Life as a sports mom can go by quickly – as the author can attest.
MONTCLAIR, N.J. – Sometimes it’s a scent that takes me back – cut grass on a dewy field, brownies in the oven, a powder-fresh uniform miraculously revived from the dead.
Other times it’s the weather. A sudden hail and I flash back to that soccer game at Bridgewater. Searing heat and I wonder how we survived Annapolis in July, melting under tents at the All-Star lacrosse tournament.
It can even be the sight of someone else’s child, a girl or boy bursting with energy, wearing impossibly tiny cleats, pleading for ice cream after a game, playing tag or goofing off as a hapless coach tries to corral some team onto a field.
I think, how did I get here from there? Where did the time go?
I look in the mirror and reality looks back: I am a sports mom.
Life on the fast track
It’s not like I haven’t done other things with my life. For nearly 23 years, I’ve worked for The Associated Press: two Iraq war desks, two Olympics, lots of elections, the foreign desk, supervising the main news wire. I’ve lived in Wyoming, New York City and New Jersey.
I’ve buried one dear husband and married another. I’ve been single, married, a mother, a widow, a single mom, a second wife, a stepmother.
But as my daughter graduates from high school, as the youngest flies the nest, I’m haunted by memories. Fifteen years on the sidelines, three kids, nearly a dozen different sports. A life I just drifted into, no master plan, no burning desire to create Olympians. A life that now is an indelible part of me – and one that is fast fading away.
Where it all began
My first team as coach was the Orange Bullets, 15 feisty girls aged 6 and 7, my daughter included. All were new to soccer. They picked the Superman theme as their motto (“faster than a speeding bullet …”) and never looked back.
Two practices a week, a game on Saturday. Working on the overnight shift so I could hold practices at 4 p.m., I was jet-lagged, barely able to move after an hour. They could not stop, their boundless energy colliding all over the field. At one point they decided to do cartwheels until they were dizzy, collapsing with laughter in the grass.
By the end of the season, only half the team was running toward the ball at any given time, a coaching breakthrough akin to designing football’s Wishbone offense. We won every game – by a lot. The next year, Montclair’s soccer-dad mafia held a draft for players and broke up the franchise. Only years later did I realize I’d unwittingly collected the town’s best athletes. In high school the girls diversified, playing soccer, field hockey, ice hockey, basketball, lacrosse and softball, as well as running track and riding horses. Four became recruited college athletes. One earned a full soccer scholarship to the University of North Carolina and has played all over the world as a member of the U.S. national team for younger athletes.
What I remember most is their pigtails flapping as they ran.
Tallying it up
Journalists are notoriously bad with figures, but it’s time to do the math, to tote up the hours I’ve spent on youth sports.
Note this does not include driving time, for practices, games and tournaments three states away; preparation time, for assembling clean uniforms, unbroken equipment, carloads of snacks and Gatorade; and executive time, to arrange fields, umpires, car pools, bake sales and seasonal banquets.
Actually, this tally hides so much it could have been done by the Enron crowd.
All my kids -two girls, one boy – had 10 years of skiing and five of sailing, because those are my sports, and heck, I gave them no choice.
My stepdaughter, Renata, also had three years of soccer, two of softball and 10 of ballet – and anyone who claims ballet is not sport has not seen Nutcracker auditions or bloody toes from pointe shoes.
My stepson, Andrew, is a ball guy. That meant nine years of soccer, eight of baseball, six of lacrosse, golf and basketball. My influence snuck in somewhere, though. He loves to ski and goes to college in Durango, Colo., among the San Juan Mountains.
As the youngest, my daughter, Kelly, knocked herself out trying to keep up. Along the way she had 11 years of soccer, 10 of horseback riding, three of lacrosse, two of softball, one of gymnastics and a random ice hockey camp.
Oh yes, and they all could swim across the St. Lawrence River from age 11 on, a 1.3-mile open-water trek from New York state to Ontario. But that was just to keep up with their grandmother, a long-distance swimmer.
The horse show world: This section will be brief because my husband explodes at the very mention of the word “horse.”
We didn’t go bankrupt, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Still, what are you supposed to do when your child is very good? What about all those Olympic parents who sacrificed everything, moved to Colorado, got divorced, worked nights at a menial job just to pay for their daughter’s $10,000 ice skating costumes?
Obviously, I was suffering from “noble parent” delusions.
So I bought a young horse, my daughter turned her into a winner and we mingled for three years with the likes of Mike Bloomberg and Bruce Springsteen. At The Hampton Classic in 2004, I wore a linen skirt and a straw hat, and my daughter came in the top 10 in all of her junior hunter events.
But how could I not see those flashing red warning signs? The horse that won junior hunters cost $1.3 million – zillions more than our plucky mare. In her section, my daughter was the only rider who went to public school, the only one with just one horse, the only one who didn’t spend the winter on the Palm Beach show circuit.
Can you say “out of our league?” It was time to flee the sport.
She’s got game
You don’t realize how insular you are until, quite by accident, you run smack into another universe – say, one run by the prom tribe.
As life would have it, the second round of the girls’ state lacrosse championship landed on the same day as the Montclair junior prom. At least the game was at home, not two hours down the turnpike. I called a mother up to warn her that Kelly would be late to the pre-prom party.
“What does that do to her hair appointment?” she asked. “Can’t she just skip this one game?”
There was a universe of elegant, witty and sarcastic responses to that question. Instead, I just choked: “No, she has to be there.”
Back at the field, fellow sports moms were hooting, stomping their feet, begging me to tell the story again.
“Skip the game? She’s the goalie!”
“It’s the STATE TOURNAMENT!”
“She’s trying to get recruited for college!”
Yes, yes, it’s the failure-to-communicate thing. The prom tribe could not understand the pressures my daughter faced; I could not understand their obsession with hair.
Moving on up
I don’t know how this story ends, but the broad outlines have been filled in.
After playing soccer since she was 6, Kelly, on a whim, became the manager for the girls’ freshman lacrosse team. As a sophomore she became the varsity goalie. As a junior, she landed on a top New Jersey club team and entered the recruiting rat-race – and yes, being a lacrosse goalie surely added 200 points to her SAT scores.
Heavily wooed by a Division I coach – who then disappeared when the rejection letter came- she plans to be a force in Division III.
I am not blind to irony. I nearly went bankrupt trying to keep up with the horse crowd; I went on the overnight shift for five-odd years to coach youth soccer; I bought a used Laser sailboat and scrounged to pay for new sails so she could enter regattas. But how does my daughter get into college? With a sport I had never seen before.
End in sight
So this Mother’s Day, it’s time for me to hang up my metaphorical cleats.
Time to stop whipping up brownies and cookies and Rice Krispie treats by the ton. Time to stop selling team sweat shirts and blankets and umbrellas. Time to stop scheduling my life around an endless series of games and tournaments, sports camps and horse shows, national showcases and official college visits.
My life is coming back to me and I don’t know if I am ready for it.
I am crying like a baby – and it’s not even the last home game.