The Worst Breakup: The Mourning After Sports

The Worst Breakup: The Mourning After Sports heartbreak_444561633

You fell in love. She was elusive, distant, exciting. She taught you things about yourself no one else could or did. She took you to new places all over the world.  Months, years were spent chasing her, growing closer, winning and wooing. But, even after entering her warm embrace there was something missing, held back, a slightly stiffened spine, the latent question always lingering, “are you good enough for me?” This whispered hint kept you running, producing fervent efforts to prove yourself, to earn her affections.

Over time the relationship matured, settling into an uneasy balance: occasional punctuations of dizzy delight when things went perfectly and then the opposite, an arbitrary and tempestuous falling out when they didn’t. These episodes created a delicate tension keeping you in her thrall, ever subservient to her whims, always chasing, always pursing. Ageless, her remote beauty and charms only grew and as time passed you grew aware of an expanding list of suitors who began to surround her, muscles flexing, until one day it all ended as she loudly and publicly chose another. The moment was sickening: even as she welcomed a new young, fresh lover to her embrace she continued to call out her undying love to you. You, however, were jaded now: you had been through it all before and had made your choice. Too tired, too old, too weak, too lame, too hobbled from injury you decided to walk away from her fickle charms forever.

Her name was “Sport.”

All breakups are difficult, but the worst breakups are those where attraction still exists even as one party moves on and when there is no clean break, the cuckholded husband forced to watch his replacement woo his wife. The separation from elite sport is this sort of breakup. Even as her insatiable demand for perfection forces you from her embrace, her demeanor never changes, she is still there beckoning even as she entertains the latest crop of suitors. And, unlike real romances, the entire charade, parade and transition is done publicly under flashing lights without any sense of guile or gall. No one apologizes and averted gazes are only directed to you: the flawed, aging or weakened suitor.

What preparation are young, passionate, competitive, perfectionist men and women given to guard against this inevitable moment? Little to none as it turns out. Not once in my 15 years competing on various national teams did anyone ever provide guidance about “retirement” from sport.  For the romantic fallen, the discarded companions, the color of life disappears and is replaced by grasping black pits of hopelessness that yawn for long periods, occasional white sparks of manic optimism intruding and then fading into stretches of grey. She is gone. I will never again measure up. There is no replacement for the feeling she brought me. She took my livelihood, my funding, my sense of self. I am nothing now.

At some point in most normal breakups the color returns and a true separation from the “Ex” is made. Old healthy relationships re-assume their former stature, new ones form, and in the blue distance of time and perspective the warm colors of hope return. Eventually for most, new and better relationships are formed and the brilliant red drumbeat of life resumes.

But, what if after the breakup no separation ever occurred? What if the two divorced parties were still forcibly joined in an endless anti-matrimony with an arbitrary set of rules that look something like this:

1)     The exact set of qualities that earned your lover’s attention are replicated and improved by the new suitors that have taken your place. They look exactly like you, act exactly like you, but simply put, they are better than you.

2)     Your former lover still legitimately needs and wants you, but just as a “friend” since you know so much about her and she and her friends constantly draw you in to the same social circle.

3)     Sometimes the only way to make any kind of living is working directly for your former lover and her new suitors in an odd soup of fading admiration and mild contempt.

If this sounds like a recipe for a bout of depression then you are right. I am not aware of any studies that exist on the exit of elite athletes from sport, but anecdotally the story is much the same.

You've met them: the high school football star who didn’t get to play in college, the college track star who never made the Olympics. The Olympian who never won a medal. The silver medalist who never won gold. The gold medalist who failed to win again... and all of those who, at some point were forced to retire and in so doing put to bed the one singular intense focus of their entire lives in order to move on.

The desires and requirements of elite sport are insatiable: at some point everyone fails to measure up. Nothing and no-one can satisfy this lover, the ungrateful achievement whore who demands perfection every time and rallies the voices of the world to judge. Michael Phelps? A failure for only, ONLY winning 19 Olympic medals. Bode Miller – failure. Lindsay Vonn- fail. USA basketball – fail. USA Hockey - fail.  Only a few seem to escape the trap by breaking up first - exiting on top and declaring their undying love to some new lover (even if no one believes it). Perhaps Apolo Ohno falls into this camp, or perhaps he’s still riding the coattails of his mistress and doesn’t yet know what awaits.

When I broke up with sport it was heart breaking. It was February of 1998 and weak, slow and tired I failed to qualify for the last final at the Olympic trials despite having a fantastic pre-season winning the first American cup. I did not have enough points to make a second Olympic team and at 29 years old I also knew I could not possibly go another 4 years of income-less training to try again. So, I declared my retirement and Chris Needham, the competition’s announcer, shared it on the loudspeaker of the Lake Placid Olympic Rink. Immediately after in the echoing hallways of the arena I sobbed like a child, terribly embarrassed when my teammates saw me. That night I sat on the steps of the Lake Placid OTC with Apolo Ohno (who had also failed to make the team) and commiserated.

