Monday, July 6, 2015

Girls Play Soccer Now

"I want to try out for the soccer team," I said.

Sister Theresa looked at me over the top of her glasses. Later, when I was in high school and we served on a retreat team together, I would get to know her better, and grew to like her very much, but in 1980, when I was thirteen years old, she intimidated me. She was the Principal of St. Charles, the Catholic school of 800 pupils that I'd only been attending for two years. She ruled absolutely.

"If you like to run," Sister Teresa said, "Why don't you do track and field?"

I hated running. No matter how hard I tried, I was horrible at it--coughing and gasping after a quarter mile while my friends did easy laps. Looking back it should have been more obvious. I was fit. I rode my bike everywhere, including to swim practice and back each morning. I swam every day; at camp I got a gold medal for swimming across the lake. But I couldn't swim fast for more than a single lap. After that I had to breathe, and I couldn't. Sometimes after a hard swim meet or an especially windy bike ride, the spaces between my ribs hurt from the effort it took me to breathe.

I had asthma. As an adult I've had three separate doctors tell me that during childhood I was very lucky not to have died.

I couldn't catch a ball, either. I was somewhat nearsighted in one eye and extremely nearsighted in the other, which left me with no depth perception. (I didn't get glasses until I was 17.) I couldn't track a ball coming at me. Gym class terrified me.

But I loved soccer. I don't know why. The Pepsi Youth Soccer League--named, of course, for its sponsor, the local bottling plant--started in Fort Wayne a year or so before I decided to join. Soccer had just gotten started in the United States; Pepsi teams played 11-on-11 on a full-sized court, even the five-year-olds, which meant that in my younger brother's games the goalies were usually stretched out on their backs, gazing at the clouds, while somewhere midfield 20 small children kicked each other in the shins in the vague vacinity of the ball.

I wanted to try it. Fall of my 7th-grade year I joined the Purple team (with only one league sponsor, we were known by the color of our jerseys) of the oldest division, the 12-year-olds. I was one of 3 girls and 13 boys. Most of them had played soccer for a least a year and most of them had better coordination than me. But it was fun--fabulously fun. Running still made me cough and wheeze, but I loved playing right wing, racing to get my foot onto a midfield pass, kicking it sideways to the center. I loved the camaraderie of our team. I loved my jersey and my cleats. I played on the same team over the summer, riding my bike to practices at the local high school, travelling all the way across town for Saturday morning games.

Then I aged out of the Pepsi league. Most middle schools and high schools fielded teams of their own. I don't know if the public schools had girls' teams then. I don't think they did. The Catholic Youth Organization, which ran sports for our city's dozen Catholic grade schools, did not.

(In college I would play again, on our house intramural team. I ran hard enough despite my asthma that the refs became accustomed to calling time-outs so I could vomit on the field. I still played right wing; twice my house won the championship. One year we had a varsity midfielder on our house team--she and I worked well together and I averaged 3 goals a game. But it was her skill, not mine.)

All this came back to me yesterday, as my whole family sat glued to the Women's World Cup Final. The athletes, both sides, were fit and skilled and beautiful. I watched team USA score five goals for the win. I saw how they all ran to a corner of the stadium afterward and searched the stands for their families--saw their eyes light up, saw them blow kisses and mouth, 'I love you.' Saw them draped in the Stars and Stripes. I felt so happy, so unreasonably elated. It took me a few minutes to understand why.

"I hate running," my 13-year-old self told Sister Theresa. "But I like soccer, and I want to play. Look," I pressed, "it doesn't say boys' team. It just says soccer team. There's no reason I can't play."

Sister Theresa shook her head. "Girls don't play soccer," she said.

They do now.