Sports and The Spirit

Sport and the Spirit
Rev. Anthony David
April 25, 2010

Whenever I wonder about the phenomenon of sport—people’s investment of so much time and money and emotional energy—I go back to 1976, the living room of my house from all those years ago. Mom is watching the Winter Olympics, held in Innsbruck, Austria that year, and I’m watching both it and her. I’m nine years old at the time. The television camera is trained upon a milky white ice surface, and in the context of the Olympics, it has been transformed from simply one ice surface among many into an axis mundi, a world center, sacred space and time to which figure skaters from many nations bring their gifts of athletic grace. The sacred space and time flow into my living room also. My mom, overwhelmed with obsessive compulsive disorder and depression, becomes clearer. I am nine years old, and this is what I see. The Olympics in Austria—the temporary, limited perfection they represent—bring a measure of desperately-need sanity into our chaotic and isolated lives thousands of miles away in Peace River, Alberta. I could not have known it at the time, since our family did not go to church, but it was exactly like church. Sport and religion, in different ways, evoking a sense of connection to a life that is larger than the confusions of the moment—doing this for spectators and participants alike. Sport and religion, feeding the hungers of the spirit.

I’ll never forget when it was Dorothy Hamill’s time to compete. While she’s spinning and jumping and going through the moves of her program, my Mom is totally absorbed, moving along with her in sympathy, arching or lunging or twisting her body one way or another. Totally caught up in the drama. When Hamill launched into a difficult double axel, Mom stopped breathing, just held her breath, and then, when she landed the jump, Mom shrieked with joy. She shrieked a lot during the entire program, actually. When it was over, and Hamill had won the gold, Mom started to cry and laugh at the same time and grabbed me and gave me one of those jumping up and down hugs. Massive tension, massive release. It is the compelling drama to be found in every sport, individual or team, either in the context of a single competition or game, or building throughout the competitive season; and religion knows this sort of drama as well. In college I would learn that the oldest of literary forms is the epic, in which the protagonist undergoes great adversity to achieve a great good. What mythologist Joseph Campbell calls “the hero with a thousand faces.” Jesus the Christ, Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha, and Mohammed the Prophet. Our spirits rise up to meet the call of epic drama. In religion, and in sport.

But in 1976, when I was nine, the profundity of what I was experiencing with my Mom was inarticulate, without the words and concepts I would learn years later. All I knew was that something powerful had just happened, and the awkward, insecure boy that I was had to see it through. I had to experience figure skating for myself. Almost forty years later, I’m still on my figure skating journey, and I can personally attest to something that the ancient Greeks and Romans had to say: that sport at its finest can be an avenue to connecting with the spirit. Too often, of course, we do not see sport at its finest: its pollution by big business and greed; cheating and drug abuse; or sports heroes like Tiger Woods and Ben Roethlisberger who fail to be the role models we yearn for. (From figure skating, you may remember the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan fiasco—remember that? Watch your kneecaps…. ) Too often we do not see sport at its finest. And yet, when we do, the ancient Greek and Roman insight comes alive. Here’s how this has been so for me.

Someone once said that our greatest progress as people happens not when our visions and dreams are fulfilled easily, or even fulfilled at all—but rather when they are disrupted or denied. In my own case, my skating got off to a quick start. Soon after the Olympics in 1976, I started lessons, and I loved them. Worked hard, too. I have vivid memories of waking up at 5am, getting to the rink by 5:45 or 6 for practice before school. Dad always woke me up, and drove—even in the deepest, darkest winter mornings (and this is in Peace River Alberta, folks—doesn’t get much deeper and darker than that.) The earliest session would be patch, which is when skaters practice figure eights. No sounds in the rink other than blades edging into ice, or the scratching of toe picks, or sniffles and noses being blown. Not fun to watch, but it’s like Buddhist walking meditation. Concentration. Controlled tension, resulting in grace. Today, if I could, I’d love to take up this aspect of the sport. But back then, HATED IT! BORING!

What I loved was the later morning session, when I could do freestyle. From the monastic silence of patch, to music booming on the loudspeakers: ABBA, or Supertramp, or KISS (this was the 1970s, after all). I and the other skaters would practice our scratch spins, sit spins, camel spins, combo spins, waltz jumps, flips, toe loops, lutzes, axels, and all the other skater moves. We’d land them, or we’d fall and then get up and try it all over again. After this, school. And then after school, more skating! Memories of fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade are permanently linked to this skating schedule. I was dedicated. My coach thought I was talented. I went to my first competition. Things seemed to be going well.