I cried on and off for days. Skating was the rhythm of my life, my reason for being. Despite all my passion and sacrifice I had failed to make a second Olympic team despite putting every sinew and synapse towards that love affair the sense of loss was overwhelming. My friend and teammate Stefan Spielman was a rising star in cycling when at age 20 injuries forced him to retire despite 8 surgeries attempting to fix the problem. The loss stayed with him, weighed him down for a decade or more, in fact he's still not sure he's entirely over it. "I would have paid any price just to be back competing, trying.  I was so depressed for 5-10 years, even up to today I do not think I am over that loss."

I was fortunate. I had a new love and one that could actually compete with my former affair – I was in love with a real woman. I also found separation – immediately: the next morning I moved all my meager possessions into a car and drove 45 hours straight west to get as far away from ice as I could, landing in Phoenix, Arizona with my fiancé and starting a new life. I was also fortunate enough to have a fallback in the form of a pair of college degrees from good schools. I hoped that someone would hire me despite my failure and had to be convinced to even put my sports achievements on my resume.

It may sound odd, but the overwhelming feeling I had for a long time regarding my time in sports was one of embarrassment. In those early years I lived with an ambient backdrop of humiliation. I had professed to be something I was not, and I had failed. My romance with sport had become a source of disgrace. Fellow speedskater and Olympic bronze medalist Alex Izykowski shared similar feelings, "I shared the same 'disgrace'. I had a very similar reaction for about a 2 year period…which came after a year-long denial period."

I refused to watch the 1998 Olympics and for nearly a decade I didn't talk about the sport, didn’t enter an ice rink and severed most of my connections with my friends from that world.  I gladly gave my Olympic medal to my parents who kept it for a decade and lived enshrouded in the bubble a new world of work, marriage and, eventually, parenthood.

It was many years later before I finally began to recognize the gift that sport had given me: of discipline, agility, tenaciousness, self confidence and perseverance. It was nearly a decade later when the rewards of that original relationship were made plain to me.

It started simply. A sign in a grocery store in Madison, Wisconsin read, "Short Track World championships coming to Madison Wisconsin – Volunteers needed." And I thought to myself, "well I could help out - prepare the track, chase blocks - whatever." So I called the number.

"Hello?” I said and continued, “Yes, I saw the ad for the world championships and ... I'm a former speedskater and thought I could help out if you still need volunteers.." An odd pause on the end of the phone.

"Coyle?!!"

"Is that you?"

Welcomed back. It was Tom Riley one of my former competitors and a coach and organizer for the event. Quickly I was re-enrolled in the sport in a new role and recognized not for my failure, but for the part I had played. I began coaching, I began announcing and then was invited to join the Olympic broadcast crew for the Olympics with NBC the following year in Torino, again in Vancouver, and soon in Sochi Russia.

I have been very lucky - my first love has requited her love to me in unforeseen ways. No, perhaps they will never trump the one desire that I aimed to achieve - a gold medal - but with perspective I can see that even such an accomplishment would not have been enough. Perhaps had I reached my goal, my pain would have been lessened, or, perhaps it would have been that much worse. At some point the chase must be replaced by the lessons and narrative of the pursuit.

I do wonder and worry for the coaches of sport. I see so many of my peers during those years still traveling, still on ice, still chasing a revised version of that dream. How many of them are still pursuing the same unrelenting mistress and translating their energies into vicarious living through their athletes, trying to become what, in hindsight is impossible – a marriage to sport until “death do us part.” It does put into perspective some of the incredible passions displayed by some of my coaches through the years. It was almost as though they wanted it more than us…

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PS: There is an even more uncomfortable wrinkle to this tale. What if someone’s breakup with sport occurred during the transition to an era of cheating and performance enhancing drugs. What if an early retirement from, say, cycling, occurred right as the elite of sport took to illegal substances to improve their performance? What might have this crop of legitimate athletes have accomplished? Scott McKinley, Mike McCarthy, Marty Jemison and others on the cusp of greatness, winning the world’s toughest events and then suddenly marginalized – only to learn a decade and a half later that maybe, just maybe it wasn’t their limbs that failed them. It is hard to imagine what was stolen from these incredible athletes and and hundreds of others by the cheating scandals in cycling and other sports. Cheating is the perfect word – the heartbreak resulting from the betrayal of true love is perhaps the saddest outcome and these athletes can only wonder what “might have been.”

Casablanca, Morocco 25 years ago Pt. 8 - conclusion

The final diary entry:  

Friday:

Today I got up at 9:20am, ate breakfast, then went to bed. I re-awoke at 11:30 and went for a ride at 12:00. I rode with Mike. We seem to get along OK. It’s only when Aaron is around that he ignores me. Aaron told me he hates Azdine – right after I said he was really nice. No one I know would be so abrasive. I have to put up with things like this all the time, and I’m tired of it. I’m tired of Morocco – of being accosted at every step by poor greedy starving people. On my ride I noticed a huge pipe going out to the ocean – I never saw it before because always the tide was high, but at this time it was low and riding past, I was hit with and incredibly powerful smell. It was sludge – pure human waste – there were hundreds of thousands of gallons of it just spewing out – making the whole bay brown.

After the ride, I ate lunch – the best one I have had since I’ve been here – steak and French fries.

