It isn’t hyperbole to say that track and field may have saved my life.
I think about that every year on National Girls & Women in Sports Day, which always sneaks up on me since it’s the same week as the Super Bowl and I’ve spent 15 years of my life writing about the NFL.
With the day here again along with a viral hashtag, memories are coming forth and statements are being made on social media about the importance of sports for all girls, girls of all backgrounds and colors and sizes, and that women belong in all spaces in sports, worthy of a seat at the table — and without having to endure the harassment, inappropriate comments and lewd behavior of men who are coworkers, superiors, or those we cover as members of the media.
And once again I’m thinking about how sports saved me.
Middle school is a tough period for many of us. Puberty is hitting and suddenly we’re dealing with acne and bodily changes and even your voice sounding different. Add that to the increased drama that always seems to come with those early teenage years and it’s not usually a stretch of time that’s remembered fondly.
There was all of that for me, plus a growing feeling that I didn’t have a place, that I didn’t fit in: I was biracial in a predominantly white area, sometimes peppered with a “what are you?” question that made me recoil even then. I’m a person, thanks.
My self-esteem was non-existent.
On my lowest days, I thought of suicide. No one would miss me, I’d think. My parents didn’t know how much I was struggling, because I never told them.
We had a cross country team at my junior high, but it wasn’t exactly serious: We ran once or twice a week for a month in the fall and had two meets against the two other junior high schools in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where I spent the bulk of my childhood.
Still, I guess I showed enough promise that my coach/teacher passed my name to the high school cross country coach and before I knew it I was part of the team at Tolman High School.
(A funny story: I had no interest in running high school cross country because the races were around three miles, and as I told the coach, I was a sprinter. My plan was to play tennis in the fall. But one of the captains called my house to invite me to some preseason runs and my mother reasoned that since they were nice enough to invite me, I should go. I went. The coach asked me to give it a shot until his birthday, I quickly became a varsity scorer, and I only learned months later when his birthday actually was.)
I never really warmed to cross country. That thing dedicated runners have when they get lost in the rhythm of their gait and love that endorphin high they get from a long run? Wasn’t me. But being on the team instantly gave me a friend group, girls that I saw every day and we’d laugh together and complain about the day’s annoyances and support one another as we endured tough workouts and competed at meets. And in high school the team was diverse, so I was around girls that looked like me too.
But indoor track and outdoor track is where I excelled and found the confidence that would carry me consistently through much of the rest of my life.
I gravitated to the hurdles and high jump, and got pretty good at both. Not as good as my idol Jackie Joyner-Kersee of course, not enough to be the next Gail Devers or as glamorous as the great Flo-Jo, but good enough to win a lot of races in the state and get the attention of some college programs.
The thing I loved about track — the thing I still love about track — is that there’s no subjectivity. If you’re training and paying attention to the details, you’ll see the results. Your times will get faster, your jumps will get higher or longer, your throws will be farther. There’s no debate; it’s there in black and white.
I thrived on that. The speed workouts with the rest of my teammates made me a stronger runner. I practiced the hurdles as often as I could, in the winters pulling some rickety hurdles onto the painted cement floor in the school basement to do drills. Practicing high jump was tougher, but when time and equipment allowed, I did that too.
My times got faster. My jumps got higher. I set school records. I won. A lot. The indoor track coach for my final three years had been a Division III All-American in high jump and pushed me but also taught me life lessons in the way that all great coaches do, and was such a key part of my growth in that time that he inspired me to become a coach years later, a role I still have now.
My junior year during outdoor track I was getting ready for a 100-meter hurdles race and a girl from another school looked at me and said, “Are you Shalise?” I said yes. “My coach said I’ll be lucky to come in second to you,” she said.
Talk about a confidence builder.
I didn’t accomplish everything I wanted to in track, but in spite of that I have incredible memories. Of my teammates and our little juggernaut squad, the city girls who trained on a crappy cinder track traveling to the state’s far wealthier towns and getting back on the bus with a division title. I was fortunate that my father’s job was such that he could be at every single meet, and he became the team dad; my mother and sister were there for Saturday competitions too.
And it saved me. When I stepped to the line for a hurdles race or was on the infield for high jump, I knew that if I didn’t win, I’d come damn close. I loved the process. I loved the challenge.
I started to love myself.
Would I have rebuilt my self-esteem without track? I hope so. But I don’t know that anything else could have done for me then and continues to do for me now like track did.
That’s what sports can do for girls.
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