And that’s when adversity struck. Just when things seemed to be going well. You know how that goes. Humans plan, God laughs.

For myself, adversity took the form of an unexpected move, in January of 1979—and bringing this up at time is so ironic considering where we’ve been recently in America, with our health care overhaul. Canada apparently was undergoing a crisis of medical care in the late 1970s. Should it be nationalized? What would that look like? It all mattered because Dad was a medical doctor, and he was already terribly overworked. In his opinion and that of his colleagues, nationalized health care was a bad thing. In the end he decided to accept a position in a growing hospital in a small town called Palestine, in Texas, far away from Canada and far away from nationalized health care.

Far away from skating rinks, too. This is Texas in 1979! Not much of a skating scene in Texas, back then. And Dad felt awful about it, so did Mom. But you do what you have to do. They promised to send me back to Canada to skate over the summer of 1979, then again in 1980, but the three-months-on, nine-months-off training schedule was horrible. Every time I got back on the ice, I felt like I was starting over again, and by summer’s end, it felt like I was just getting back to where I had left off the previous summer. This, while fellow skaters were advancing way beyond me. It was frustrating, and demoralizing, and all the talk about talent made me feel like an imposter.

By 1981, I was done. 13 years old, and already washed up! What’s really amazing to me as I look back is that I simply slammed the door not just on figure skating, but on sports altogether. I mean, l was used to working with coaches, and I loved athletics. But I never replaced skating with anything else. I just got into my studies at high school. That’s it. And never watched figure skating on TV after that. No more moments like I’d had with my Mom, watching Dorothy Hamill, allowing the sacred space and time of the Olympics to touch me wherever I happened to be. No more opening myself up to the epic drama. Not until years later. Just slammed the door.

This was my experience of adversity. It struck like lightning, then it was a slow gradual process of erosion, until the dream was gone.

But if the life of the spirit is about anything, it is about transformation. It is about entering into interior grace, despite what seems stubbornly real in the external world. Our greatest progress as people happens not when our visions and dreams are fulfilled easily, or even fulfilled at all—but rather when they are disrupted or denied and yet find ourselves taking that next step, and then the next, and we are met each time with something that sustains us and helps us keep going, until we live into a new truth about ourselves, a larger sense of possibility.

I would never have known this personally until a certain opportunity came my way. Would never have known that my figure skating dream still had mojo to it, until 17 years later, when I stepped on the ice again with my friend Diane Platts.

A little background to this. By this time in my life, Laura and I were married and attending the Unitarian Universalist church in College Station, Texas, where we first met Diane and her husband Steve. Skating for me had become all but ancient history until, in a casual conversation one day, Diane mentioned that she skated, and I went Huh? Because Diane was even older than I was. I mean, adults skating? I had been gone from the sport for so long that I had not known that adult skating had taken off and there were competitions being held all over the country including the big one, Adult Nationals. I also had not realized that skating had taken off in Texas and now there were rinks all over the place. Diane said she trained weekly at a rink in Houston (not too far away from College Station), and would I like to go with her one Sunday afternoon?

And all of a sudden, the excuses started tripping off of my tongue. Just like crazy. I was too busy at work. And then there was church—I was board president at the time—so maybe when my term was done I’d think about it. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. What really got me to that ice rink in Houston, 17 long years after I had left the sport, was the insistence of my wife, Laura. It was her tough love for me. Cutting through my bull. Often we just can’t realize our dreams without some tough love and support like this.

So I got on that ice. 17 years later. And when it happened, there was this rush of old pleasure in gliding effortlessly across the ice… New pleasure, too, in realizing that I still had it, I could still skate.

And as we continued going together to Houston on a weekly basis, Diane and I,
two realizations gradually emerged in me. The first had to do with the meaning of the word “sport.” It comes from the Latin “des-porto” which means “carried away.” Getting carried away, losing oneself in physical exertion, feeling complete, connected, unimpeded, integrated all at once. Doing this vicariously as spectators, if not directly. This understanding came to me with a clarity that perhaps I could never have had as a kid, and by way of contrast, it exposed the dissatisfaction that was building in the rest of my life where I WASN’T getting carried away, I WASN’T feeling complete, connected, unimpeded, integrated all at once. A line from the poet Mary Oliver comes to mind, where she asks, “Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” (That’s a question for all of us today. “Are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”)

I was teaching college at the time, and it wasn’t working. I was hungry for something else. My soul wanted something else. And the experience of the sport of skating was leading me to it, towards the direction of a deeper spirituality. The Spirit was moving me through my skating. Moved me eventually into the ministry. I continue to be grateful for the grace of our Universe, such that, when the student is ready, a teacher always appears. Always.