I then went with Azdine to the market to look for shoes. We went to many places – he even took me to expensive places downtown – too much for me – 300 durhams for a pair! So we finally found a pair I liked. He wanted 240 for them. Azdine got him down to 160, but he wouldn’t go lower, so we started to leave. He went to 140. I was ready to buy, but Azdine made me leave – I didn’t understand. He then explained – “We go back and offer 120” – so we did and I got a $50 pair of shoes for $12.

We then started to go back to the bus and I stopped to look at some watches. One in particular caught my eye. It was really slim and expensive looking. I asked how much – just out of curiosity. He said 200 durhams. I was really surprised.! So I bargained him down to 150 durhams and I bought the other possibility for a graduation present – an expensive watch!

So we left and I paid for the bus fare again (a whole 44 cents for the both of us). Then I showed everyone what I bought. Instead of dinner here at the hotel, we went around the corner to the Italian restaurant. It was so good – I’m really tired of lamb and liver. I had a pizza and an order of lasagna. After this I returned to my room and read “The Son of the Morning Star” – I’m pretty far – I’ll probably finish it before we leave. After that I’m going to see how far I can get into the “Lord of the Rings.”

Then Azdine came down and we talked, and then went to his room and talked until 1:00am.

Oh, when we went to the market I brought a pair of jeans to sell – they were too small anyway. Anyways, Azdine wanted to look at them, so he pulled them out of the bag. Immediately, without exaggeration, over 20 vultures converged on them and almost started fighting over them. The kept shoving money into Azdine’s pocket and then trying to take them. But none of them offered enough – cuz they were just going to take them and sell them themselves. So finally I grabbed them and quickly walked away. A boy had tried them on yesterday and liked them so I took them to him and sold them to him for $8 – the jeans were 2 years old.

Azdine told me in his room that there are 4 kinds of people here – the rich, with 4 houses and 10 cars. Then the wealthy – with 1 house and 1 car.

The two previous are rare. The working class are the third – which has an apartment and not else. He said the average worker makes 1000 durhams a month. That’s $110 a month. He says that their apartments cost 600 durhams a month on average, so that leaves $45 a month to buy food and clothing. And this is the richest city in the richest country in Africa.

The final class is the unemployed. They are 50% of the population. He said that they rob or beg to get money, and they fish or steal corn for food. Many times have I seen desperate faces gathered around small fires with corn placed on top. It always comes out black, but that is what these people eat.

He makes 1000 durhams a month but he doesn’t have to pay for food or a place to stay – the hotel provides that. I asked him what he does with his money and he said he puts it in the bank. He said that after he gets a promotion, he will take the money, buy a house, and get married.

(Azdine works 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week. He makes $100 a month, $4.22 a day, or 35- 40 cents an hour. At my Stanford Library job, I will make more in 1 hour than he makes in a day.)

Saturday: The Big Race

 

Today I got up at 12:00pm then ate lunch. Then I went out and watch the line up and start of the road race.  There were 184 riders. The King was there – sitting on a pavilion next to the starting line. I watched the start and took pictures for Clark.

I then started walking to the far end of the course. The farther I went from the hotel, the more obnoxious the people became. I decided I was absolutely sick of all this “attention”. Everyone had something to jabber at me as I went past. A cop

(here’s where it ends)

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One other undocumented event is worth noting. The closing ceremonies were held at a new developed aquatic center complete with swimming pools and a high dive – 10 meter platform. For some reason I became obsessed with jumping off the platform – I had always wanted to jump from the 10 meter, but never had the chance. So after instigating some “dares” I climbed up with several Americans, French riders, and I think a few Moroccans.

In my suit and tie, I jumped and plummeted into the pool. I don’t remember if anyone else followed my lead, but I do remember that the noise from the pool area drew the attention of Craig, and some of the Moroccan royalty. I remember Craig looking pissed even as a lower member of the Royal family shook my dripping hand, saying something in French that I interpreted as being, “I’m happy you American’s are enjoying our facility.” After that Craig didn’t say anything, and I finished out the evening sitting on towels someone found for me and shivering a bit. Still, I had a small silent pride for daring to pull off the stunt.

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25 years later, sitting around w/ Stefan and Scott at a cafe in San Francisco we reminisced over our adventures. For each of us, we realized that this trip, despite its hardships and culture shock,  laid the groundwork for a perpetual wanderlust. Being 17 and unsupervised in North Africa, the souk with its shiny treasures, the shanty town slums, the contrasts of  royalty and slums - something about the sights, smells and experiences - and some unique attribute of our own personalities melded together to form a lifelong passion for travel. In the annals of "really living" and the supporting thesis that you can "make time" or "kill time" we also found that these 7 or 8 days had filled a much broader expanse of our memories, and that with the patina of time, those days have become years of living memory. Further proof came in the form of the impressions and value of shared experience: 25 years later, friendships that were formed in just a few days and in quiet moments watching the Atlantic crash upon the rocks, were rekindled as easily as if we had been childhood friends for years.

PS: Stacie - if you ever read this, I want my Moroccan leather jacket back...

