by Dante Zappala
My trip from Portland ended early as the plane touched down 45 minutes ahead of schedule. I made it to McMenamin’s before the kitchen closed to enjoy wings and a beer. It was well past midnight by the time I finally got home.
My kids were their normal raucous selves the next morning. It was 4 a.m. in my mind, but for them, it was time to get ready for school. They didn’t react much when I meandered downstairs. Four days away from their father seemed to be the threshold for them forgetting who I was altogether.
I engaged them with stories of the races I’d just seen. I had been in Oregon for the IAAF World Indoor Track and Field Championships. Over four days and six sessions, I got to watch some of the best in the business compete on a gorgeous track set up at the Convention Center.
I recounted the men’s 1500. Matt Centrowitz came back in the last lap against his longtime rival, Nick Willis, to win gold with a beautifully crafted race and stealthy delivered kick. Another American, Ryan Hill, rounded out the season of his life by finishing a surprising second in the 3,000 meters. Despite being a long shot to medal at all, he told the crowd how disappointed he was that he didn’t win.
The boys perked up a bit, but the fog of morning got the best of us all. They were off to school, and I struggled into work. I’d have to save the better stories for later.
Visiting Portland offered a chance for me to catch up with old friends from college and my childhood. I haven’t seen them for years, yet stepping into their lives was seamless. Though we’d built our friendships in the days of youth and self-discovery, we just as easily bonded around the adult landscape of children, jobs, mortgages and spouses.
The days fell into a steady routine: Wake, run, watch races, nap, watch races, drink, drink more, sleep. I consumed far too many of the locally famous brews and somehow managed to log a ton of miles running through the city. The paths, trails, and bridges provided the appropriate atmosphere in one of the more famed running regions of the country.
Each time I’ve visited, Portland impresses. With so many positive attributes, we had discussed moving there. But its proximity to nothing was always a deal breaker. My family is here on the east coast. My wife’s is in Germany. We would be that much further from everybody. The city is an oasis where some of the most special people in my life reside and it has thus become a cherished getaway.
The track meet was a great excuse to visit. A friend and training partner of mine, Ajee’ Wilson, competed in the women’s 800 meter. After an injury last year kept her out of the Outdoor World Championship, this was her chance to rebound. And this event was a big one. This championship and the Olympics in Rio are the bookends of this year’s season.
By all other standards, you’d say she did extremely well. She captured the silver medal, her first senior medal (she was a Junior World Champion in 2012). But her disappointment was palatable. She could have won; she knew it and I knew it. She let two other athletes pass her in the middle of the race when she should have led from start to finish. She was able to catch one of them, but not the other.
Standing on the medal stand, a step away from the top, has to be as bittersweet as it gets. To see a possibility pass you (literally, in this case) and then fail to catch it is a theme we all contend with. For better or worse, we possess the unmistakable ability to reflect and feel regret.
As I considered what to say to Ajee’ after the medal ceremony, memories of my own missed opportunities flooded in. I kicked too late in the 3200-meter championship of my last race in high school, finishing a half second behind my teammate and good friend. I could have pursued a higher degree when my brain was a lot sharper and I didn’t have the calculation of kids in the mix. I could have moved to Portland.
As an older person trying to add perspective to the life of a younger person, the trap is that I see it through my own eyes. I see what appear to be endless possibilities. I see liberating circumstances. But in the relative world of privilege that we live in, the circumstances that seemingly limit opportunities are usually just a magnification of fear. And that phenomenon is cross-generational. To that end, the best I could do was give Ajee’ a hug and tell her to soak it all up. The satisfaction of winning a medal should motivate her as much as the desire to win it all.
When I got home from work, I told the kids all of this – with any luck in a way that two children under the age of 10 might understand. To reestablish my broken bond, I took them to the park. I snuggled up with my little one to read from the book that he saves for me to read to him. He made a sandwich of stuffed animals to sleep on. Two pillow pets were the bread. Eight various animals were the filling.
For now, these kids can coddle themselves when there are disruptions. I indulge in that less and less, and I think they get why. God willing, they will be spared real tragedies. The minor blips that play on their brains can be the groundwork for the bigger moments when doubt becomes a major player in their decision making.
At some point, they’ll get passed on the final lap. And when that happens, hopefully they will realize that there is no longer a reason to look back.