Participant, Competitor, Fan, in Harmony. (and the cocky jock phases that preceded)

Nancy Kerrigan was the first athlete I remember pretending to be in our living room. I’d stare wide-eyed sitting on the floor watching her performance, and jump up pretending to triple salchow on the carpet. Then there was Kenny Lofton, Lisa Fernandez when softball went pro, Shannon Miller and at least one gymnast from each of the following Olympics, Misty and Kerri…

I’d beg my parents for any piece of gear with their name on it, rock screened tees with their faces blown to 10x life size, and shamelessly stand in autograph lines (only to inevitably become shy-paralyzed at the front) for ages to get the chance to meet my idols.

But somewhere along the road, it became “uncool” to be a fan of things that weren’t boy bands or cheesy big screen actors. High school probably, where all the best things in life became “uncool” – naps, the library, being single, hanging out with your grandparents, and bangs, to name a few. So I put my collection of idolized athlete memorabilia in a box under my bed, pitched the wall posters, and focused on being an athlete myself.

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from the glory days scrapbook

Back in high school, playing sports meant being competitive, and being competitive meant being an asshole. I went to a pretty small school, but we always had great sports teams and some righteous rivalries. The only things I was better at than sports were being cocky and shit talking. Pitcher death glares? Spikes up into second? Telling freethrow shooters I could see their polka dot underwear through their white shorts? Did it all. A lot of girls didn’t like me (shocker), including some of my own teammates, but sports were about winning, not making girlfriends! Who cares if the Firelands girls key my car on their way out to the bus? They just mad cuz I’m better than them!

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true: I keep this pic on my phone so I can re-read how I once was awesome when I’m not feeling so awesome

Each summer I played competitive travel softball, which served three purposes: 1) to not get fat and rusty over break 2) to be seen by college recruiters and 3) to check my outrageous ego a little. I was a mid-packer on a nationally-ranked team, learning how to scrap my way around to keep up instead of being the star. It was tough and not always pretty, but it was fun. Because we won, and winning is fun.

From there I went to college and had my first experience being on a bad team. Losing sucked, we sucked, and for some reason nobody really seemed to care. Going hard at practice brought resentment, dedication was confused with cockiness, and showing any passion garnered chuckles and “sit down, freshman!” Softball wasn’t fun anymore, and it wasn’t just because we lost so damn much. My competitive edge floated out the window as the team’s ambivalence took over, and I found myself giving equal amounts of fucks about winning, losing, and sport in general = zero. Do you know the only thing worse than hating something you once loved? Suddenly feeling NOTHING towards it.

sarah pitching

So my (realized or not) peer pressured self let the coolness of competition go the way of that rad Lisa Fernandez bat and beach volleyball poster hanging on my wall. I found other things to care about – school, internships, Brian – and didn’t step on a court or field again for many years. Sayonara, sports. Maybe we’ll meet again someday…

Somewhere around here I started running. Just to keep in shape and clear my head of all the upcoming graduation and “what am I doing with my life?” drama (<—- hahaha, irony.) When I signed up for my first half marathon in May 2009, I still didn’t think of running as a sport – old Competitor Sarah was still fully vested in retirement thankyouverymuch.

Around the beginning of 2012, just when I started training for the Eugene Marathon, I felt the spark come back. Not the death glare smackdown, “I won you lost” competitor I used to be, but something new.

I hungered for challenge, fed off improvement, got high off success. Good workouts excited me and bad ones gave me determination. I finally felt like an athlete again, but instead of facing opponents across the court or at the plate, the only one I was battling was myself. Is it really a game if you’re the only one playing? I never set out to run races with the intention to win – hello I’m not delusional – but once I realized how much victory could be found in my own sole performance it opened a whole new world of sport to me.

We could stop here, sign off as a real narcissistic look at my turbulent journey through sport and how I got to be the runner I am today. But where I meant for this post to go before straying off course is back to those young days of fandom. When running started being more than just exercise, I slowly fell more and more immersed in the community surrounding the sport – digitally and in real life. Fellow marathoners, newbies just getting started, people faster than me, slower than me, more dedicated than me. People who ran for fun and who trained like the Olympics were coming. And eventually, some people who actually were training because the Olympics were coming.

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with my training partner, Kristina, after her first marathon (CIM ‘12) – I’ve never cried at a finish line of my own, but shed some tears here

I’d found this seemingly never-ending support system to draw motivation, knowledge, sometimes empathy, and always excitement from that totally changed my attitude towards sport. Sure in softball every play has a winner or loser – the pitcher and batter can’t both succeed in an at bat – but in running, we can all win our own race. Case in point: Shalane got beat by six other runners in Boston, but set a huge PR and executed her race plan perfectly. Her 2:22 is the fastest American time for the course, and would’ve won every single year since 2003. No, she didn’t leave with the laurel wreath, but you’d be a real jerk to call that performance a total loss.

*sidenote: this is very much not a “you’re all winners!” pitch. I don’t agree with that way of thinking at all, but for adults past their prime who literally have 0.1% chance of being an outright winner at a race… I think you get my point

For everyone 1% of this communal mojo I take in, I feel it spilling out of me 50 times over. Never was that more apparent than while I sat glued to my computer on Marathon Monday for hours stalking, cheering, and heartbreaking for other people’s races which I had literally no direct connection to. The happy tears and chest bursting with secondhand pride would’ve seemed totally moronic to any non-runner, but I know everyone “in the tribe” has felt that exact same way before.

The point is, online or in person, training partner or celebrity crush, it feels cool again to be super geeked out about other people. To be a fan of the sport, and a fan of the people in it. Hang posters of your idols on your wall, stand in line for autographs, and wear someone’s name on your shirt like a total groupie. Your high school peer pressure isn’t working on me this time, universe.

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Oiselle Team clan posing with (then new) teammate, Lauren Fleshman at the Eugene Marathon expo 2013

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Oiselle’s calling it the “Rise of the Fan Girl” — I’m on board. I’m also definitely dying my hair back to blonde.

  • Who’s racing OC Marathon? Not running but looking to cheer? My cowbell and I will be at mile 11.5 near Upper Newport Bay – let me know if you want a yell or to join the fangirl’ing.

Sarah OUaL

** I’ve been blogging at Oiselle as the “Evolving FanGirl”, trying to shed some light on the professional side of running and how it can totally be a sport you participate in at one level, and follow like a crazed animal fan at another. They may not serve hot dogs and plastic cup beer at track meets (yet), but maybe someday those grandstands will be the hot tickets in town and ESPN will mention track & field more than once every four years. Anyway, related-but-random interjection slash selfish plug. **

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11 thoughts on “Participant, Competitor, Fan, in Harmony. (and the cocky jock phases that preceded)

  1. I will run-walking the OC ….was supposed to be my comeback race and well not going to happen….but I will be there. Now at mile 11.5 I might be half dead so be ready to practice CPR :)

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  2. I am running the OC! For the first time I will be without my girlfriends so I am doing it ALONE!! In a weird swist of fate, my husband who has never been to any of my races ( yeah yeah BUT I have a job honey…) is going to be waiting for me at the finish! Please give me a shout I have been reading and lurking on your blog for years! Driving in from Vegas tomorrow!

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  3. Love this post! I, too, spent my formative years playing teeball/softball and was a pitcher. I played from age 5 until 18, but once I started looking a colleges, I knew I was too burned out to keep playing. I recently found some cleats on clearance in my size at Dick’s Sporting Goods, and now I’m thinking of finding an adult league in SoCal :)

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  4. Great post!!!! You described my high school years to a T. So glad I found running and everything that comes right along with the whole crazy ass sport.

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