Casablanca 25 years ago Vol 4: The Perfect Race Pt. 2

1986 Diary - Friday: The opening ceremonies were very different. The stands were packed – dignitaries and athletes on one side, and spectators on the other. The spectators were packed in extremely close – Americans never get that close – strangers were practically sitting on each other’s laps.

In the center of the velodrome were approximately 500 brightly dressed dancing girls who formed groups in circles and danced and sang between events. Also, a solid line of girls in pink pants and white shirts ringed the track (which doubles as a dog racetrack – having the pulleys and everything for the mechanical rabbit as well as kennels right next to the second turn.) These girls did nothing that I could see. While waiting the King and his son came and sat down along with 50 body guards. They started the ceremonies by introducing the King to the public, and then jabbering away in Arabic about god-knows-what for 10 minutes. Finally some bands played in the infield – small groups either banging on drums or cymbals and dancing faster and faster – I needed a camera! Hopefully I’ll get pictures from Stefan or Dave…

We were supposed to ride 2 laps “in our sweatsuits for ceremony” said Craig, so we brought our road bikes and normal shoes. It turned out to be a 20 lap points race with track bikes, cleats, and helmets. We are so uninformed. I could have won some money if I had only known. A Russian broke away (with 3 teammates blocking) many of the other teams didn’t know about it, and those who did, only the Moroccans had more than 1 rider (2) beside the USSR w/ 4.

After it was over, I chatted with some of the other teams’ riders – mostly Australia and Japan before returning to the hotel for dinner.

After dinner, Scott, Stefan, Greg and I went out to the ocean. We sat on the rocks for awhile as the tide started to come in (drawing of the beach/rocks). Then Scott and I went out to the end of the rock promenade and sat on a rock that jutted far out into the breaking waves (drawing here). At first the splashes went up straight over our heads and then returned straight down - we were surrounded by a temporary white wall of water - and it appeared we were getting soaked, but we weren't. But after a while the waves got higher and higher until one big wave swamped us. It was a lot of fun. Scott is a really fun guy.

When we returned, Scott discovered that he had locked his key in his room, and that the only way to get in was to climb from my balcony to his - but there were two rooms in between. We both went - just for the adventure - but the second balcony had a man in it. Fortunately his back was turned and he didn't see us before we turned around - we couldn't go that way... But then Scott devised a scheme. He climbed to the first balcony, and then got ready to go to the next. As soon as he was ready, I walked down the hall and knocked on the 2nd room door. While the man got up, Scott moved.  Upon opening the door, I could see Scott traversing the balcony giving me the sign - "stall!" - he hadn't gone all the way yet - there was a chair. So I looked surprised and asked the man if he spoke English. He said, "a little," so I talked to him for a minute and then said "au revoir" and Scott was already back in the hall through his own room. It was a fun adventure/scam – Ferris Buhler would have been proud.

Saturday:

Today I got up, went to breakfast and then took the bus to the market w/ Stefan. Before leaving we talked to 3 pretty Moroccan girls for a while (Stefan did all the talking – in French.) I guess they told him they liked my eyes and thought I was very tan – my skin was darker than theirs. I heard them say “magnifique”.  Anyways, once inside the market we walked for a while before meeting a very nice man who spoke English. He told us that he would show us all the best places and haggle for us. We were suspicious, but at least he kept all the people off of us. He took us to a “caskan” factory.

 

His name was Mustafa. I bought my mother a beautiful lavender 2 piece caskan – embroidered. We later found out that Mustafa was pretty much taking us to only the places where his friends worked – he didn’t take us anywhere else – it made me mad. I think I may have paid too much for the caskan and the robe I bought myself.  I paid $20 for the caskan and $10 for the robe. I also bought a knife for $25. It is curved – really cool. I bargained it down from $50. This lady with a baby tried to beg 1 durham (15cents) off us and we gave her nothing, but it was good we didn’t – we needed it for the bus ride back. I also bought a scarf of really nice cloth for $3.

 

Stefan went crazy – he bought all kinds of stuff – jewelry, silver, bags, a caskan, scarf, etc. he borrowed $25 from me and 40 durhams too. Mustafa grabbed a t-shirt I had bought to trade and later he informed me it was his – I had “given it to him for a souvenir.” He later tried on one of my 7-11 hats and when I tried to get it back, he got violent. I was totally sick of the place after all this, especially when the storeowner of the knife place asked me for a little flag for a souvenir, and when I wasn’t looking he took 3 – all of them. I finally got them back though (2 of them.)

We finally got out of there although 5 Arab shopkeepers followed us out trying to sell Stefan silver.

Upon returning, I took a nap then went to watch the TTT finish. It was really cool to see all the teams finishing and especially cool to see the good old stars and stripes coming up over the hill. From where we were on the hill, we could see a half of a mile, and it was 4-5 people deep on both sides as far as we could see.

 

After this, we talked to some teams again. I really want to trade my U.S.A. sweats for the Italian sweats – they are so nice.

We then left for the track. We (Jamie and I) warmed up with the team pursuit. We then did 4 jumps in which I pretty much beat Jamie easily even though he was riding a 45 and I was riding a 47.

