“I turn to look one last time. Up til a minute ago it felt so real, but now it seems imaginary. Just a few steps is all it takes for everything associated with it to lose all sense of reality. And me – the person who was there until a moment ago – now I seem imaginary too.”
– Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
I lie there with my eyes shut tight, the voices above me intermittently cutting through those in my head, like static in a speaker.
Dom: “I’m a physician. Please examine her off the field.”
Shannon: “It’s going to be ok.”
It’s not ok.
I put off opening my eyes as long as possible because when I do, it will all become real. My mind races through the moments that have brought me to this one. I see flashes of “special throwing” sessions at Michigan, playing at my first College Nationals, running through my first Riot chunnel, 10 years of tracks, fields, sacrifices and commitments. Cold nights spent alone on dark, slick hills, my breath rising in clouds of exhaustion above my head. Changing my lifestyle, my diet, my training. Back to back World Championships. The best shape of my life. Endless work, big moments, high pressure. The peak of my athletic career.
When I finally open my eyes, the face I see belongs to Alex Snyder – my former teammate, my opponent, my friend. I press my eyes shut again and see the mirror image of myself standing over her on a field in Lecco, Italy on August 9th, a different championship game on the line.
The hands of my teammates carry me toward the sideline, and the dream begins.
My hot legs stick to the cool bench, and I slowly raise my eyes from the grass, to my left knee, and then to my 26 best friends just beyond. I tentatively get to my feet, feel my knee try to slide apart, swallow the vomit rising in the back of my throat, and step forward into the dream.
I no longer see a game, a competition, a fierce summation of a season that will inevitably leave deserving athletes heartbroken. In fractions of a second, decades of hard-wired competitive intensity have shifted. In its place I see a simple and incredible blessing – the chance to run around and express love, joy, commitment, and physical gifts in a setting unlike any other, full of mutual respect, selflessness, and acceptance.
For someone who almost quit Ultimate at her first practice because it was too much running, it is ironic that – in this moment – I realize how much I truly love to run. How I’ve been running since I could walk. How I still run through the halls of the middle school where I teach and jump to touch the “Exit” signs, just like my students. How I once escaped a pie in the face from a lurking friend because I sprinted out my front door instead of walking. How I can remember being seven and figuring out that if I only ran on my toes, I could beat all the boys in tag.
And I’m so happy for my teammates in this moment. I’m in awe of what they can do. And despite the nagging feeling that my left leg might give up on me at any moment, I can’t stop smiling. As I meet my sweaty teammates on the field after each point, mingling among their high-fives, encouragement, reassurances – they are so perfect and beautiful to me.
And even as the other team scores the game-winning point, nothing is wrong.
We did everything right.
And I know because I’ve been watching it in slow motion. I watched us love the game and each other, together giving more than we each had alone. Through my slow motion lens, I see the sting of defeat in my teammates’ eyes turn to tears of love and loss. But I know that the tears contain so much more than a game; they are brimming with this moment in time when no matter the outcome on a frisbee field, everything was perfect and beautiful as long as we were together.
So when we get home, I stand at the foot of the stairs and watch the laughing mass of my teammates framed through the arch of the doorway like a dysfunctional family photo. And in retrospect, that photo is captioned by a quote from Cree Howard: “It’s not just ok. It’s the end of a really big thing. And it won’t be the same again.”
In the moment that she said it, for her, it was a story of love for her retiring coach and mentor, Matty Tsang. For me, it was the story of my knee and my Ultimate career. But it’s also the story of a season, of a team. Of knowing that life will bring many more peaks and valleys, but that this look-out point is a particularly sweet one on which we will each have to turn our backs and begin the long climb all over again from the base of the mountain, or choose not to climb once more. And she’s right – it will be good again, but it won’t be the same.
So I linger in that doorway, in a physical and emotional limbo, storing in my memory this image of Riot 2014’s unconditional love. Here it lives, exemplified in laughs, chatter, and arms draped over shoulders. I know that, in the months to come, I will need all that it embodies.
And gradually, warmth and noise leak from the edges of the photo’s frame, wrap their arms around me, and pull me forward out of the dream, back into a reality that is so much better.