Mid-July, two enthusiastic players from my U10 girls soccer team excitedly set off to a 5-day local day camp. Improving ball skills, preparing for the fall season, and having fun was the objective. After the second day, however, one player had a mysterious stomach ache and was picked up from camp mid-morning, while the other player erupted into tears the moment she buckled herself into the back of her mom’s car upon noon pick-up. Both players, independently, stated they never wanted to go back to camp. “We hate it” was the message—their shared attitude was the antithesis of what “Coach Ruth” grew to admire. As it eventually surfaced, ‘mean kids’ were having a great old time targeting the two girls with incessant verbal teasing and distracting them from camp enjoyment. The 20-year old camp coach was oblivious to the dynamics.
When I heard about the girls’ unwillingness to return to camp, I told one of the parents that ‘Coach Ruth’ would talk to the girls that night. A good conversation with Coach may serve as an opportunity for growth.
Empower the girls to solve their own problem. Do not rescue. Teach them skills.
Nothing captivates and inspires young athletes more than real world stories, even if their introverted coach has to ‘take one for the team’ and become vulnerable herself. Randomly popping into my head in that teachable moment, I selected a particular sporting story that had been vividly engrained within my emotional memory box. Surprisingly, however, the story hadn’t been retold since the day it occurred, a few days after June 21st, 1993—not even to my husband.
As I sat down privately with the girls, the story came to life again. I told them about a soccer game in which I played after my mother, Constance, passed away unexpectedly when I was 17 years old—a life changing experience as one can imagine. The game was two short days after her death. No one on my team could believe that “Ruthie” showed up promptly at 4pm to HyVee North, the meeting place for a 1 ½ hour bus journey to an “AWAY” game in Eagan, MN. My emotions were raw, but as a teenager, there was nothing I wanted to do more than play soccer to help me get through the toughest times and to regain normalcy.
And so the story goes…The Rochester Silver Lakers traveled north to Eagan to play against their notoriously tough, and brutally ‘mean’ team. I didn’t say much on the bus ride but it felt really good to escape my loss for a while—if that was even possible. The opposing team adamantly commanded each other to “mark up Ruthie!” –my small frame was always a threatening force as one of our team’s dangerous playmakers and hungry goal scorers. The whistle blew, the game started, and I was relieved—90 minutes of escape.
During the game, however, I kept tearing up while thinking about my mother, my loss, and could feel the dense pain in my chest. The opponent who was assigned to mark me took advantage. She threw elbows, roughed me up, and pushed me around when the referee wasn’t looking. On a normal day, as my teammates well knew, this wouldn’t have rattled me. Then, my opponent was relentless with her words, continually calling me a “Cry Baby” and whimpering, “Ohhh, what’s wrong Ruthie? You can’t handle it?”
I never said anything back. I never retaliated. Rage/hurt from my loss was bubbling with the taunting, but I just played the game, tried my best to focus, and then…kept tearing up periodically through the first half—and more taunting resulted. Darn it, I tried my best to hold it together. I probably looked like a complete train wreck, but my genuinely kind and wise coach, Dr. Charles Abboud, knew better than to pull me out. I needed to play.
Then, nearing the end of the 45 minute first half, one teammate (Alyssa H) overheard the one-way banter. She knew I was vulnerable. With teeth clenched and intensity in her eyes, she briskly walked over to this opponent and gave her a right HOOK to the face without regret. She started to PUMMEL the girl while another one of my teammates, Jessica G, pushed the girl to the ground. A U17 girls wrangle broke out until the referee ejected my teammate with a red card. I stood there motionless on the sidelines, watching the two tangled groups gradually break apart. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. Still numb, I just kept playing when the whistle resumed play.
When I told this story to my wide eyed 10-year old soccer players, my major lesson was this: Control what you can, don’t let people throw you off your game, stay present, and use the opportunity to train your character. Of course, in the end, the entranced girls focused on the right hook, the red card, the ejection, and my story likely backfired! However, they went back to camp the next day—brave and motivated to use my story to their benefit.
Oddly enough, after not thinking about this story for 24 YEARS, the story was brought up FIVE days later by an old teammate from that same Rochester Silver Laker soccer team. I hadn’t seen her in 20+ years. Sarah B came over to my house to discuss an unrelated community fundraising event and spontaneously brought up the Eagan game. She shared that the game was one of HER Top 5 most impactful childhood memories. She said it was life changing for her. I was confused so I asked for clarity. While I remained largely in a 17-year old ‘loss fog’, Sarah shared that this game dramatically changed our team dynamic, our team trust, our bond, our camaraderie, and from then on and into her college playing years, she learned what it TRULY meant to be part of a team.
Sarah also shared, “You didn’t know this, but…”, before the Eagan game, my team quietly huddled up—without my awareness—and PLEDGED that they would ‘have my back’ and do whatever it took to help me get through the 90 minutes. My teammates personally spoke to the opposing Eagan players and coach BEFORE that game and informed them that I had lost my mother. And so, pathetically, this girl who was pestering me, KNEW what was happening. She KNEW I had lost my mom, and she KNEW what buttons to press to slow me down.