Then we each did a 200m time trial. I did a 12.14, and Jamie did a 12.42. Apparently they painted the 200m mark wrong because we couldn’t be that slow – both of us.

We then returned and ate and chatted with Azdine the waiter. He is really nice – he speaks a little English, and has offered to take us to the market. He does think I got a good deal on my leather jacket – I do too. He really likes it. It’s the best! I still have $48 left – not much huh? But the jacket is worth more than I have spent so far so that’s ok. Tomorrow I will write postcards – goodnight!

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The Perfect Race Part 2: 

Nothing had changed in Jamie’s attitude when he lined up next to me after our first aborted race. The referee’s vague warning was issued with a wave of his hand and a complete lack of eye contact. It had little effect and I faced the same leer with now whispered challenges. We rolled off the line.

This was the finale of the match sprint trials for the 1986 Junior World Championships and most of the 70 or so other junior racers had turned out to watch - most of whom had already competed in their own events. Unlike other events where riders could qualify for several open spots on the national team in said event and win an all expenses paid trip to Africa, in the match sprint there was only one spot. It was a 2 out of 3 series showdown with winner-take-all.  Jamie and I had already raced 6 times that day: 3 mano y mano matches where a third race was unnecessary - we were both undefeated.  

The trouble had started upon my arrival – the national team coaches had wanted to own all the practice times and use those practices to “evaluate” riders, but my coach Roger had other ideas and after a verbal showdown with Eddy B. he demanded some time on the track for me and a few other 7-11 riders (“slurpees” as they called us). I was glad he had created space for me to train, but felt even more isolated from the U.S. team and coaching staff who had failed to invite me into the fold. I was not ignorant of the fact that these same coaches would become my future team were I successful. Meanwhile across the track I could see Jamie working directly with Craig, Anje & Eddy. Clearly they had determined that he had the talent they were looking for and had invested a lot in his success.

This was an old rivalry. The days are long in the summer of youth and hence its shadows stretch longer across the seasons. The fact that this match - this head to head combat - had started at age eight was the equivalent of the 100 years war. Jamie and I had always been at odds. From my very first race in the rain around the Dearborn towers nearly a decade prior we’d been evenly matched in talent – but with temperaments that put us at odds. http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2008/10/16/clair-young/

Six years and decades of memory prior Jamie and I had matched up at our first national championships for the “midget” category in San Diego in 1980. The clear favorites of the bunch, the rivalry extended to our parents as well, with Jamie’s dad taking repeated opportunities to provide intimate and intimidating details of Jamie’s training regimen, diet, preparation and successes with my own father in the early days prior to the event.

Having faced similar posturing at prior races, my father decided to strike back in his own way the night before nationals began. He stopped at a local bike shop to pick up a cardboard bike box to fly my bike home after nationals, but instead of leaving it in the room, he boldly set it out on the deck of the sprawling motel we were all staying at, taping it carefully closed as though it were a new bike straight from the factory. Sure enough Mr. Carney saw it and my father calmly explained that it was my new, custom made, superlight race bike from Europe (rather than the 20 year old repainted steed I was riding). My dad and I chuckled about Jamie's dad's curiousity about that box for years.

Jamie and I were closely matched in those first nationals but I came out the victor, and he a close second. These competitive clashes continued to play out over the years – as did the contrasting approaches and personalities. Jamie was the extrovert – the fun trash talking ‘typical’ sprinter. I was more like the typical road rider – independent and relatively self absorbed – but without the endurance. I wished I could fit the mold of one or the other but I didn’t yet know what my strengths were.

Rolling forward for round 2 of race 1 of the Junior World trials Jamie was again slightly in the lead. As the banking steepened, he suddenly looked back at me, grinned, and then steered up the track. My front wheel hooked sideways and even as gravity pulled me toward the concrete, it also pulled my front wheel down into his rear wheel we both collapsed again into a heap at the bottom of the track. We'd raced twice and only progressed 90 feet total. The raspberries from the road rash were starting to shine in the heat.

This time the referee’s warning was stern – another incident and Jamie would be relegated. We lined up again and this time my coach waited until Jamie pulled to the line before rolling me to the start line well above him.

The starter raised his gun…

Casablanca - 25 years ago Vol 3: The Perfect Race Pt. 1

Northern Africa - dreams of wind, sand and stars. After the failed junior camp and the alienation I felt from the team and other riders, my thoughts in between began to fill with the idea of Casablanca, Morocco. Like the call of the muezzin I could feel what it might feel like to race my bike in the land of the sun and souk, the Fez, of blue eyed Berbers with engraved faces and crisp white cloth.  Months later, my chance to prove out Ed’s challenge and travel to Africa presented itself: the Junior World Team Trials. Colorado Springs: The sun was white hot in a metallic blue sky and just beginning to angle west, etching a crisp web of the lattice of my spokes onto the shimmering concrete. My hands were shaky on the bars of my red Serotta “Murray” bike and my stomach was a cavern of nausea.

My coach wheeled me to the line first – high up on the apron of the track. Jamie rolled up beside me, but instead of parking 10 or even 5 feet away on the 20 foot wide track, his handler pushed him so close that our forearms were touching. He leaned in, jostling with each word, “Whatcha got Coyle? “Whatcha got?” He laughed. “You’re going down – down – down.”

