Carol Kearns, Writers' Workshop West

Never too old for a sports injuryBody: It has taken me decades to develop a level of coordination that would enable me to participate in competitive sports without completely embarrassing myself. In grade school I loved climbing the jungle gyms and hanging by my knees from the monkey bars, and I was always one of the first kids to be picked for kickball teams in fourth grade. But somehow, my coordination seemed to disappear in early adolescence, and from then on, it would be almost half a century before I would ever again enjoy the pleasure of athletics and friendly competition. Instead, I became one of those klutzes that nobody wanted on a team. My vision may have had something to do with this because I started needing glasses in junior high, and naturally, I was not going to wear them except when absolutely necessary. Usually this was limited to copying assignments from the board. Poor eyesight was probably a major factor contributing to the trouble I had one year when they made us learn how to hit a golf ball. I somehow chopped at the ball, the club coming down on top of and slightly to the back of the ball, and this sent the ball into a backspin that shot up and behind me about three feet. Luckily no one was hurt. By high school I avoided sports altogether. I told myself that it didn't matter, and this was easy self-deception because these were the days of Marilyn Monroe, Doris Day, and Debbie Reynolds. Billie Jean King was not a name in my home, and social pressure seemed to discourage girls from being overtly athletic. Deep inside, though, I remembered the fun of my childhood, and I envied the girls who could run and jump and make something happen with a ball. From then on I limited myself to hiking and occasional bike rides. When my younger daughter, who came later in my life, played years of soccer and volleyball, I found that I could have some fun with a ball in a way that didn't put me on the spot. I said I was helping her practice as we passed the ball back and fort in the park. This secret pleasure ended as she grew taller, because I was afraid of any challenge for the ball. One year I made the mistake of getting carried away during a parents versus girls volleyball game. I had come to terms with my glasses and could see the ball, but I ignored my other limitations - my age and lack of practice. I had been watching the girls hustle and spike and dive for the balls, and now that I was on the court, I was ready to perform in a similar fashion. As I watched the ball come high over the net, I started backing up while yelling, "Mine!" But my feet couldn't go fast enough, and I fell backwards squarely on my tailbone. At my age the pain was so great that I thought I had broken something. The game was put on hold until the paramedics could put me on a stretcher and take me to the hospital. Nothing was broken, but I had trouble walking for six months. A few years before I turned 60, a friend at work persuaded me to attend one of the tennis socials of her tennis club. She assured me that people played just for fun at the socials. No one would be competitive in a bad sort of way. I felt the time was right for me. If this tiny, very feminine friend of mine could do this, I should be able to as well. My husband, who jogs and bicycles and works out at the gym, helped me practice hitting a tennis ball for months. It turned out that trying to hit that little ball in the right space was just as exhausting for him as for me. After about three months we felt ready to play with others, and we went to our first event. The organizers wisely paired us up for doubles with a lady who was returning to the game after hip replacement surgery, and a gentleman who was very thin and walked like he might tip over. Yet even with their infirmities, these two had a skill level that showed decades of experience. They could place the ball where they wanted. "Hit it where they ain't," the man kept telling me. After two hours of trying not to embarrass myself, I was exhausted. But my friend was right about the social event. The members were gracious, encouraging, and urged us to come again next month. I took lessons and started playing several times a week, thrilled by my incremental progress in being able to run and hit this little ball. I may have been nearly five decades older, but I had regained the enthusiasm I felt as a child. Unfortunately, I forgot my limitations again. One night ended in a manner similar to my experience on the volleyball court - I was careless from my overconfidence, and I suffered an embarrassing injury. I was playing a weekly singles game with a young woman who had started learning tennis at the same time I did. We enjoyed the exercise and felt we were getting better together. One of the balls came high and deep, and I knew I would not be able to back up enough to hit a proper forehand. So I turned my back to the net and tried to lob the ball backwards over my head and into my opponent's court. The ball went where it was supposed to, but I hit my forehead with my racket and split open the skin right below my hairline. Fortunately there was a coach at the clubhouse with a first aid kit, and she put a bandage on my cut. I refused to go to the emergency room because I was afraid that my tennis partner wouldn't want to play with me anymore. We went back to the court and finished the set. After two years of playing tennis I felt people at the tennis club were going to see a real qualitative improvement in my game. I was much stronger, a little more skilled, and not so nervous around other players. But then I developed a genuine sports injury - tendonitis in my right shoulder. I had been struggling to develop a more professional serve, and I wasn't doing it correctly. For a year I couldn't move my right arm over my head, so I had to go back to my wimpy pop serves. I persevered with icepacks, physical therapy, weight training, and a new, heavier tennis racket. It all worked, and a year later I was better than ever, but still not good enough to beat the experienced doubles players. While I was treating my tendonitis, some of these ladies had knee surgery, and one had suffered a mini stroke. But they still had that awesome hand-eye coordination and I still could not beat them; the doubles team that I was on always lost. But as ever, the players were gracious and supportive. I am now almost 62, and my latest injury is a pulled muscle in my left thigh. I don't know how I did this, but my husband teases me that I'm a real athlete. I go out and play, and then I come home and put ice on it. I will be forever grateful to the tennis club that invited me to play because the mantra is true: "You're never too old." ********** Published: March 13, 2009 - Volume 7 - Issue 47