"Mommy! Mommy! I won at ballet!" So claimed my 3-year-old daughter as she bounded into my arms after her first dance class.
I know ballet can't be won, least of all in a free "Itty Bitty Dancer" class at my local YMCA, but holding my triumphant child, I felt like I had won at ballet and it felt good.
That's probably how it started for my parents. According to them, I was a born runner. We all were. Along with my two older sisters, we were a family of champions. All five of us were blonde, fast, and ruthless.
I started running when I was 3. By the time I was 4, I ran 5Ks without stopping or walking. At 5, I did my first 10K. I always won my age group, though I didn't have many competitors because most parents aren't willing to teach their kindergartners to push through the pain.
On weekends my sisters and I would wake at dawn, dress in shorty-shorts, singlets, and thick-soled running shoes, and we'd be herded toward the kitchen where our race numbers were laid out on the counter, each with six safety pins dangling. (My mom kept a container of pins in a kitchen drawer for that very purpose.) Then we'd pile into our van and head to wherever that day's race was. During the drive my dad would go over our goals, the times we were supposed to beat, the splits we needed to do so, and whether it would be good enough for us to beat all the girls or if we would need to outrun the boys as well.
My dad was a failed swimmer and my mom a failed gymnast. Both quit in their teens, then regretted it as their 20s sputtered out into family life. They were determined to not let my sisters and me repeat their mistakes, so they raised us to be champions. Eventually my sisters and I joined youth track and cross-country teams. By the time I was 8, I was running 40 to 50 miles per week.
If I complained that my parents were too harsh of trainers, they'd remind me of another little girl in the running community whose parents tied her to the back of their motorcycle to teach her to keep pace. (A few years ago my mom adopted a puppy. I asked her if she was going to take the pup running with her and she replied, "Oh no! You can't take a puppy running until they're fully grown! It hurts their joints.")
By the end of elementary school, my age group became more crowded and I didn't routinely win. My dad kept track of our accomplishments on bribe sheets, typed lists of goals and rewards that he posted on our refrigerator. Beating my sisters' age-adjusted personal bests was worth $60, but I wasn't often able to do so. The bribe sheets were taken very seriously. When I was 11, the sheets specified that if I qualified to compete at State, I would get to keep one of the kittens from our cat's litter. I didn't make it. Instead of giving the cat away to a stranger, they gave him to one of my State-bound sisters even though the kitten wasn't on her bribe sheet.
Eventually I caught on that I was never going to be the best runner, not in my family, not anywhere. I quit racing for good when I was 12, refusing day after day to go to track practice so that I could stay home to listen to show tunes and eat tater tots. Throughout my teens I grew pastier, chubbier, and more bookish until I finally became the thing that my father hated most in the world: a nerd. A couple of Christmases ago, when my father was several drinks past over-served, he slurred at me, "You never should'a quit running. You could'a been something."
Not many of my friends know I ever used to be an athlete. I forget myself, until a pedicurist notices my hammertoes or I have a dream about striding down the homestretch after a race, feeling that last surge of power. Or rather, I used to forget, because now I have two children to remind me. Though I married a man whose greatest athletic accomplishment was being the towel boy for the girls' soccer team, together we created two undeniably sporty children. Both are fearless and quick -- not big, but tough. My parents are thrilled. Me, not so much.
I swore that I would shield my children from the kind of pressure I felt when I was a kid, that I'd let them choose their own interests and not mistake their successes and failures for my own, but when I saw my daughter twirl her way through her first ballet class, I realized that it might not be that simple. I'm ashamed to admit that even though I know better, I thought about how wonderful it would be if my daughter were a prima ballerina, and wondered if I should get her some more sophisticated training.
In that moment I was intoxicated with pride, the same pride that my parents must have felt for their stable of little blonde champions. It's less likely that my children inherited my athleticism than that I inherited my parents' egotism. I see now how blurry the lines are between parents and children, and I fear how the next several years are going to go, being the mother of these ridiculous creatures who are both half me and not me at all.
My daughter still does ballet, but I try not to watch.
For more by JJ Keith, click here.
For more on becoming fearless, click here.