Monday, September 16, 2013

Finding a Community in a "Lone Wolf" Sport

First of all, and above all else, I have to emphasize that I have always been pitiful at sports.  And it wasn't merely my pitiful upper body strength, my miserable power-to-weight ratio as a chubby youngster, my glacial running speed, nor anything else merely physical.  It was mental, too.

Beyond all my physical weaknesses and incompetency, there was a mental factor:   I never really knew what to do next in a sport.  I remember a defining moment in the McKinley YMCA "Gra-Y" (Grade School YMCA) basketball program.  A teammate made the dubious decision to attempt to pass me the basketball.  Rather than try to receive it, I dodged it, and it bounced out of bounds.

I might well have said (as my wife's great uncle reported my maternal grandfather to have said during their days together at Wheaton College):  "Boys, I'll never make an athlete!"

But I didn't have to say it, because others said it for me.  Others like Pat Costello.  My family  had just moved to North Babylon, New York, and I was an eighth grader at the local Jr. High School.  After about one semester had gone by, and I had just bungled yet another play on the basketball court, Pat turned to me, a bit angrily, and asked,

"You can't play soccer.  You can't play football.  You can't play basketball.  Is there anything you can do?"

My answer was simple:   "No, I guess there isn't."

So, as often as possible, I pursued lone activities in Physical Education class, to avoid disappointing those unfortunate enough to be teammates of mine for a team sport.  This led me eventually to spend some amount of time both in the weight room and jogging around the school's quarter-mile track.

During my college days, I didn't really engage in much physical activity at all.  But when I began to actively and intentionally exercise, around age 26, I was still very wary of team sports.  I ended up taking up the two lone activities from my school days:  running and weight lifting.

At some point, after enough training for either running or bodybuilding, there are amateur competitions for you to enter.  The 5K and 10K runs I entered (and perhaps especially the Los Angeles Marathon) usually had a "festival" feel to them.  There were brightly colored running shorts and singlets and shoes.  There was energy in the air.  Each runner took energy from the other runners and from the general ambiance of the race in a fashion that seemed to be a de facto breach of the principle of the Conservation of Energy.

Bodybuilding competitions, though I came to them later (at least as a participant), had similar energy in the air.  And the scents of spray tanning concoctions and posing oil.  Coconut, wintergreen, and several other pleasant but unidentifiable smells swirled about one in succession.

But, for me, the competitor's point-of-view was always much the same:  train in solitude, encounter the multitude of your rivals for the first time on the day of the event, compete, and then never see them again.  There was not much sense of community, at least not for a shy person such as myself.  I did run with a group of people at work in California, and that was very pleasant.  If it was competitive at all, it was only so in a playful sort of way, and we all rooted for each other to do well.

But in bodybuilding I had never, until recently, experienced any sense of community.  Sure, the other Grand Masters competitors in the NPC contests I entered (starting in 2008) were cordial to me and to each other.  But it was very transient, lasting one day, and didn't have the sense of an ongoing community.

But now, I have found a community, and it has happened almost without my taking notice of it.  Some of it happened through the agency of facebook.  Partially, it happened on the various bodybuilding-related internet "forums".  Some of it happened from attending local bodybuilding shows as a spectator.  But mostly, it happened at my local gym, in the old fashioned way:  face-to-face speech!   Someone would notice that I was getting lean, and ask if I had a competition coming up.  Or, vice versa.  I got to know more and more folks at my gym, both competitors and non-competitors.  Sometimes I went to see them compete.  We began to feel like a team.  A team centered around our local gym.  A subtle shift happened in my mind so that it was no longer "me versus all the other bodybuilders", but "us, our team, versus the others".  It was as if I had, after all these years, found a happy way to become a participant in a team sport.

Here is one story that is emblematic of the change which has come over me.  I have three bodybuilding competitions coming up within the next five weeks.  Up until two days ago, I wasn't sure that I would know anyone else competing at any of them.  But there has been this fellow in my gym.  I don't see him all the time, since he is not there during the same weekday morning hours at which I train.  But I saw him almost every Saturday.  He was getting leaner.  And darker.  And he seemed to be, like me, over fifty years of age, so that he would be a Grand Masters competitor.  But I had never spoken to him.  Like most serious bodybuilders, he gave off a rather definite "don't talk to me; I'm training" vibe.  But that changed when a mutual friend, who happens to be a veteran competitor, talked to each of us in quick succession about our upcoming shows.  He left us to finish the conversation ourselves, at which time I found out that he would be one of my competitors at the NPC Central States bodybuilding competition on October 19.  For about two seconds, I was dismayed, because I am fairly certain that he will finish ahead of me at that contest.  But then, suddenly, the team spirit thing overcame this dismay, and I was elated that I would have a "teammate" on stage with me at my final contest of the year.  And perhaps someone's hand to shake just before he receives the 1st Place trophy.  We shall see.

Here is the bodybuilder in question.  I can honestly say that, although we will be competing against each other, I will be just as happy if he wins as if I myself win.  And I have to say, this is a pretty nice feeling.