The ramblings of a freelance writer, novelist and avid reader.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Learning to Love Disappointment

My father-in-law is a businessman who travels a good deal; he’s a British expat living in North Carolina who works for a Swedish company. Global business isn’t as difficult as it used to be – what with that new-fangled internets thingy – but he still manages to travel quite frequently back and forth across the great, wide pond. Two weeks ago his travels took him all the way to Minneapolis where he visited two of his sons and their families. We bundled up in a great big group and went out to dinner Friday night. The restaurant we chose had a bar in the corner with a few televisions continuously broadcasting anything sports related. I believe the large screens were tuned to ESPN 8…or 28, whichever channel had the X-Games on. I have a habit of turning my own television off while I’m writing at home because it’s so gosh-darn distracting. Not surprisingly, our rather large group managed to stop conversing altogether by the time the extreme sport of snowmobile rally flashed up on the screen. In an attempt to reintroduce any form of conversation, I turned to my husband and said, “How do you even figure out you can do that?” This led to a discussion of all the crazy winter sports out there. Being from MN I get why people try most of these things and I really enjoy the snowboarding sports – the half-pipe is a particular favorite; nonetheless we all agreed the ski jump is the most ridiculous. Yes, even more ridiculous than snowmobile rally with moguls and jumps with flips. (Someone please tell me how you get away from the big, angry machine once you start to fall off of it during a flip? You’re in the air and it’s above you and it’s heavy. Gravity tells me what goes up must come down…and in this case a big, angry machine will inevitably come down on your head?!)

The ski jump is a literal leap of faith the first time you do it – and then again each consecutive time. How do you practice that? At this juncture in our conversation Chris’ dad commented on Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards while my husband and his brother both nodded perceptively.

“I’m sorry, who is this eagle person?” I asked.
“The great Olympic ski jumper,” was the immediate response from all three of them.

Now I pride myself on my Olympic sports knowledge, because as much as I dislike basketball, football and baseball – I love the Olympics! But “The Eagle” has somehow escaped my Olympic trivia collective. For the next ten minutes I listened to three British men tell me about their sports hero, Eddie the ski jumper from the UK who went to the Calgary Olympics in 1988 and came in last in both of his jumps. They were like giddy school children, stumbling over each other to tell me the tale.

“I don’t remember him at all.” I diplomatically remarked at the end of this lecture.
Steve (my brother-in-law) replied, “But you won’t forget him now. In fact you’ll go look him up when you get home.”

Well of course he was right and I did. I found out the Olympic committee changed the qualifying rules so that no one else could really be Eddie “The Eagle”; Eddie himself never qualified again although he would try for the next four Olympics. And this ladies and gentleman is British sports for you: An entire country (well four countries actually) – who don’t get along most of the time – continually pulling together to cheer for their underdog athletes in world competitions. The joint empire actually believes that these men and women will compete and will win against all odds. This blind faith fandom is a lesson my world-dominating sports country can not hope to glean; at least I’m doubtful we can learn it.

What makes one a sports fanatic…in the truest paint-yourself-blue-and-scream-till-you-loose-your-voice sense of the word?

My husband’s eyes lit up like a 200 watt light bulb during the Eddie “The Eagle” discussion. He’s not a ski jumping fan, but for the first time in our acquaintance, I believe he is fanatical about something sports related.

[Insert here the two pages of crazed tennis-obsessed babble I just deleted if you must. Fandom makes me sound all frenzied, wild and extreme. To sum up: my own fanatical tendencies lean towards tennis – a sport I discovered at the age of nine while stuck in bed with a dreaded summer cold. 1985 – Wimbledon Men’s final – Boris Becker – youngest Wimbledon champion and still talked about match – so, so much tennis later, I’m hooked beyond the telling.]

