by Christine Stark
I could say soccer saved me, but it wouldn’t be true. I saved myself, as a girl, on my own, by becoming good at soccer.
When I was a kid I used images to teach myself so that I would live. When I was five I saw a picture of a small black animal at the base of a tree. High up in the branches was a black bear. Spellbound that such a small animal had treed such a large animal, I asked my mom, What’s that animal? A wolverine, she said. My impression at the time was that she was not paying much attention to me or my reaction to the picture. That was fine with me. That image told me something: I was small, but I would beat my father. That was all I needed from the image. The words a wolverine were all I needed from my mother.
The captive bear, many times the size of the wolverine, taught me that physical size is not everything. That is a profound realization for a girl who was often trapped beneath her 200-pound father — the massive flesh, sweat, rapid breathing, pain of partial penetration, the disgust of being cum on. That image of the wolverine and bear registered inside me as if someone had stamped my mind with a knowledge for which the only word I had to explain was wolverine. The knowledge transferred inside me and I clasped it tightly. I knew I was the wolverine and my father was the bear. I would tree him.
Sportscasters write about how Michael Jordan used imagery to propel himself to the tippy splayed tongue top of professional basketball. As an older girl and teenager, I used to lie in bed the night before a game and imagine myself scoring the winning goal in soccer or scoring many points in basketball. I absorbed pictures of male professional soccer players (in the 70s and 80s there were no pictures of female soccer players), one foot high in the air, the other foot lifting off the earth, the tip of the cleat still touching the grass, the soccer ball caught in a black and white checkered spin by the click of the camera just as it met the billowing net. I would stare at the photographs, visually absorbing the players’ calves and thighs bulging with muscles.
One player, from Argentina, caught my attention. His dark, shoulder-length, wavy hair flew in every direction. He was great. He was wild. I grew my hair out to be like his. I did not pay attention to him and other men like straight girls did, pinning posters of Rick Springfield on their walls. I did not have a crush on him. I wanted to be him. I wanted his muscles, his skill, and his glory. I wanted strength, prowess, and dignity.
In seventh grade art, I drew and then began painting a mural of various Latin American male soccer players. I used photographs from Sports Illustrated and soccer magazines as my models, sketching out each player in his pose, along with his ball. Some figures were crouched down low, bent at the knees, cleats digging into the grass; others were shooting into the air like arrows, their heads twisted to one side, hair flying the other way a moment after nicking the airborne ball; others were bent back at the waist, catching a fifty-yard punt on their flat chests, their calf muscles bulging, preparing to charge down field. I painted the entire background bright yellow and I painted the players along the bottom. But then I stopped. I never finished it. The teacher, Mr. Carlson, and I did not get along.
Mr. Carlson used to stand in front of my friends and me (we all played sports) and say things like Women belong in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant. I was conscious that I was a lesbian, although, again, the visible homosexuals were men (other than Martina, who I knew was “gay” even though no one said so). I also had very strong feminist ideas, even if I had no idea feminism existed. I yelled back at Mr. Carlson, No they don’t! and we’d glare and yell at each other a few more times. I could have told someone, if someone would have listened, that he did things to girls. I knew it. I could feel it, and I could feel his intense dislike of me personally. He completely ignored my art, and it languished, unfinished in the basement — a large yellow mural of men playing soccer, an odd subject for a girl in the 1980 suburban world I lived in. Years later, I read an article stating he had been fired for sexually assaulting girls at the junior high school.
Absorbing Moments of Triumph
I knew I was different, but I had to learn I was odd. The boys in the art class made fun of me for stenciling Thunder, the name of my traveling soccer team, on a gray pair of sweatpants. I was surprised, as I saw myself like the boys, a serious athlete, and expected they viewed me the same way.
I don’t know how Michael Jordan came to use visualization to enhance his athletic ability. I don’t know if someone told him to do it, or if he did it on his own. I know for myself, I just did it. It just happened, while I lay in bed in the dark, waiting to find out if Dad would invade me that night. The visualizations were spontaneous and sure enough, game after game, I would score the winning goal in soccer, breaking a 2-2 tie in the fourth quarter. Diving, sliding, jacking the ball into the back of the orange nylon nets, I’d get up and run to the center of the field, or to my closest teammate, for a high five, absorbing the glory, becoming glory, a state of being so different from the rest of my life.
|I saved myself |
for hours, alone,
just me and the ball
I’m sure I was the only 12-year-old girl in my city to read every issue of Sports Illustrated front to back every week — hating the bathing suit issue, but loving every other one. Once my father could afford cable TV, I watched international soccer matches, again absorbing the European and Latin American soccer matches — the intensity, the competition, the great roaring crowds — with such concentration that it was almost like I was there, experiencing it with the teams; there, experiencing it as the center forward who just scored the game-winner; there, experiencing the glory as the game-winning player sprinted down field, slid on his knees across the grass, his fists raised, kissing his necklace, giving thanks for the rapture.
Athletic glory caught me, held me captive. I wanted it. I lived for it. In my visualizations, in my observation of the professional international soccer world, and in my experiences in city league and school soccer games, I absorbed the glory — moments of triumph — which counteracted my father, on top of me, entering me, breaking me, his massive bear-like body overtaking mine, smothering mine, overpowering mine, treeing me, reaching, always reaching up the trunk with his claws. His goal: to consume my being. Mine: to tree him.
I saved myself by checking out books about soccer at the library, by teaching myself to “bend” a soccer ball around a tree, by practicing for hours in my backyard, alone, just me and the ball and the whirling sun and the board I propped against the young maple. No one else saved me. No one rescued me. No one protected me. I was it. I was what stood between myself and annihilation. Soccer was the vehicle through which I saved myself. I loved soccer, and the older I got, it became my life, my identity, and because I was an outstanding player I experienced glory through soccer. Fortunate me.
Christine Stark is a writer, artist and public speaker. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications and books. Her novel, “Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation,” is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. The importance of girls’ athletics is one of the major themes in “Nickels.” She runs 40-50 miles every six days. For more information: www.christinestark.com.
Also see Nine Titles Thinking About Title IX by Rachel Toor in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
See Aspiring for Medals: Watching New Gymnastic Generations by Zerlina Maxwell in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
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