Sports Day

A recent edition of my column for The Capital Journal.

t was nearing dusk as our worn bus tore through the low lands, trying to reach our village before all light was gone. It had been a long weekend – my school’s students had competed in a two-day sports competition and lost every match they played. Still, through the exhaustion and sweat-soaked clothes, they were dancing and singing like champions.

Just the chance to compete was worth celebrating.

At this past weekend sports events, my school joined a handful of others to compete in several events, however we only managed teams for boys’ soccer and netball, which is similar to basketball but without dribbling and only for girls. In each game they were overmatched. Every team had bigger players, shinier uniforms and larger cheering sections. My students looked like underdogs from those inspirational sports movies, yet with no Hollywood influence, they were not the Cinderella story.

But the losses seemed to barely faze them. Their faces flinched for a second after the final whistle but soon their were clapping and smiling.

As I’ve said before in this space, students in Lesotho live a hard life. In addition to their studies, many of them are responsible for much of the housework, such as cooking, washing and caring for animals. Many have lost a parent or both and have to travel long distances by foot to and from school each day. They get little time to be teenagers compared to their peers in America. Yet, scheduled sports time is their two hours a week to run around and forget about whatever else challenges them.

In a small way I can relate.

In the third grade a few girls at an after school activity were teasing me for having a “pillow stomach.” I went home that night and cried and dreaded each time I had to go back to that activity. The next year I asked my parents if I could swap those lessons for something else, swimming.

My confidence jumped when I joined the swim team. I could wash away bullies and school problems in the pool. For 10 years, swimming allowed me to be myself and have fun. It encouraged me to try other sports, including cross country which led to a life-long passion for running. It sprouted a courage within that would allow me to take big leaps later on in life, such as join the Peace Corps.

Watching my students compete reminded me all of my swimming and cross country meets. I felt awful that they couldn’t muster a win, but I usually didn’t either. Still, those competitions are some of favorite memories. Doing it was enough.

We often judge ourselves by the numbers of wins and losses, yet we forget that the real gift comes from the participation. Those two days were the happiest I’ve ever seen my students. They didn’t care if they lost 9-0. They were getting a break from life.

With half our trip left I joined their singing and dancing. Maybe my students won’t gain the same things that I did from sports but I know they got something, the main idea of athletics – the chance to have fun.

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