Good morning from Los Angeles. All week long I’ve been watching the Olympics and thinking what to write about for my Sports Desk column. Truth be told I’m a little late. I’m falling into all of the old clichés about poet sports columnists: by the time we’re done revising it’s next season. But it’s hard. There’s so much amazing stuff to write about.
Like Torah Bright. First of all, I had never watched women’s snowboard half-pipe before. Let me tell you, if I had one ounce of physical ability that would totally be my event. The speed, the tricks, the fact that you seem to get to wear your iPod when you compete. Man. Totally. And I just love the fact that the commentators are young enough that they have no problem saying someone like Torah is better than a vast majority of the men. You don’t really hear that talk among the older sportscasters. But it’s true. Anybody who watches sports can tell. She’s just so good. You know, she had a ton of concussions in the past year and it didn’t always seem like she would be able to compete. But there she was, just ripping it up. And the crowd was going crazy for her. That’s something else I love about snow boarding at the Olympics. Everyone just seems to be having so much fun. Even when they lose, the boarders tend to be smiling. I mean, you can tell it kills them and nobody could ever think that they don’t care. At the same time it seems to me like they know they’re also part of a culture born from skate boarding and surfing and the punk scene in Southern California. So there’s this sense of being glad to be on such a big stage and also knowing it isn’t necessarily where they’re from. I love that. How the Olympics has room for all kinds of different values and world views. Like Torah. She’s a Mormon. She doesn’t make a big deal of it but she doesn’t hide it either. She also says there’s a ghost in her house. She can also fly or at least that’s how it looks.
The other person I love is Bode Miller. I know. I know. Why do I have to love all the famous American athletes? Well, I did get really excited by Simon Amman, the Swiss ski jumper who just won his fourth Olympic gold (a record in the sport). I love the way it looks when those guys come off the jump and just shoot through the air. Here he is in 2002:
Also, he looks like a superhero. Which is very cool. I tried to rock a spandex suit like that once and I was told in no uncertain terms never to do that again. Which is why I became a poet. Because I can wear my spandex outfit and helmet at home and nobody will ever know.
Anyway. Bode. I just love him. His family actually runs the tennis camp that my cousins all went to. My great-aunt Gertrude always talks about him with a lot of love. Like the media, she calls him a “bad boy.” The difference is the pride in her voice. Gertrude is in her 80’s and has been working in the prison system, teaching men to read and get their GED, since she moved to New Hampshire 40+ years ago. When she and I drove to see the assisted living facility she was moving into we passed a prison and she said, “Only ten minutes from the house, dear.” Pretty much my hero. So Bode has been in my ear for most of his career. He’s amazing. You probably know him. The press is really hard on him because during the 2006 Olympics he made a number of statements about loving to party and being wasted and generally being young and not particularly disciplined in his personal life. He talked about skiing and driving while drunk. He looked foolish. And then he lost each race. Which taught him something, it seems. Now he’s back and he’s already won two medals. He has two more events. He’s older and more in control of himself. It’s a good lesson. How you can be so talented and still make a mess of things and then you can come back and rock it. But the press won’t let it go. How he disappointed all of us.
Yeah. All week I’ve been trying to figure out what to write about in my column. I don’t really know if there’s a ton of room for a poet to be writing about sports but I just get so much out of it. When I taught at Stanford (it was about 4 years after you left to turn pro) I had a number of students who were on track to become Olympians or professional athletes. I remember I was Ta’ing a Renaissance Lit class and this student Greg came in from football practice. We were getting ready to talk about Spencer and he stood there in the doorway. I asked what was up and he said “one sec” and put his shoulder against the doorframe and pushed as hard and fast as he could. He got super pale, breathed deep and said, “Okay, let’s talk about The Faerie Queene.” Last time I checked, he played for the 49ers. He got an A in my class and wrote a tremendous final essay. I also had a student named Isaac who was in my workshop. He’d taken a year off to go on mission like most young Mormon men do and now he was back. He needed to decide if he was going to try and qualify for the Olympic Cross Country team or go to law school. In the end he decided on law school. Those athletes in my classes taught me a ton about focus and hope and being super rigorous. I try and do that in my poems. Be the best I can be, then push farther (risk failure) and have a good time while doing it.
I’ve been thinking about you. You were on the front page of the New York Times yesterday. Well, the picture was actually a bar full of people watching you apologize on television. Hm. I don’t even like golf. But I kept thinking about 2008 when you played the US Open with a broken leg. And how the crowd just went crazy every time you came through. You were in so much pain and you kept going. It’s like ski jumping: I don’t know much about the sport but I know when I’m seeing something so extraordinary there’s a lesson in it for me and my artistic life. Most of the golfers on the tour want you to come back because, as one of them said, when you are good at something you want to play against the best. I think that’s true. I wonder what’s going to happen with you.
From Los Angeles.Gabrielle Calvocoressi is the author of Apocalyptic Swing (Persea Books. 2009). She lives in Los Angeles.