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The Starting Line – Roberta F. King

Gazelle Girl, Robert King

I never saw the basketball coming. Hard bonk on the shoulder.

I ducked instead of catching the softball. Took it between the eyes.

A missed kickball rolled up my leg. Split my lip.

Balls and me, we don’t get along.

Just after Title IX was enacted, my high school offered a girl’s track team. I tried out for track because it wasn’t a ball sport and, unlike other sports at the school, I’d heard we’d be practicing with the boys’ track team. Bonus. There were six of us at tryouts and we all made the team. I was proud, regardless of the circumstance.

The motivation (other than the boys) was the coach — the handsome Mr. VerMerris. He was Mark Spitz with salt and pepper hair. “He’s dreamy,” I told my teammate Stacy. When the snow melted and we weren’t running the stairs and halls of the school, we went outside for sprinting practice. Mr. VerMerris would stand at the end of a field to the east of the school. All that stood between him and me (and thirty other runners) was a couple of hundred yards of uneven pricker-laden grass and packed sand. With his arms outstretched from his sides and a silver whistle between his perfect white teeth, he gave the signal and we raced toward him. I’d never run faster, my legs and arms pumping. I could hear my breathing and feel my heart thumping.

I didn’t reach Coach VerMerris first, but stopped directly in front of him, millimeters from a collision. I don’t recall what he said, but his blue eyes sparkled, and there was the reward.

That was 1977 and I’ve never stopped running since. I took up the sport seriously (that means running races) in 1986. I’ve run through every sort of weather – 90 degree September days in Miami and sub-zero windchill days along Lake Michigan’s shore. I’ve been splashed by cars in a sleet storm, gotten knocked off my feet in a wind gust, and slipped on ice, bloodying my knees. Always, when the going gets tough, I think of Mr. VerMerris and I kick it in.

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