And now I return you to Eddie “The Eagle” and blind fan faith; a topic which just happens to relate to one of my own personal favorite tennis moments. In 2005 circumstances found me watching a first round Wimbledon match in my IKEA-esque hotel room in Belfast. After a quarter-century of tennis fandom, I promise I’ve watched matches from all corners of the world and some places slightly more peculiar than a hotel room. The winner of the match was one Andy Murray making his Wimbledon debut as a wild card – ranked 407 in the world – and British to boot. My travels found me leaving Belfast the next day on a ferry bound for possibly my favorite place in the entire world, Scotland. While trekking from Glasgow to Tomintoul in the highlands, I quickly bonded with Davey – the coach driver who always wore a ratty t-shirt reading “Old dudes really do rock” – over tennis and the Murray match in particular. Davey told me all about the young Murray, a Scotsmen who’d already found a strong fan base his first year as a pro and Britain’s greatest hope for that elusive Wimbledon championship.

On the day of Andy’s third round match I – along with the high school group I’d been chaperoning – journeyed from the highlands down into the lowlands, checking into our hotel right outside of Edinburgh. Davey meandered up, after the coach was unloaded and the kids were checking in, to tell me the match would start in two hours – just in time for dinner. I spent the match alternating between my group in the main dinning room and the tiny bar in front of the hotel playing the match on the telly. Davey and I took turns checking in on the match and reporting the score back to each other. The hotel bar was half full of entirely local residents who’d popped in to watch the tennis. Somewhere in the final set, when it was quite apparent that Andy would not be continuing on in this tournament, I shrugged my shoulders and turned to revisit attentions to my duties in the dinning room. Before I could quit the bar, I felt a tug on my arm as an elderly woman pulled me down into a chair at her fairly full table.

“You might as well sit down with us lass, it’s almost over and you’re making me nervous walking back and forth so often.” She said.
“I’m sorry,” I replied rather lamely.
“You’ll want to see all of this.” She said with a knowing smile on her face.
A few minutes later, and only moments away from the end of the match, Davey walked up behind me.
“Lass, our lad isn’t going to make it this time.” He said as he patted me on the shoulder, shaking his head in a decidedly comforting manner.

The match was over just like that. The BBC turned Andy Murray back into a Scotsmen in one sentence about his loss – he’d been British while he was winning. I scrunched up my face and made to rise from my precarious spot amongst a bunch of Scots, whom I assumed, would be morning their loss. They would not need or want me, the American girl, trespassing on their fanatical sorrow and I felt suddenly awkward and inappropriate. Instead, I found a proud group of British sports fans and even more importantly, brave Scots, comforting and consoling me.

My new friend patted my hand and leaned in to whisper, “It’s alright lass, you’ll see. Our lad will get there one day.” Including me in her inner-circle of Scottish love and pride; I somehow became a native and fellow blind faith participant just by being a nervous tennis fan.
Davey nodded his head sagely, took a seat on the other side of me and simply said, “Oh, aye!”

At some unseen cue, the entire bar toasted Andy Murray and his great (3rd round) run. The telly switched to a local broadcast and a waving Scottish flag filled the screen while “Flower of Scotland” played. St. Andrew's Cross was replaced by a picture of Andy Murray in a winning stance. At the end of this remarkable display Davey put down his glass, held my chair out for me, and led me back to the dinning room and my group of MN high school teenagers. See, I love tennis because it allows me to have so many moments of personal growth and worldly understanding!

Looking back, I now realize this was yet another glimpse of that Eddie "The Eagle" British blind faith. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Andy Murray would one day win. And the collective assurance emanating from that small group of Scots made me believe it too.

Currently, Mr. Murray has yet to win Wimbledon – or any other grand slam tennis tournament; he’s come a long way though - currently ranking number 5 in the world. Two weeks ago I woke up at 3:30 in the morning to listen to the men's final of the Australian Open on my iPod (thank you tennis app); a match starring Murray and number 3 in the world, Serbian Novak Djokovic. Andy lost in three straight sets, but I found myself inspired by the match and Murray’s progress. He WILL win a grand slam tournament one day and I’m sure that day is just around the corner. I actually found blind fan faith myself in this solitary early morning fanatical moment. I too have a healthy love for sports disappointment; perhaps I was mistaken and even my sports-centered, ridiculous country can learn humility and blind fan faith. Yes, I did catch a glimpse of the outlandish Super Bowl yesterday: I do realize I’m aiming high here.

1 comment:

  1. My students are currently writing "This I Believe" essays in the tradition of NPR, and your post would fit right in. I may just direct some kids here to read this, if you don't mind! This was fun and funny and fundamentally true.