That’s the first realization that started to gather and grow in me as I took to the ice again. The other had to do with my age. Every time I got on that ice, and over time as I got more and more back into shape, a sense of wild mischievousness grew and grew. I was doing something that only kids were supposed to be doing. Doing dangerous on-ice stunts. Looking ice square in the face, knowing that it’s hard and slippery and dangerous and I wasn’t 12 anymore so if I fell it would be a lot harder to get up again, but doing it anyway. Skating, for me, became a way of rising above myself, a way of touching delicious freedom. Daring to keep growing and learning even while the pressures of ordinary life often worked against this.

All this hardly begins to tell the story, but it is a beginning. The dream I had as a kid had gone the way of the phoenix, and even though the newer version was different than I could ever have imagined, I liked it. It was revitalizing my life, pointing me into a different career direction, reminding me that as I got older I could still be vital and enjoy my world.

Here’s some video of Diane and I skating. It’s four years ago, at the 2006 Adult National Figure Skating Championships, held in Dallas Texas. Just one of the four dances we performed.

[…]

The skating dream I’d had as a kid had gone the way of the phoenix. Diane and I competed at Adult Nationals fully knowing that there is no box of Wheaties at the end with our smiling faces on it, even if you do win gold, as we did. Adult skating is just a completely different thing. Just to find the energy and time, with everything else going on, is success. So many ways in which the rush and gush of life can steal your soul away. Just to be able to get on the ice and compete is the Olympics. Just to be able to do things that I had never done as a kid: the Olympics, for me, for sure. I can only hope that if my Mom were still alive, she’d be jumping up and down for me too.

And truth to tell, I thought that with this, my story around figure skating was complete. But with my experience at the most recent Adult National Figure Skating Championships, held this year in Bloomington, Minnesota, I got a clear message that my sport had more to say to my spirit. Humans plan, God laughs.

No video to show you (wouldn’t dare show you the video), but here is a picture:

[…]

I had a horrible skate. Diane wasn’t with me, this time—when I moved here to Atlanta, our partnership ended, and I shifted my skating focus towards freestyle. I just don’t think I fully realized how distracting her absence would be, out there on the ice. It was a bad skate. And, being the perfectionist that I am, I can’t tell you how embarrassed I felt by the whole thing. When you grow up in the midst of chaos, as I did, you like things clean. The way to survival becomes perfectionism, and maintaining the perfect mask in public. That’s the way it is.

The worst had happened—I fell apart on the ice—but here’s what was so amazing for me. It opened me up to the kindness of newly-made friends. Opening up like this has always been tough for the isolated, awkward inner nine-year-old me. I was with a big crowd of fellow adult skaters after the competition, and one of them, Rob, who’d actually won the gold medal in my event, said, “We have to get Anthony a last place medal! I’ve been there,” he said, “I know what it’s like.” And so did everyone else. So there we were, in a big red van, tooling around Bloomington, Minnesota, laughing like crazy, looking for a last place medal. Now where do you find something like that? Went to a Jo Ann’s fabrics (definitely no luck) went to a Michaels (better) and then finally, found a Party City (jackpot). My last place medal was made of plastic.

The picture is me, right after Rob formally presented my last place medal to me. This generous man who had won the gold. I’m standing FAR to the left of the 4th place spot. It was such a hard medal to earn. But perhaps exactly the right medal at the right time, by the grace of God. I was being welcomed to the human race. I did not have to be an Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill to belong.

It’s just like an old Indian story that tells about a thief who, while pretending to be a yogi in order to avoid arrest, became enlightened. It didn’t matter how his meditation got started, only where it ended. At times we’ve all worn that last place medal, but even that can be turned to some transcendent good. When I am weak, then I am strong. That’s my testimony today. I’m not just sharing a private story, or home movies. I’m testifying about what the world we live and move and have our being in is like. So gracious. So grace-filled. Doesn’t matter how the meditation gets started. It ends by bringing us home.