Out of the Race
Sports loom large in the public consciousness and—as if from a flashy billboard—the professional athlete stands there beaming, arms crossed over his jersey, willing us to greatness with nothing more than a confident smirk. We idolize athletes and why shouldn’t we? They are the embodiment of our childhood dreams. But for every pro athlete, there is an arena full of wanted-to-be’s who never made it past the high school box scores. There is no reason to bemoan the fact that I am one of them. Any delusions I had of athletic greatness were shattered after one shameful episode at summer camp. A race, as it turns out. A sprinting contest. A trial that spanned the longest, most pathetic one hundred yards ever marked with lime.
It doesn’t help that my name is Michael Johnson. There is an Olympic sprinter who shares my name—a large, glistening, black man with several gold medals and, in the mid-90s, was one of the fastest humans on the planet. While he was lunging across finish lines and winning medals and grinning at you from boxes of Wheaties, I was porky and stoned with a mouthful of burger. Two Michael Johnsons, two separate lives. Like an accident had happened in the Michael Johnson Factory and one of us had come out all wrong.
Back then, I used to party with my college suitemates while watching the Summer Olympics. Every time my large, glistening, black alter ego would come on the TV screen, my buddies would say, “Look, man. There you are.” And I’d say, “Yep, there I am alright.” He was always staring off-camera, looking failure dead in the eye and not flinching, his mouth turned down in concentration, feet and fingers finding purchase in the track grit. When the text box would appear at the bottom of the screen with the name Michael Johnson in it, I would get this inexplicable surge of pride and adrenaline. Like I was running with him—even in him—and he needed me as much he needed his trainer and $1,000 shoelaces.
(Aside: There is an odd connection to someone who shares your name. I’m not sure why. Your name is as arbitrary as pulling two words blindly from the dictionary, but slap them together and all of a sudden you have yourself an identity. And the fact that others are out there—many others in my case—going through their lives with the same identifying label is strangely comforting. I feel them going bravely about their business, leaping over the banality of their name with strength and purpose. There’s another Michael Johnson where I work. He takes the same elevators and uses the same toilets I use. Sometimes I get his emails and phone calls and I’m impressed with how important he is in the giant corporate zoo we cohabit. There’s no gold medal around his neck, but I know he’s a winner of some kind.)
Back on TV in the early-90’s, as the track star Michael Johnson gazed intently towards certain victory, I looked into my dwindling bag of French fries and found there an old memory, a greasy burnt nugget of recollection abandoned until that moment—a link between Olympic sport and a cheesy, summer camp race.
I was 12 years old with a headful of misaligned teeth, a full bouffant that was carefully feathered after each shower, slight of build with thin hairless limbs and a sensitive manner. That summer’s highlight was a week-long YMCA day camp where my older brother and I were bussed out to remote fields to play Capture the Flag and stumble down trails with other sweaty mountain kids.
The biggest contest of the week was to identify the fastest kid in camp. There were endless heats of races, three to a race, and the winner went on to compete with the winners from the other respective heats. The losers of each heat went on to, well, they stayed losers. They went to the side of the field and watched the young winning thoroughbreds continue their quest to become the fastest. It felt bigger than the Olympics at the time, occurring at an age when popularity and self-acknowledgement hinged on winning.
My race finally came around. In my mind, there had already been several heats where I advanced victoriously, but I may have only raced once. The race consisted of me (picture Anthony Michael Hall circa Vacation, but worse), a girl (imagine a curly-haired girl-next-door, ordinary, tight gym shorts), and another boy (you can put whoever you want in his position because he doesn’t matter. Screw it, put in Gary Coleman so we’re all on the same page.)
The counselors lined us up. The grass was dewy against our fingertips. The 100 yards stretched before us—where we would soon dash—were lined with all the other camp kids who looked on in Churchill Downs-like anticipation. Let me just press pause and say that I considered myself a fast kid. My speed wasn’t legendary but I could run, especially downhill or when chased by a bee. Perhaps that misconception helps excuse what happened next.
So the cap gun went off. We sprung forward and burned through the grass one yard at a time. I was ahead, the girl was in second, Gary Coleman was bringing up the rear. I was a sleek, graceful sight and the wind flew through my thick hairdo. Flashbulbs popped and pompoms waved. About 40 yards in, the girl caught me and began to inch ahead. My lungs pounded and my legs churned. I was at my top cruising speed and it was just not getting the job done. I had underestimated my female opponent. I tapped into reserves of energy that I never knew existed, and still her lead grew.
That’s when I faked my ankle injury.
It’s a really lame thing to brag about, but it may’ve been the most realistic fake ankle-twisting ever attempted. I could’ve broken bones. When my ankle turned, I speed-limped my way along and finally settled into some dramatic hobbling as the girl crossed the finish line. I’d like to think that some kids came out to comfort me and carried me off the field, but I really don’t recall. I was so completely alone in the shame of my actions that the rest of the world simply fell into a meaningless blur. Maybe the girl became the fastest kid in camp, I don’t know—decades later, no one probably even remembers except the kid who won.
Childhood proceeded along and melted into high school. I managed to play games and compete. I won some things, lost others, made points, made errors, laughed, pouted and reveled in the back of the bus on the long rides back home. The games of our youth still manage to impact our grown lives. Likewise, the athletes we admire on TV are finishing the races we couldn’t finish ourselves. I cheer them on, like the fan I was destined to be.