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The First Time

Dear Readers,

Do you remember the first time you succeeded in something? Most of us do, and subsequent successes never quite produce the euphoria of that first, perfect moment when you realize, “Hey, I’m good at this!”.

One thing that will probably surprise people who’ve met me as an adult (but definitely won’t surprise those who knew me growing up) is that I wasn’t an athletic child. I was born with little to no eye-hand coordination, and my small town’s physical education programming was strongly geared towards children who were already gifted athletes. No time or consideration was given to teach the kids who were struggling, and as a result, team sports were hell for me. During baseball season, I was terrified of the humiliation I’d receive from my fellow students when I struck out, so instead of taking my turn at bat, I’d continually cycle to the end of the line. I’ll never forget when my male instructor caught me out, and announced to the entire class that the game would not proceed until I stepped up to the plate. I had to take my first swipes at a baseball amid the jeering of all the athletically-inclined boys. No one had ever taught me proper stance or how to hit, because the kids who loved baseball already knew those things. I can’t even remember how I did, but I do remember the deep level of shame and embarrassment I felt.

When I first started kickboxing in my early twenties, I was convinced that I’d never be able to move as well as my fellow students without some very specific, in-depth tutelage. There, in the corner of my little dojo, was a boxing ring that was ruled by a gruff, hard-as-nails man named Carlos. I saw his boxers and the way they moved, and was convinced that this man could teach me how to dance. So I became one of his students, and suddenly, through this one-on-one, intensive training, I acquired a passion for athletics I’d never had before. I was determined to perfect the skills needed to be a great boxer. I didn’t care how much time it took. I didn’t care how beat up I got, or how much my muscles ached. All that mattered was proving to Carlos that the time he was spending on me wasn’t wasted.

Let me tell you, Carlos had his work cut out for him. I believed then, and still do, that boxing takes more coordination and grace than most other sports combined. You have to be strong, mentally and physically. You have to be fast. You have to have flexibility, agility, and a remarkable sense of balance. And most of all, you have to keep your cool and not lose heart when you’re punched in the face.

Carlos still had a bit of that old-world mentality. He wasn’t anywhere near the level of Clint Eastwood’s character in Million Dollar Baby, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say he was a tad sexist. That said, if you worked hard and proved yourself, you could earn his respect, no matter what your gender.

I’ll never forget the moment that came after months of training. He was holding pads for me, and after a particularly brutal series of combinations, he stopped and looked at me in admiration.

“You know,” he said, “your right cross could knock anyone out.”

That was the first time I thought, “hey, I’m good at this,” about boxing. And I’ll never forget that moment. Or Carlos. Even when he realized what he’d said and hastily modified it with, “I mean, any woman!”, it was too late. He’d created a monster. Or, at the very least, another woman who would harbor a lifelong love of boxing. Too bad my elementary school gym teachers couldn’t have figured that out.

Any memorable “firsts” you’d like to share?

Special thanks to Dangerous Dave Zuniga for the fifteen year old photos of Carlos in action.

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  1. kungfusinger

    KungFu has really increased my hand eye co-ordination. Like you, I grew up in a small town and the physical education program was amed towards athletic children. I think that I only passed PhysEd because they NEVER failed anyone in PhysEd. I knew I sucked, but I still tried out for all the teams on the off chance that I would get accepted and with some one on one and extra practice, I could acquire some skills. I never made the cut.I left high school being unable to hit a volleyball, baseball, birdie, etc.; kick a soccer ball in the direction I wanted; land a hoop shot; or catch pretty much anything.

    At 25, I joined Kung Fu. I learned to punch, to kick without falling over, and to block attacks. In my club, you learn these things for a full year before ever being allowed to spar.

    My first time is twofold. The first time I realized that I had acquired any hand-eye co-ordination came when, after two years in my club (I would have been a Blue Belt), I was invited to play basketball with some co-workers. I dragged my feet onto the court, and tried to play. I stole the ball. How did that happen? I tried a 2-pointer. It went in?! Must be a fluke! I tried again. Holy CRAP! Suddenly I could make the ball go where I wanted it to. This is not to say that I was anywhere near the level of my opponents, but the meager skills that I had acquired were far in excess of what I had had before.

    The second first was when I realized that I was good at Kung Fu. I was problem solving (light touch controlled sparring) with one of my instructors, a fifth degree black belt, about a year after the basketball incident. My opponent was 6’4″ and over 200 lbs of pure muscle. He had me trapped. What to do? I tried an emergency move to clear some room for myself to manoeuver. The move involves a stance shift at the same time as a shoulder roll and the timing is somewhat difficult. It sent my instructor across the room. I thought “Wow, I can do this”. That was about the same time that one of the other senior instructors started throwing advanced moves at me in problem solving.

  2. Kim

    It is all muscle memory for these types of sports. Repitition makes the muscles and nerve endings repond faster.

    Unlike you I was good in gym class and typically among the first to get picked for teams. I could show up to track practice the week before and win my heat at the track meet and place in finals. I can still smack a ball pretty good in baseball and catch and throw.

    It made me lazy as a young adult (not to mention, not particularly good parental monitoring). Now, after years off of any kind of sport, I got heavily back into it in the last 5 years. And I’m pretty far behind. It is an uncomfortable place for me to be and not what I grew up with. I find it much harder to feel good with my accomplishments.

    Cycling is the first sport I’ve wandered into where I’ve said that exact thing: “I am good at this.” I am at a place, at two years into cycling, where my peers are at after 8-15 years. I love when I surprise myself as I have done and continue to do.

    Everyone just has to find their hidden athletic talent that brings them joy. I believe EVERYONE has one if they are looking and want to find it.

  3. Story Teller

    @ kungfusinger: does my heart ever go out to you. I completely feel your pain. If it wasn’t for my dear childhood friend (kudos to LORENE UNRUH HANN!), I probably never would have learned to hit a birdie, serve a volleyball, or swim. Thank goodness for the kind souls like Lorene. To succeed in athletics is so important for our confidence and well-being that it makes me so sad that all but the already talented are left out in our schools. But I love your story of triumph in martial arts. I do find that, in most clubs, the instructors will not give up on you unless you give up first (and even then, they will fight with you!).

    @ Kim – I hate you! 🙂 No, seriously, I would have killed for the abilities you had as a child. The team picking thing was excruciating for me–I remember getting excited whenever a friend of mine was chosen team leader. “Finally, I won’t be one of the last!” I’d think, but I was anyways because even my friends knew that I sucked. And it’s so ridiculous to me now – I was lean, tall, and have always put on muscle easily. I had so much potential back then if anyone had been willing to work with me. That’s why Carlos, and every coach after him, has such a special place in my heart.


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