I watched my 8-yr.-old son win his first matches in a wrestling tournament this past week. I was so happy for him, because I want him to know what it feels like to win, and he hadn’t yet won anything outside of practice ever, had, in fact, won precious little even during practice. This is due to his size; it’s his third season this year, but because he’s 4 feet, 11 inches tall and 85 pounds – and they wrestle by weight – he wrestles older kids by one, two, sometimes three years. He’s been pinned a lot.
But this time, with regulation refs and parents on the sideline and whistles and cheering, he won a few. In fact, he took second place overall for his weight class. He was so out of sorts about it, vacillating visibly between elation and panic as the coaches and his teammates slapped him on the back, and he was trying very hard not to cry. Eventually, I marched out onto the mat to be by him, putting my hand on his neck and glaring at anyone who came too close. I knew he was confused about his experience and about to lose it. I understand.
An ace serve in volleyball is one that hits the opponent’s floor untouched, or flies off the receiver’s arms after one attempt at reception. At least that’s how it used to be defined when I was in high school a hundred years ago. I was not consistently a star player, but I learned how terrible star status can be one night in Barrett, Minnesota. It was a regular season, varsity game, I don’t remember which match, but it wasn’t a championship game and it wasn’t clutch. That didn’t end up mattering to me. I was seventeen.
The other team was three points up when my turn came to serve. We had fifteen points to gain if we were to win. I took my first serve, and it was an ace. I was relieved I hadn’t blown it. The ball was returned to me for another serve. I served, it was an ace. Whew. I took another serve, an ace, and another serve, which was another ace.
I started to relax, felt a little cocky, even, and made three more ace serves. My resolve faltered. Surely I would fail soon, maybe on this serve, my next one. I paused and took a deep breath. I served. It was an ace.
By this time, you could have heard a pin drop in the gym. If the ball isn’t in play and the only thing happening is the serve, all attention is on the server. My heartbeat thundered in my own ears and I had to force myself to breathe. I started to shake. I closed my eyes and inhaled to center myself, and I served. It was an ace. I did this two more times, taking longer and longer to breathe and prepare before I threw the ball up again for each attempt.
At serve number 13, I felt devastated and would have given anything to walk off that court, would have run all eight miles home just to get out of there. I tilted my neck from side to side and held the ball between my knees to stretch my shoulder, showing a little bravado I badly needed but didn’t really feel, and steeling myself against the desire to cry. The attendees, my coaches and teammates were grimly silent. I threw up the ball and served. It was an ace.
I don’t remember the next serve, but it was another ace. On my last try, for the point that would have won the game, I took what felt like an hour to get my head straight. I wondered if the other team hated me and if their parents hated me, or if maybe everyone was secretly laughing at me because they knew I was near hysteria. Did I mention I was seventeen? I bent my neck back and forth, set my feet and shoulders and served the ball. It was an ace, my fifteenth in a row. My teammates erupted into cheers and crowded around me to celebrate. I felt awful. We gathered our gear, boarded the bus and went home.
On our walk to the car after the wrestling tournament last Thursday, we had to go slowly because my son wouldn’t take his arms from around my waist.
“Mama, is it okay to win?” he asked once we were in the car.
“Yes, honey. It’s okay.” We sit in silence.
“But it’s hard.”
“Yes, honey, it’s hard. But it’s okay.”
“Coach Habeck says you have to learn to win.”
“Coach Habeck is right.”