by Dante Zappala

On a blistering summer afternoon in New York City, the Triborough Bridge casts a welcome shadow of relief over a small strip of Randall’s Island. The reprieve was felt by all of us who lingered in that shade for a good while, just outside of Ichan Stadium.

The Adidas Grand Prix had just wrapped up. I have the great enjoyment of training with a few professional runners who were competing in this Diamond League series meet. We all lingered under the bridge, absorbing the breeze, taking our time doing nothing.

Ajee’ Wilson, who lives and trains in Northwest Philadelphia, had won the women’s 800 meter. This didn’t come as a great surprise. She’s ranked second in the world. At 21 years of age, she’s the future of America’s middle distance running. She has a great shot at a medal, quite possibly gold, in the World Championships this year and in the Olympics next year.

Still, the media that does follow track and field hasn’t focused much on Ajee’. Another young protégé, Mary Cain, has garnered most of the headlines over the last few years. She bettered most of the national high school records and turned professional last year at the age of 18 while still a senior. While Ajee’ quietly established herself as one of the world’s best, Cain and her potential had become the face of the future.

Last year, Cain, a native of New York, headed West to train with Alberto Salazar. A top marathoner in the early 80’s, Salazar was an aggressive runner and relentless competitor. That’s carried over to his coaching style, where he has built a powerhouse program called the Nike Oregon Project.

But Mary Cain hasn’t improved under Salazar. In fact, she regressed this year, recently running the 1500 meters 10 seconds slower than her best time from a year ago. Perhaps feeling mentally and physical exhausted, she came back East to live with her parents.

And it was there under the bridge where we encountered Mary Cain, who had made the short trip from West Chester to compete in a lower key event, the off-broadcast 1000 meter.

She and Ajee’ came up together through the junior ranks. While they chatted, I struck up a conversation with Mary Cain’s mother, also named Mary. I watched her as she watched her daughter, who was laughing, relaxed, looking everything like a regular person on the verge of adulthood.

The look on the elder Cain’s face was unmistakably one of utter relief. We talked about the struggles her daughter had transitioning as a professional athlete, particularly the weight of expectations that were heaped on her. At one point, she welled up with emotion and said something incredibly simple and precious:“It’s wonderful to see her this way again. I’m happy she is home.”

I am nine years into the parenting game. I still feel like a rookie on many days. There is the immediate struggle of correcting certain behaviors while supporting and encouraging others. I have an idea of the type of adults I want my kids to be. But they are determining much of their own futures by who they naturally are. Supporting this precarious structure like the pommel of a sword is the overriding desire to see them be happy.

At times, this counterweight becomes too heavy. It is all too easy to coddle them for fear of failing, or getting physically or emotionally hurt. Yet there are obvious times where a push is better than a pull if long term happiness is the goal.

In the current landscape of youth performance – be it athletics, academics, music, or their ability to charm – children are often pushed. Parents will rarely admit it, but deep down, they hold out hope that they might become “the one.”

Yet here was a mother whose daughter had achieved what so many kids strive to achieve and none of that really mattered. What mattered was the authenticity of her daughter’s smile.

We’re hard pressed to accept ordinary these days. It’s an outgrowth; a natural evolution that stems from our economy. We went from manufacturing to service; from making things to buying things. Now, in essence, our economy revolves around the entitlement of being consumers. Many of the most successful companies have captured that sense of privilege. Yelp has a $3.4 billion market cap, after all.

Being talented and successful at a young age sharpens the blade of the sword. Thus, it raises the stakes of how precisely we weight that pommel. It’s a difficult craft but it was assuring to meet a parent like Mary who showed her mastery of it in a rapidly changing landscape.

In the days before I made it to the shade of the bridge, before I’d spent the afternoon trackside in the hot sun, I’d been to the shore with my kids for a quick getaway. I’ve been watching them more furtively these days. My oldest is developing the ability to deflect emotion. He can wield cynicism and sarcasm as a defense or an attack now. He’s quickly morphed into a 3-D jigsaw puzzle. I’m constantly studying.

On the last night in Wildwood, he was by himself on “Moby Dick,” a ride that spins you in circles while you’re seated. As it tossed him around, I saw what I used to know very well but I assume will become even more rare as time passes – a look of unabated joy.

It made me smile.

  • John Bloy

    This article made me laugh, how the media overlooks Wilson, but features Cain. Then the article does exactly that I wonder why, is it black vs white or just Nike influence?

    • dzap

      I don’t think I was over looking Wilson’ in the article. I wrote a column exclusively about her in this paper last year as well. Regarding race, I do believe it has something to do with it, likely in a subconscious way. Some would say it’s because of Cain’s potential range. She has good times at 800, 1500 and 3000. Wilson is an 800 specialist. Cain also has a more outward personality and is generally bubbly in interviews where Wilson is matter-of-fact. Also, Cain was in a high profile program (even more so now with the doping allegations). Wilson’s coach keeps a low profile. But yes, despite that, I believe race plays a role in the difference of coverage. Still, those two are fast friends and are two pieces of a huge revolution in American mid and long distance running. My hope is that a few years from now, there will be too many names to keep track of.