If you could have seen them. If you could have seen me. If you could have seen us, then you would understand.
“ARMS, ARMS, ARMS!” I screamed. “Let’s go, you got this!” I stand around the 250m mark where they will hear me. I am screaming as if my voice might carry them a few steps around that curve. In that moment I am everything but detached. They hear me and know this.
I leave the tournament hoarse and full of wonder. Some of the boys are carrying the glass trophy. They pass it back and forth to each other, admiring it, admiring themselves.
Inside myself a warmth grows: pride mixed with amazement and affection. Look at these boys in their early teens, cocky with each other, humble when life doles out its inevitable “lessons.” But they’re on the other side now and their collected bests were a little more than enough to be able to call themselves “champions.”
I watch them when their unexpected title is announced. They jump and yell and cheer. We all jump and yell and cheer. This is the first division championship for our school in 30 years of this tournament. I’ve been a coach at the school, in this tournament, for 27 years.
Junior Varsity Boys sounds funny to describe an age group category of athletes whose sizes and presence couldn’t be more varied. Some have so much size and facial hair that the “junior” part seems fully misplaced. Our squad of 8 are credibly around 14 years old – handsome, goofy, and intense – occasionally all three things at once.
As coach, as a woman, as an elder – our specific relationships take time to become real and relevant. They know I know some things but that doesn’t mean they’re always ready to listen. They also know some things. They make guesses and try stuff out. They make beginner mistakes. I watch them make their beginner mistakes and afterwards we can sit down together and talk about it, because then they’re ready to listen.
I don’t know them all equally well for my domain is the sprints. And yet, I see them each blossom before me, one race at a time. I cheer them on as if our lives depended on it. I see them labor and push, dig deep and press on.
The tournament will be reconfigured next year. The Junior Varsity Boys’ Division will cease to exist. Our boys are the last JV ISST Track and Field Champions the world will ever know. When this came up during our hustle through the airport on the way home, our graduating senior said to them: “Then you’ll be the forever champions.” And with that my heart melted away away.