The Making of an Athlete

Whenever I mention kayaking in Hawaii, or whitewater rafting in West Virginia or hiking in Death Valley, people ask if I have always been athletic.

My husband Wayne, a very patient person, always lets me respond with whatever half truth pops into my mind – phrases like “dawn workouts” and “endorphin rush” pepper such statements — before he interrupts and I can graciously end by adding “but it’s important to ease into it.”

See, I was athletic at one time. Okay, maybe until age 12. Then there was a bit of a, well, gap. A 17-year gap, give or take a few years. So, yeah, I eased in. A lot.

The idea of restarting my athletic engine surfaced when I met Wayne at the University of Rochester where I worked and he attended graduate school. He spent downtime playing softball, rock climbing, canoeing, biking, running, and whitewater rafting.

My idea of athletics was speed walking to the neighborhood pizzeria – owned by a mother and daughter who gave customers a free cookie with each slice — so I could grab dinner and return to my apartment to watch a DVD of All About Eve, or another classic movie. Suffice to say we knew going in that we had our differences.

But we fell in love fast and were married three months after we met. In our haze of love, Wayne and I brushed away the concerns of others. We jibed on major things — kids (no interest), money (a grad student and an under employed writer? Uh, yeah, interest), politics (He was very involved; I was agnostic), religion (I was fairly involved; he was agnostic), lifestyle (casual but trendy).

We both loved old movies, wine tastings, literature and dinner parties with our easy-to-merge group of friends. And the different interests — especially his athleticism — intrigued me. It was like thinking I should make time to study French whenever I heard a friend speak it. Plus I was 31 and he was 29. We weren’t children. We could work out everything else.

Sure, we hit some bumps. But as Wayne and I kept reminding ourselves, patience was important. I tried to overlook the throat-clogging dust in his home office. He tried to understand that I always run late. We were easing into the whole marriage thing.

It was going so well, in fact, that I was ready to bump things up a level, to show Wayne we had more in common than even he knew. For our first anniversary, I had happily suggested we indulge in some sports fun in Virginia Beach.

“Are you sure? Are you really sure?” he asked several times, as I passed him hotel brochures, shopped for swimwear and scoped out activities. “I know that you’re really not into the beach or sports.”

Hey, what kind of rube did he think I was? I had plenty of happy childhood memories water skiing, swimming and frolicking with my family at the Finger Lakes. I was ready.

My plan was to start out with a bang, so I had thoughtfully pre-booked some activities for our first morning there.

“Wow, they rent rollerblades here, too?” I said as we stood outside the bike rental tent right off the boardwalk. “Let’s reserve some of those for later!” Clearly my enthusiasm knew no bounds.

That faded after about 15 minutes of biking down the perfectly flat path not far from the ocean. I was shouting to Wayne, who was a few yards ahead, as I tried to steer with one hand while blindly grabbing the bottom of my T-shirt with the other in an effort to wipe the sweat from my eyes. He didn’t hear me. I just stopped. My guess is that when my locomotive-like huffing faded, he realized I was finished. He circled back.

“You know, we shouldn’t overdo it the first day,” I said, running my hands through my sweat-soaked hair. “Let’s head back. I’m really anxious to try those rollerblades.”

If nothing else, Wayne got a terrific workout from the rollerblades. “No, just hold me up a bit longer,” I said as he combined cradling and pushing to move me along for a few minutes until I assured him I had my sea legs and was ready to solo.

As he skated slowly away — backward of course — I felt my feet start to go out from under me as he swooped back to steady me.

“You know what? Why don’t I just go to that bench and wait for you?” I said, noting that there was likely something wrong with the skates I had rented. “I’m sure our time is almost up anyway.”

In fact, our one-hour skate rental still had 50 minutes to go, even after Wayne took a few solo spins.

“The fellow at the store said these things happen all the time,” Wayne said after dropping off the devil blades. “Don’t worry about it. We can try it later if you want. He gave us a credit. Let’s just go back to the hotel.”

It was while walking back that I saw the sign for the jet ski rentals. “Now that is something I’ve always wanted to do!” I proclaimed, desperate to make this work. “Please, please, please?”

Mind over matter sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? I was hot and tired and my legs ached, sure, but water spraying up from a jet ski would revitalize me physically and psychologically. I had seen people of all ages and sizes enjoying jet skis. The water, the salt air, the sea gulls. What’s not to like?

“Since your wife has never ridden a jet ski, I’ll go too, just as a precaution,” said the California-tanned instructor as he led us to two separate jet skis before he climbed into a small speed boat, pulled down his mirrored sunglasses, gunned the engine, and was off.

Poor Wayne. He started his jet ski and maneuvered right behind the instructor’s boat, slowed only when he looked over his shoulder to monitor my progress.

“Just GO!” I kept yelling as fear swelled in my throat and I mumbled profanities under my breath, truly wondering if I’d drown as water slapped my calf. And just how big were those swooping sea gulls, anyway? Images of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds floated through my mind. “I’m fine! Really! Go!”

It was maybe a minute later that I heard shouting from the dock. I later realized the bellows came from the fisherman whose lines I had severed when I drove too close. I wish I could tell you that I’m joking when I mention that I also severed the lines on my return trip. By then I was so terrified, I didn’t even notice their screams.

Little did I know Wayne was facing his own terror. A few minutes after I screamed at him to “Go!” he looked back and I was the one who was gone.

He had no idea I had retreated. He began to circle the instructor’s boat, shouting that they needed to return and find me.

I was near hysteria as Wayne glided up to my jet ski and tried to help me dock. The instructor shouted for him to move back, then jumped from his boat onto a floating tire and somehow pulled me in. Details of my rescue are a bit foggy, but I recall wondering if I had been too hasty in considering death as a negative outcome. I mean, people were stopping to look. Children were pointing.

I surely looked like a toddler taking her first steps — complete with red eyes, a runny nose, and messy hair — as I awkwardly dismounted my now silenced nemesis and wobbled, arms out, toward Wayne who stood waiting, towel in hand.

As Wayne consoled me — “Poor baby. I’m so sorry” — I caught the jet ski instructor rolling his eyes.

I was mortified but whatever. I just wanted out of there.

“We need to start you out slowly,” Wayne said as he guided me back to the car. “I think walking is really your sport for now.”

It sounds crazy, I know, but Wayne wasn’t kidding. And neither was I. While my enthusiasm, at least to that point, was high, my abilities were, well, what’s way beyond low? So we started out walking, then walking faster, than hiking. As I came to enjoy exercise, I tried more things. Some were right for me (cross country skiing, whitewater rafting). Others, like rock climbing, aren’t.

You know what’s funny? While we’ll never share all interests, we try to appreciate if not enjoy them. That was all part of easing into enjoying sports, and life, together after a rapid-fire courtship.

“You know, I just love being active,” I say to those who ask. And I always see Wayne smile when I do. After all, he knows how much I mean it when I say it’s important to “ease in.”