I ignored him and waited for the starter. “Toreador, “Attencione, “Go!” We were off. Vibrating with energy, we tuned the strings of our fast twitch muscles and eased off the line, looking at each other, twitching.

The “match sprint” event on the track is a 2 man showdown. Time matters for nothing and there are few rules – contact is permissible and the first man across the line wins. Three laps and one kilometer long, the dynamics of the race and the qualities of aerodynamics find equilibrium at a magic set point at around 200 meters to go. Should a racer start a sprint much prior to 200 meters (about 10 seconds at 40mph) then the competing racer can use the cover of the “draft” or reduced wind resistance in the wake of the lead rider to slingshot around prior to the finish line. Should the lead rider wait to start a sprint too far past the 200 meter mark, then the first man to “jump” or accelerate has the advantage – and the following rider has the advantage due to lack of visibility of his actions. A human on a bike can accelerate for 7 or 8 seconds before faltering – the first rider to jump with even a minor advantage after the 200 meter mark is able to accelerate through the stall point that might otherwise enable a chasing rider to accelerate past.

These subtle elements of position, timing and advantage filter backward into the first 800 meters of the race, and the “cat and mouse” game often starts right from the start line. “Track stands” – moments (or even minutes) where both racers come to a complete stop and balance without moving to avoid being the in the slightly disadvantaged forward position are common.

The starter shot the gun, blue smoke fading into the metallic sky and Jamie and I slinked forward. I was face forward, all muscles relaxed yet on full alert. Jamie rode below me with his head cockily angled at 90 degrees to our progress, taunting. 10 feet, 20 feet, 50 feet, we progressed at 5 mph.

Without warning he leapt up from the saddle – and I matched instantly – but without forward progression – a fake. Just as suddenly he sat down, and even as I matched, he steered upward, and rammed my front wheel at 6mph.

On the slippery embankment, both tires lost contact, and we both slid out and skittered to the bottom of the rack, bikes entangled. “That’s it Coyle? That’s all you got?” He continued to barb as we loosened our straps and exited our bikes.

I quietly returned to the line and mounted my bike. Seconds later he materialized, lining up even closer so that this time his elbow could touch my abdomen and our handlebars were touching. “Welcome to my track Coyle – MY Track! You are going down again, and again and again…”

The starter raised his pistol…

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Back to the Journal:

Friday:

Couldn’t sleep last night – did much today. Got up at 9:30 and ate a light breakfast – hard boiled egg, croissant, French bread.  After breakfast I was about to go for a ride when Scott and I decided to go to the bazaar. We went to the bank first where I exchanged $80 into 720.80 durhams – their money is similar to Canadian except the bills are a trifle shorter and wider. Each bill has the picture of the president. Exchange is $1 = 9.1 durhams.

We then saw the bus right outside, so we ran and caught it. It took us north into downtown past the main street I rode down, to the market. At first it was very similar to Tijuana where haggling is concerned.  It is just trillions of small shops selling everything – food, spices, clothing shoes, appliances, utilities – everything. It had a distinctly foreign smell of mingled food, leather, sweat and refuse.

We walked down the crowded cobblestone streets about 10 feet wide. At first we couldn’t find anything but women’s clothing (I should have shopped for a Caskan but I didn’t). We walked for about 30 minutes through shops full of brightly colored women’s clothing until we finally turned around and went through and alley and back the way we came. The alley was behind the shops and we discovered that there actually people living in these horribly run-down buildings – all of which would have been condemned in America.

We finally found the men’s stores. Curious I walked into a leather store – just to look – but the storeowner wanted me to do more than that – he had me trying on jackets like a tornado. All of the jackets were very nice and of the finest quality. One in particular caught my eye – it was the finest in the shop to me, and the owner quickly affirmed that opinion – though he might have said that about any one of them I’m sure.

Anyway, this one was not a motorcycle type jacket – although black, it was very dressy, “Straight from Paris,” said the owner. It looked really cool as he tried it on me, zipping it up and doing the belt as well. I then took it off and asked Scott if he liked it. He said he did, but then I started looking around. The shopkeeper would grab anything I looked at and try to put it on me. I had Scott put a stop to this nonsense – every time I looked at something I would tell Scott and then he would explain that I didn’t like it.

The Arab protested loudly in French and broken English, but at least he stopped putting them on me. The one jacket I had admired was the only like it in the store – it was the best one and th shopkeeper knew it. We found out when we priced the two I had narrowed it down to. The one I really liked? “1700 durhams, but I give it to you for 1200”.

That was too much, so Scott haggled with him for a while on the other one, - very much like my friend Bill’s jacket. In a short while we had it down to 450 durhams from 900 so I knew I could the other one cheap. I wanted the other one so Scott went at it.

He started yelling “500” in French while the Arab yelled “1100!”. This continued and the volume escalated. Scott anchored at 500 and the Arab moved to 1000, then 900, 850, and then 800. We got stuck at 800 – he wouldn’t go any lower – so we headed out.

