cigarettes and sipped their coffee.
Two weeks later in my bedroom I plugged in my hot rollers. As I waited for them to warm up in the plastic box, I tore open a new package of stockings.
At least I can look good.
My Yardley powder blue eye shadow matched the flowers on my fancy dress. Bright pink lipstick filled my lips and made them pop out like a new bud on a rose bush. I pulled the floral mini-dress over my head and felt the hemline fall mid-thigh. A spray of Aqua Net held my artificial curls in place. A splash of Jean Nate evaporated on my neck.
That night I sat with my friends in the Nellis Memorial cafeteria of the Canajoharie School District. I was too excited to eat the institutional roast beef and mashed potatoes so I pushed my green beans around my plate like spokes on a wheel. The design made it look like I ate something.
There were many awards that evening. There was also a guest speaker. I did not recognize his name in the program and furthermore was disinterested in his athletic message when he spoke. I was there to collect my trophy and my wrist watch.
Finally Mrs. Shineman made the announcement from the head table. She was flanked by the boy’s gym teacher, other coaches and the mystery celebrity speaker, who had just finished his speech.
The kitten heels of my white patent leather shoes clicked on the tile floor as my narrow, nylon encased feet slipped inside my new shoes. I looked straight ahead as the crowd started to applaud. I was not sure where my family was seated but I did not want to make eye contact for fear they were sitting there in silent protest. We had never spoken again about my award since the night at the dinner table when I announced my good news.
Thank you, was all that came out of my mouth as the tall man with the crew cut gave me my trophy. Even though his name was printed in the program, he was still a stranger to me. He did not need to know that in fact I was the runner-up, not the rightful winner. He did not need to know that the only basketball points I ever scored were not in the Canajoharie High School’s record books. He did not need to know that the third-place swimming plaques in my bedroom actually all screamed loser. I was the winner that night and my name was engraved on the trophy.
Before I went to sleep I proudly put my trophy on the dresser next to my bed and draped the silver watch over one of the wings. As the jewelry spun around, my initials KMB sparkled. I whispered good night to my prizes. For a brief shining moment, the word athlete officially sat next to my name. The evening’s program and Redskin intramural patches lay on the kitchen table one floor below as additional evidence.
Almost thirty years later the events of June 4, 1970 resurfaced.
“Mom, Bobby Knight gave you a trophy? My teenage son asked as he read the yellowed newspaper article that I had pulled out of my scrapbook for a bulletin board where I taught.
“Umm-mm Bobby Knight that name sounds familiar. He is a famous basketball coach, right?”
With some research the pieces of that infamous awards ceremony came together. In 1970 Bobby Knight was enjoying his first coaching position for the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. He was a friend of one of Canajoharie’s basketball coaches who invited him as the keynote speaker for that night. Although his celebrity by-passed my limited athletic awareness, it must have been a thrilling event for other true athletes.
On January 1,2007 Bobby Knight, now the coach of Texas Tech, posted his 880th career win with a 70-68 victory over New Mexico to become the “Winningest Men’s College Coach” during his 1234th game. I was inspired to repay him the favor and acknowledge his athletic accomplishment like he did mine.
I wrote to Coach Knight at Texas Tech without expecting a reply. I even enclosed a copy of the 1970 newspaper article to jog his memory. Within two weeks, he wrote me a lovely letter back.
“Thank you for your note…. I enjoyed seeing the picture taken of you and me. It brought back many memories of my travel through New York while coaching at West Point…”
He included an autographed picture.
Perhaps Coach Knight was just being polite, but I took his words as a professional endorsement of my one official athletic moment.
Now when I gaze at my only trophy on my bookshelf, my memories take me beyond the simple hardware. I was a skinny little girl who regularly showed up for practice. I cheered on my teammates as I spent most of my time on the sidelines. I enjoyed riding the team bus to away events and respectfully sat up front near the driver away from the real players. I understood and accepted that my contribution to the success of our school competitions was limited. But I did the best I could. And I always showed up.
Then through a strange twist of fate, I was rewarded.
I was recognized as an athlete.
And I have the trophy to prove it.