The closest we got was a busy intersection with an old runner bearing the torch. But it was enough – my sister Julie and I caught the Olympic spirit when the 1984 summer Games opened in L.A. Sprawled on the living room rug, we watched hours of television, with coverage of every competitor, even the ones who fell or came in last place.
I was 11 and Julie 8, so our favorite event was women’s gymnastics, punctuated by Mary Lou Retton. Due to a genetic misfortune involving tendons of steel, we could barely spread our legs apart, much less do the splits. Our next favorite was swimming, specifically the medley relay. Here, we had a glimmer, what with the swimming pool in our back yard, shaped like a kidney bean. When a “lame” sport came on, like Greco-Roman wrestling, we raced to the pool.
Then, the Games began.
Attempts at the butterfly resulted in shouts from Mom about keeping some water in the pool; likewise, the backstroke could result in cracking your head open. So we substituted them for the dog paddle and underwater. Despite our ages, Julie was a stronger breaststroker and dog paddler, whereas I was unbeatable with underwater and freestyle. Afterward, we would cling to the side, gasping for breath. I always won, except for the times Julie blubbered, and Mom gave me “the look.”
Then came the medal ceremony. The gold medalist stood on the diving board while the silver medalist stood on the cooler, shaded part of the cement. We sang our national anthem, the pride of a nation upon us, our voices cracking.
I believe in the Olympic spirit. It calls us to stretch our limits, to devote ourselves entirely. We are awed by tenacity and obstacles overcome. The world is small and we are, albeit briefly, at peace. We cheer for the underdogs – the Jamaican bobsled team and the American basketball team (before NBAers were allowed). We rise in our dens, hands to hearts.
Cursed with poor vision and primal fear of being hit by balls, my devotion was music. For Christmas, Mom procured (and hid) an upright piano. I would get two piano lessons. First, Aunt Betty translated the dots on the page to the white keys. Next was Aunt Janet, covering her ears and crying F sharp! F sharp!
I plunked away, learning “The Entertainer” and “Fur Elise.” I wanted to be a concert pianist. In college, I had my first real piano lessons, only beginning to undo years of terrible technique. I plod through pieces, learning them the way you memorize phrases in a new language. I cannot “speak” piano – my fingers long ago substituted backstroke for dog paddle.
Even so, the little girl inside me dripping on the diving board believes this spirit will carry me to Carnegie Hall and the Games. Not as a concert pianist or swimmer, and certainly not as a gymnast, but as a participant, cheering proudly for world-class talent.