He literally yanked me back in, put the jacket back on me, zipped it up, and then put a mirror in front of me. “For you, 750 durham…” but Scott refused, saying “impossible” and jabbering away even louder in French. He was literally shouting “550! 550!” and the shopkeeper was shaking his head shouting even louder “700!” even as he was wrapping it up. Once again we started to leave.

The owner relented.. “650!” he yelled. Unimpressed, Scott yelled, “600!” (this was all in French). Finally after another 10 minutes of haggling we got him to 630 durhams. At this point with a nudge from Scott I opened my wallet and handed him 620 durhams – he counted and then demanded the other 10. He almost gave it all back rather than sell so low, but he gave in and handed me the jacket – 620 durhams - $68.80 – for the finest leather worth well over 200. It was odd, but everyone seemed pleased that it was a hard fought battle. Me - for the jacket, Scott for his mastery of French and haggling, and the shopkeeper for… a real foe?

I also bought another jacket – gray Denim – for 160 durhams – we could have gotten it cheaper, but we had to get back – we had spent 60 minutes in the leather store. I had to borrow 60 durhams from Scott to do this. It was so much fun shopping there – I’m going to buy some nice shoes next time I’m there. We finally left because Scott had a team time trial practice as 2pm. We found a man who spoke English on the way out and he found us a taxi and haggled it down to 15 durhams for a 5 mile trip for 2 – that’s $1.50 – cheap. The bus was only 2 durhams – 22 cents, but they were so crowded with assuredly smelly people we decided to take the taxi.

Everyone like my jacket and they all want to go there. When I go back I may buy some leather pants for the heck of it.

After returning, I went for a ride. I rode to the track – to make sure I knew how to find it – then I decided to take the scenic route back to the coast. I headed back toward the poor section (slums) to see what they were like – BIG MISTAKE!  The homes were made out of sheet metal (corrugated) or rocks – they were terrible. I was following a pretty big road and there were black fires burning everywhere and it was getting harder and harder to see any distance in front of me.

When I turned a corner, the road dead ended into a huge garbage dump maybe 4 stories high. It smelled awful, but what was the worst were the adults and children scrambling over the top “fresh” layer looking for food – it was pitiful and it made me sick. I knew I shouldn’t be there in all my cleanliness and expensive bike and so I turned around and cruised out of there because people were starting to yell and it didn’t sound nice. I trucked out of there and turned towards the coast. (Mistake #2 – I should have turned and gone back the way I came)

It was more slums with more dead ends. I was getting pretty scared because I didn’t see one kind face and I was turning around and around at every other street because they kept dead ending and the roads kept getting dirtier, narrower and rougher as did the people. Finally I saw an alley that served as a tunnel to the main street by the coast so I sprinted down it as shouts rang all around and behind me. I think some men were following me and had cut me off – there were 7 or 8 men in their late teens sitting outside their slum that I swear I had seen before. Fortunately I was almost past them before they saw me – who knows where I would be now if they had – but as it was, when I was 100 feet past them, a brick thrown at high velocity struck the ground next to me and the shattered pieces skittered forward under my tires and bounced, tinking, off my frame.

After that I time-trialed like crazy for the next mile on the bigger road because still the people didn’t like to see a beach boy like me invading their slum. But I had made it to the coast, only to be cheered by the more satisfied people of this huge crazy city. (Jamie was also attacked and a big dent in his camera showed what saved him from a brick…)

I made it back just in time to leave for the opening ceremonies which were held at the velodrome. I will explain these later – goodnight!

Really Living: Casablanca, Morocco... 25 years ago (vol 1)

After nearly a year long hiatus primarily due to work demands, I'll be re-launching this blog over the coming weeks and months. I say re-launching vs. re-starting because I will be re-branding it as well. In the next few weeks this site will be re-named "Really-Living" and will be re-organized around that concept. I will also try to post regularly - shooting for every Thursday. Discovery: A gift from my 17 year old self:

My basement last summer: grey light slanted through the sliding glass doors and pooled around puddles of warmer light under the bare bulbs and their dangling strings. Squatting in a far corner I sorted through piles of books, shoeboxes heaping with old letters, and a plasma globe from the 80’s. There, under a pile of receipts for products long since gone was a pair of unlikely objects. I had a sense of déjà vu as I drew them from the bottom of the box, a sudden wave of haunting intimate knowledge yet unfamiliarity: a tiny spiral bound notebook, and a thin red hardbound training diary bound by a rubber band. Two 25 year old gifts from my 17 year old self – jaggedly scrawled journals of my first two trips to compete in the world championships – first, the 1986 world speedskating championships, and  second, the 1986 junior world cycling championships.

Of the two artifacts, my curiosity was piqued the most by the latter. Africa, Morocco, Casablanca – the scents and sounds came flooding back - torn pages of memory now whole: senior year of high school, graduation, the 7-11 cycling team, Eddy B., the Colorado Springs Olympic training center, and a return to a familiar yet alien place where I was yet an outsider. A dozen 17 year old kids dropped in North Africa with little supervision absorbing the sights and sounds of a completely foreign culture... Then… yes then, a sudden smile, a memory of that day that preceded it all: the heat, still air over shimmering concrete, and the crisp latticed shadow of bicycle wheels on the velodrome, and the “perfect race” an exquisite combination of adversity and triumph, surprise reversals, and vindication.