In that moment…24 years later…at age 41… sitting on my back porch drinking a glass of wine with my old friend, I had never felt such a tremendous feeling of team pride, sheer loyalty, and unwavering love and support—from Alyssa, Jessica, Sarah, and the entire Silver Laker team. At age 17, I held my head low with my heartache. I tried to quickly resume a life of normalcy. I tried not to let people know my grief, and I never in a million years knew that my team ‘had my back’ like that. I’ve told the story a handful of times since mid-July, and I tear up every time I tell it.
A stick by itself can easily be snapped in half when alone, but a bundle of sticks put together simply cannot be broken. My lesson to my 10-year old players, would also become my lesson.
Triathlon can be a lonely sport. Many of us come from traditional team sport backgrounds—swimming, ice or field hockey, basketball, track, soccer, to name a few. Triathlon is a melting pot of diverse sports. When many of us former athletes signed up for the sport, we inherently knew we would enjoy the competition, the training, the hard work. This athletic nature was in our blood from our formative years. The element missing was that of a traditional team unit. Of course, there are some pro triathletes who train primarily with groups, but I’d say for the vast majority of us, apart from master’s swimming and our triathlon clubs, we do much of the tough stuff on our own, with our own thoughts, with our own vacillating emotions, in our own training silos. Thankfully, we have our coaching team, our sponsorship team, our ‘friend/family’ team, and without them, we certainly wouldn’t survive. They are tremendously valued.
In the past few weeks, however, since my last blog post outlining my injury, I’ve discovered another team—a loyal, kind, selfless, and supportive team similar to the one my 10 year players heard about from their soccer coach. This team would ‘have my back’ in a different, yet very real way.
The professional female triathlete ‘team’, as a whole, encompasses simply world class people. We may not all know each other well, but I think we ‘get’ each other well. After all, what we ‘do’ day in and day out, attacking our passion with zero guarantee for success, in a state of continual fatigue and risk is quite unique. When something goes wrong with our peers—a bike crash, pre-race illness, DNF, injury—we can empathize the heartache down to our own core.
The most unexpected part of my ‘disappointment’ story was the outpouring of support from my peers. Humbled as ever, here are some ‘team’ examples. I have never even met or spoken to most of them.
- In the middle of a cross country move, a pro female sends me words of encouragement, connects me to her bike fitter, and thoroughly details her particular treatment for a similar injury in an elaborate set of emails.
- During her race week, another female pro is making finishing touches to her first Ironman (Wales) build, but takes time to initiate contact, reach out, lend me real advice, kind words, & an inspiring verse that warmed my heart.
- One pro female provided especially kind words of encouragement and called me her ‘new spirit animal’. LOL! Ha!
- An elite female coach busy managing 20+ high level athletes reaches out, gives solid advice, and tells me the door is open for any additional future help.
- TWELVE total other female pros and several elite female age groupers, many of whom I don’t know well nor have ever spoken with sent me private messages of supreme hope and support.
- Several elite MN females, who also know high level sport well, spent time sending me personal well wishes or gave their own personal guidance about injury.
Shared experience is powerful. On race day, we push each other to our limits, but we also provide support without solicitation. We genuinely want each other to succeed. We become inspired and driven by our own peer’s struggle with adversity. We help each other get back up. We curiously read about each other’s journeys, see evidence of growth and resiliency, and often it is our peers’ stories that become our daily nourishment when we ourselves need it most. Endearingly, we watch incredible comeback stories unfold–Haley Chura’s, Linsey Corbin, Parys Edwards, Emma Kate Lidbury, to name just a few. We RALLY each other as though we can almost feel their ‘true’ success (i.e. perseverance) ourselves. We learn about wonderful finish line podium stories, but the greatest stories of ‘human’ success are the quiet, kind and uplifting words that occur in hidden messages and unexpected emails. That’s the really good stuff.
Professional females have fought and are still fighting together for equal numbers at the IM Kona World Championship. After Ironman’s impressive display of 70.3 World Champs, I think we are getting there! As a gender, we are beyond fortunate by the presence of Witsup.com (Chief Stef Hanson), the IronWomen podcast, Women in Sport (WISP), Women for Tri, and strong outspoken female leaders (Sara Gross, Rachel Joyce, Sue Aquila, Alyssa Godesky, Laura Siddall, Beth McKenzie, Jordan Blanco, Marilyn Chychota, etc.—too many to list!) promoting female issues, participation, fairness, and equality in triathlon. World class athletes like Leanda Cave and Angela Naeth are using their success platform to start their own foundations to promote the sport for females. We need to CONTINUE to boost each other up—pros, amateurs, and newbies—and cross pollinate in our conversations. All of the above is triathlon’s right HOOK!
In my injury disappointment, I have seen great strength while on the receiving end of our non-traditional female ‘team’ unit over the past few weeks. It has been unbelievable. To SO many of the sport’s females, thank you, thank you, for having my back. I certainly have yours and am reminded that I, myself, can do a much better job to facilitate this outstanding female triathlon culture. Peace! See you soon.
Thank you for reading. RBM