I used to be an athlete. We’re talking “pee-wee” tennis clinics from age 4, year-round private lessons at 8, and dreams of playing Wimbledon like Zina Garrison when I was 10. I was a certified card-carrying United States Tennis Association member whose parents spent hours driving to junior tournaments and thousands of dollars to keep the dream alive.
I haven’t competed in ages, but just a sip of blue Powerade takes me right back to changeovers, where I carefully exhausted my full 90 seconds of rest before switching sides, often pissing off my opponent in the process. I can hear the ice clinking against the sides of my Coleman jug, feel the cool hardcourt prickling my thighs, see some kid on the other side daring me to stay seated, as though they’d ever serve the ball without me. I played a few mental games in my day.
But let’s be honest: If I’m drinking a bottle of Powerade now, I have the flu. Or my kid has the flu. Or I’ve checked the fridge and there’s no Sunny D. I’m almost 40, and while I still ride my Peloton every week and pretend to whip a towel in the air when Tunde gets amped, I’ve never felt further from the athlete I once was.
Who couldn’t use an uncomplicated W right now?
Please do not send me good vibes and a tennis skirt with room for curves. This is not just about the ongoing fight I have to accept my aging body. It’s not even about being a mom in desperate need of pelvic floor therapy. Perhaps it’s about the longing to hit a topspin forehand down the line, which is to say, hunger for a sense of mastery and control. Who couldn’t use an uncomplicated W right now? Sticking it to the man was much easier when the man was a boy named Hunter with a two-handed grip and bowl cut. Though I think — and this frightens me — that at least part of what I miss about my identity as an athlete is something that you can’t simply be coached or drilled on.
As a kid, I loved to be the underdog. Not seeded in the tournament? No problem. A skinny brown girl with a long ponytail, I’d politely approach the net after warmup, like, “Do you want to spin your racquet or should I spin mine?” I might even lose a few games early on. But just when the pressure seemed to be off, just when it would’ve been understandable for me to lose, something inside would go awf, and I’d come roaring back. That crosscourt winner you thought you just hit, well, it’s coming back to you, so don’t pump your fist just yet.
In elementary school, I played against a boy a few years older than me and was down bad, 2-5 in the first set. I could tell the parents and coaches watching above were offering polite claps when they could. Everyone knew I was a goner. With nothing to lose, I turned it on, and won the set 7-5 and then won the match. The greatest praise came from my mom afterward: “You’re my comeback kid!” she said, and it felt like my brand. Not every match ended this way, of course, but I rarely counted myself out. There was power in surprise, in reopening spaces others assumed were closed to me. I didn’t need to be the strongest player out there when I could be the girl who upended expectations, showing up for every point until there were no more left to play. I fell in love with the possibility of a slow reversal.
When did I stop believing I could come back from anything, that I had time to turn things around?
Maybe it was in grad school, when an instructor mentioned that our bodies begin to break down around 25. Terrified I had already reached and passed my prime, I envisioned my body dying these small little deaths, cell by cell, shrinking or weakening in every way. Did this mean I should stop working out altogether? What’s an elliptical compared to doom?
I’ve long been prone to believing my best years were behind me. Even as a kid, in between those comeback matches, I could hear a clock ticking: If Zina Garrison had started playing tennis at age 10, then where should I be by age 12? At some point, I moved the goal posts in, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you barely make it to states in high school, you probably need to have a come-to-Jesus about winning Wimbledon. But maybe I swung too far the other way.
I’m looking for chances to rub shoulders with that comeback kid again...
I started thinking of myself as a late-bloomer in general — 26 and no big-time career, still in grad school and taking journalism internships. Sheesh, what if I didn’t write a bestseller before 30? Maybe, just like my body, my aspirations and intellect were shrinking, and I should call it quits.
I’ve done a few things since my mid-20s: had three babies, wrote a few essays, even a book. I’ve endured medical scares, a tenure battle, and a pandemic. It’s not that I’ve lost all my fight.
But for all I’ve accomplished, I also see the ways I’ve mentally counted myself out — anything from truly making a living as a writer to something as small as racing my kids along the beach when it might make me look funny. Sometimes it’s easier to say, “I’ll pass,” than it is to try and risk failure or embarrassment.
I do have some fitness goals for the next year, whether or not I get back on the court. But I’m more interested in consciously looking for those moments when I tend to take a seat. I’m looking for chances to rub shoulders with that comeback kid again, and to push myself to believe there might be more for me, maybe a quiet reversal that surprises me more than anyone else.