No. Nothing since had ever topped it. Not any of the following world championships, not the Olympics or the medal race. No, the “perfect race” of that summer possessed all the elements of a McKee plot – the inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, and resolution. Never again would the outcome of a race so utterly possess all facets of my existence. More to come on that race, but first the denouement: Casablanca, Morocco. (Pictures complements of Stefan Spielman, journal is un-edited except for punctuation)

The creased binder creaked as I eagerly opened to the first page of the journal and read those first words, penned by that familiar stranger. Walking backward into a dream I read:

(Tuesday) The plane flight was 6 1/2 hours and I didn't sleep at all. We left at 8:00pm from New York and arrived at 7:30am in Casablanca, Morocco.

The people at the airport treated us very well, although they didn't speak English. We drove through a dry wasteland - shrubs and dead grass - to our hotel on the outskirts of downtown on the ocean. I wish I had a camera - there are so many strange sights and smells. Men hold hands with men and women with women - a social custom that apparently you do with friends.

It is flat here for the most part. The people here are generally very dark skinned and many seem to have some black as well as arab ancestry. There are also some full blown african natives here. About half of the people are wearing long shawls in town while the rest have 'normal' clothes, but the further from downtown you get, the more the traditional dress gains a monopoly. The traditionally dressed women usually wear hoods and veils.

Armed and unarmed soldiers are stationed occasionally on the highway and in the city. There are nice modern buildings in town, but there are a lot of rundown chipped stucco apartment buildings too. There are some nice houses, but otherwise the average household dwelling consists of a small vegetable garden surrounded by a white painted wall on three sides and a shabbily built flat-topped, low-roofed house comprising the fourth wall. The floors appear to be dirt. There are also houses made of cheap corrugated sheet metal rusting into the dirt - very poor.

The people seem to like us very much - I'm not sure if it is because we are Americans or because we are cyclists. After unloading our stuff, we set off to find a place to eat at 10:00am. Apparently restaurants serve meals only at certain times, so we went to three places before being able to get someone to serve us food.

When we arrived at the hotel, no one spoke Arabic or French in our group so we were having a hard time. We weren't making much progress until a young man - approximately 22 years old - very nice looking with nice clothes (casual) and a cheerful attitude introduced himself as Mohammed and told us he would help us. He helped us unload and get our rooms and found us a restaurant. He kept asking us about "Rock and Roll" and if we liked Chuck Berry, E.L.O., or Ray Charles. He was very entertaining.

He explained that he was an English major at the university and that he wanted to be a translator someday, so he was practicing. When we finally found a restaurant, Mohammed ordered for everyone. While we were waiting for the next 15 minutes we were accosted by approximately 17 "street sellers" selling sunglasses, chains, ornaments, wallets, and shoe shines. I was smart enough to give a definite no and look away, but some of the guys looked at the stuff, while others would say no and then watch the men with interest in their eyes. Some of the guys (Mike and Greg especially) got rude - which didn't help much. One of the peddlers had open sores and pustules all over his body - talk about culture shock! The man selling sunglasses was trying to sell them for $25. Before he left, he was asking only $5.

Mohammed and the owner finally drove them off so we could eat. Lunch was composed of French Bread (very good - it comes with all meals) and steak and French Fries with Coke or Orange juice to drink. I  had Coke - I wasn't going to risk getting sick. I ended up eating a Shishkebob someone had ordered (Stefan) as well. It was pretty good but everything has a weird taste.  The smells are weird too - our Hotel has this strange musty smell. Scott says it is incense. After lunch we slept until 4:00pm then got ID cards for worlds, then went for a ride.

The people loved us - everywhere we went people would wave – hundreds and thousands of them (a far cry from a ride earlier in New Jersey prior to Somerville and Nutley where after 100 “hello’s” only one small boy returned our greeting) . They also all had something to say – everyone would always wave and yell something in French or Arabic. We rode 20 miles – first we went to the track then South along the coast, and then finally around the 8 mile road course loop which is relatively flat with one 180 degree turn and was marked with arrows painted on the road.

We then went to eat the correct time at the hotel. At one point, as we returned our bikes through the parking garage, we came upon our hotel staff removing dead chickens from the trunk of the car – bodies complete with feathers intact and simmering (festering?) in the heat in the trunk. No surprise, we had French bread, bean soup, an omelet with spices, and – of course – chicken for the main course w/ apple pastry for dessert, all with mineral water to drink – pretty good!

After dinner, Stefan, Scott and I went out to the beach, walking down the shiny cobbled steps to the sand. Every night about 8:00 it gets cloudy and foggy until morning – whereupon it clears up – all the cars have yellow headlights for the fog.  The tide was coming in and we climbed around the ruins of some old castle or other building, then sat on the rocks that the ten foot high waves were crashing on. We looked across the 1000’s of miles of water back to home. It was really beautiful.

I’m going to bed – its still Tuesday.

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Next up: Where Mohommed is arrested and dragged away by his hair, screaming...