Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Sports and Our Identity: Thank you Zina Garrison

Every July, I head just 25 miles south of my home in San Francisco to watch the Bank of the West Tennis Classic at Stanford University. In fact, this event is the longest-running women-only professional tennis tournament in the world and the first stop of the US Open Series. The weather is great and the competition is even better. A walkway aligned with banners of past winners confirms my claim. Looking at some of the game's all times greats: Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert Serena and Venus, Monica Seles and Kim Clijsters made me wonder which one of today's competitors will we look back upon in 10, 20 or 50 years and say: Wow. I have a sneaky suspicion that the 2017 champion Madison Keys could be in the mix. And yet, before my imagination ran away from me, I paused at the banner of the two-time champion Zina Garrison. Much to my surprise, I saw a little bit of myself.
To wonder how that might be true is not an unfair question. Garrison is an African American professional tennis player from Houston, Texas. I remember her for her great athleticism, her strength, and her hustle. Hell yeah. She has not left my psyche because I know she is revered by my favorite female athlete—Serena Williams. I always want to know who my favorite athletes and coaches, saints and teachers, writers and musicians hold as their heroes. This fun fact made me appreciate both Zina and Serena that much more. But how might this image—this tribute to Zina Garrison teach me about myself? Look closely. 
Around her neck, Garrison is wearing a gold charm of a tennis racket. On one hand, her choice of jewelry strikes me as funny. Her fans already know who she is and what she does. But, on the other hand, it's not. We wear jewelry as a means of self-expression. Many Christians wear a cross and Jews wear a Star of David. Sure, a tennis player can and might wear a tennis racket—but most don't. So what gives? I would love to ask Ms. Garrison to hear her response. Until then, I can only answer from what I know about myself and what I saw in myself. I believe Zina Garrison wants people to know she is a tennis player who loves the game.

Tennis was my first love of in all of sports. I loved it so much that I too, wore tennis jewelry. Far beyond the tennis bracelet, I had the gold tennis racket charm. I carried a fuzzy tennis ball keychain. I wanted everyone to know that I was a tennis player, especially among my other students in my high school. Outside of school, I wanted the world to know that I played tennis at Carondelet. Tennis was an important part of my identity. The sport and its attributes—both good and bad—shaped me into who I am. My coaches, my teammates, and the pros taught me much more than how to compete. How they played, won and lost, trained and mentally prepared for the game shaped me in ways I appreciate even to this day.

As much as tennis shaped my emerging, adolescent self, so did another sport: running. My parents encouraged me to run in order to become a better tennis player, and they were right. They knew I was only interested doing whatever it took to get better at what I loved, but something unexpected happened along the way. I met success. I earned my varsity letter my freshman year as a 2-mile runner even though I didn't see myself as a runner (at this time). From my point of view, I didn't look like a runner. I knew that some of my teammates who ran cross country and track. They were the runners. I was the girl who ran. However, running also shaped me into who I am. My teammates, especially those seniors I ran beside mentored me; I looked up to them. In fact, I still remember a lot of what we shared...the stories we told...the races, the workouts, our coaches and so much more.
Golfers and Girls who Golf
I have reflected upon these two contrasting components of my identity because as I enter into my third season of coaching golf, I want to pay attention to the fact that I have a variety of athletes on my team. Many of the girls are golfers. They love golf and want to be known inside SI as golfers. Others are girls who play golf. The game is fun and challenging, but their aspirations with the sport are different. And, there are others who are emerging golfers...girls who might fall in love with the game...those who may play golf today and become golfers tomorrow. I hope they will love golf as much as I do.

When I first started running, I never could have anticipated how much I would love the sport. Though I ran varsity track for four years, I never could have predicted how running would become such a significant part of my identity in the years long after high school. 

I don't know if it's funny, or if it's sad, but I no longer play tennis or run. However, what I learned from both sports has stayed with me, forging part of my identity that I appreciate...and cherish. So, I've been wearing the Bank of the West baseball cap with a little pride. I still want a good looking pair of running shoes to keep me light on my feet. And, I will look at athletes through a different lens and trust they are getting exactly what they need and hopefully even more of what I can give.

Photo Credits
Zina G

Monday, August 7, 2017

Usain Bolt: Catholic Athlete

At the conclusion of Sports and Spirituality, I ask my students to name an athlete they wished we had discussed, read about and studied in class. Their responses are interesting, creative and quite often—not surprising. One name that has popped up with some regularity is Usain Bolt. I am almost embarrassed to admit that he was absent from the curriculum, and not because he holds world records in the 100 and 200 meters, with eight Olympic golds to his name. Or that he has "become a living legend in a track event that is known for creating superstars." No, I should have been teaching about Bolt all these years because as the article in America magazine states: "Usain Bolt is the Greatest Catholic Athlete in the World."
One might think Nick Ripatrazone's article caught my attention because it makes a bold claim. Greatest Athlete...in the world?! Again, no. Rather, I had no idea Bolt was and is Catholic.

To be fair, Bolt isn't unlike other "Christian" athletes. Their PDF: Public Displays of Faith can be off-putting. When the public sees an athlete point to the sky, bless himself—in this case with the sign of the Cross—and seconds later shake the alleged dust off shoulders or bust into his signature "bolt" posture it's hard to gauge sincerity about what is sacred and what's for show. Is it all a performance or do these athletes hold a mindset that can move fluidly from one domain to the other? And how do we know? Should we?

When I first read Ripatrazone's piece, I wanted to cringe. When people hear that I teach and write about Sports and Spirituality, they make assumptions that class lectures and articles pertain to only to athletes who give it up to God. How can that be? There's so much more to what we study, pray over and pursue. I figured this article would only add fuel to the fire. I took a deep breath, calmed down and read more. Instead, I discovered that this tribute to Bolt—who ran his final race just two days ago—is actually the perfect way to begin my class.
Like Catholicism, it offers a "both/and" perspective. Bolt wears BOTH a Miraculous Medal AND he is open to interviews about his faith in God. The Jamaican sprinter BOTH remembers to pray after his race—regardless of the outcome AND he took the middle name of St. Leo. Raised in a Seventh Day Adventist Home, Bolt converted to Catholicism, Whereas many Protestant traditions are more dialectic, Catholic embraces the reality that faith can be practiced both on the track AND in the Church. We will miss both his incredible talent and his witness....and his Catholic spirituality.

Something we do study in Sports and Spirituality is why rituals are important in both faith and athletics. "God Moments" by Andy Otto offers some insight. He writes 
a recent study showed that those who engage in rituals find their experiences enhanced. Participants were asked to eat a chocolate bar, but those who engaged in a prescribed ritual of breaking the bar, unwrapping it, eating half, and then unwrapping and eating the other half reported that the chocolate tasted better than those who simply ate the chocolate without a ritual.
No one would deny that competition is a source of joy for Usain Bolt. To what degree might this arena where he has integrated rituals to express his faith and use his gifts enhance his experience? I would love to know....


I recommend reading the article for yourself for it's important to understand more about his identity as a sprinter. his humanity even as one of the greatest athletes of all time and what he offers us as the viewer. It's so beautiful, I'll include it here: the belief that we can achieve amazing things and transcend our everyday selves—or at least live through the transformation of others.

Thank you to my students in the past who made this request. Thank you to Usain Bolt for your performance in Sydney, Bejing and Rio. You will be missed in Tokyo, but not forgotten. No, you will be remembered and prayed for. Pray for us, your fans, too.

Photo Credits
Bolt in prayer

Bolt Bolt