By Melina, Ballard High School, WA It is very difficult to come up with a definitive word that describes what it means to be a female athlete. I could certainly bombard this page with adjectives that many before me have used to capture the essence of it: strong, bold, relentless, etc. But what is the use of a single cliché in such a complex issue, and one so close to me? The truth is that the use of any one of those one-dimensional words implies that female athletes are one-dimensional.
At the age of 16, I have yet to experience “the moment.” There is no poster of me, among my teammates, hoisting a trophy in the air in that trademarked victory smile. That particular poster is of a girl athlete sportswriters love to call strong, bold, and relentless. She’s the girl I know I’m trying to be, but our paths haven’t crossed yet. For now, my reality is this: I live in the world of chipped nail polish, the world of sweat, blood and tears.
I live to be called “bro”, while debutantes and cheerleaders around me are called “babes.” I thrive in the land of late nights and early mornings, the first one in the gym and the last one out. I know blisters, bruises, and breakdowns like the back of my hand. With four concussions, I know what it means to live in the moment and lay it all on the line.
Still, I play 3-on-3 with boys who will apologize after they swat me. My own brother has called me—the girl who dove on blacktop for loose balls at age of 10—a “wimp” more times than I can remember. I receive more respect than some; yet, I’m still not seen as an equal.
I’ve come to find that every boy beaten by a girl reacts in a limited number of ways. Some sulk, others are angry, and some try so desperately to be stoic that it seems as though they’ve quit breathing, and the rest start to show off.
"I thrive in the land of late nights and early mornings, the first one in the gym and the last one out. I know blisters, bruises, and breakdowns like the back of my hand. With four concussions, I know what it means to live in the moment and lay it all on the line."
Recently, I was shooting around with two members of the boy’s team after a camp, and I had just knocked one of them out in a game of HORSE. He, however, didn’t react in any of those ways. Instead, he was ecstatic! I have never seen anyone so excited to lose. It baffled me for a moment, until I saw the look he was giving my other opponent, and it said devilishly, “you’re next.” It seemed that the inevitable doom of his companion, a varsity player, was more than enough to soothe this JV/C player’s wounded ego. He even started spouting off about telling their coach, and it was clear he gained his solace through thoughts of the other boy’s humiliation: “He’s gunna get that look on his face. Man, he’ll probably even make you run!”
For what? For getting beaten by a girl in a shooting competition? The boy would certainly not be punished had he lost to a teammate, nor to a player on the JV/C team. So why am I viewed as so much less that losing to me is shameful? In the one area of the game—shooting—where strength, size, and agility do not matter, why is it so intolerable for a boy to lose to me?
Luckily, there are those in the world who idolize female athletes. Sometimes, even their smallest, quietest recognition makes it all worth it. I often enjoy shooting baskets at the park close to my house, and at the start of this summer, I was doing just that with a friend. When we took a break to get water, a mother and her daughter approached me. The little girl was wearing a colorful bandana in her hair and sheepishly standing slightly behind her mom, clutching a small basketball.
“Excuse me,” the mother said, “I just wanted to say how awesome it is to see you out here. My girl watched you play in a few games last year, and when we saw you she just got so excited. She looks up to you and your teammates so much.”
I never thought that anyone would feel that way about me. I’m an athlete, not the prom queen, nor the star of the music, nor the valedictorian. I am a varsity basketball player. Yet to her, that is the coolest thing anyone can be.
Recently, too, a freshman who will most likely make varsity this year admitted something similar to me. We were on a team retreat in a cabin on Decatur Island, and around 2 am, when most of the girls had fallen asleep to heavy breathing, she whispered to me. “Mel, I wanna tell you something, but its kind of weird.”
“Go ahead,” I replied warily.
“I just was remembering how when you were a freshman I was so jealous of you. I remember coming to games and thinking that you were, like, the coolest person ever. You made varsity as a freshman and that was my dream.”
Just a few years earlier, I could’ve said that same thing to any one of the five seniors that graduated my freshman year. I spent my whole life looking up to them, never realizing that one day, someone would look up to me just the same.
"In the one area of the game—shooting—where strength, size, and agility do not matter, why is it so intolerable for a boy to lose to me?"
Being a female athlete is brutal. It’s unfair and it’s time consuming. In the end, you get half the fans at your games as the boy’s teams, even if you have twice as many wins. To me, strength and power do not define what it means to be a female athlete. Audacity and determination do not do it either. The true motif of female athletics has much more to do with inspiration. Continuing to work in the face of doubt, disrespect and disregard is inspiring. Doing what you love, regardless of how it clashes with societal norms, is inspiring. Believing in full that women can be strong, bold and relentless is inspiring. In this context, inspiration is not a word but an idea, a thread that ties together every aspect of what I am. It encompasses all the defeat and triumph, all the injuries and recoveries, all the highs and lows. Inspiring is not finite, but ever changing. There is no close to my story, just as there is no end to the struggle of female athletes. But it is my hope that we will continue to fight, and continue to persevere and thus, continue to be inspiring.