I have another sports story to share. This involved my son’s high school snowboard team a couple of years ago. Since snowboarding is not a school-sponsored sport, the team is run by volunteers. I was in charge of the whole shebang, which meant I hired the coaches, collected money from all the members, paid for the buses, processed all the release forms and other paperwork, etc. Plus I went to all the competitions, practices, and state competition. Riding the bus up with these kids 10 times during the season (2 hours each way), I got to know everyone pretty well.
I inherited coaches the first year, but the next year I hired three new ones, keeping only Juanita. One of the new coaches was a pretty fun guy named Justin. He was full of ideas, most of them crazy but the kids thought they were cool. Justin would find fallen trees, pack the tops with snow, and have the kids snowboard across them as a way to practice balance rather than starting out on the metal rails. I didn’t totally approve because I’d ski around the five hours we were there patrolling for kids in the trees smoking pot or doing inverts (front or back flips) or not wearing helmets. Once I watched a string of kids flying across a “tree rail” as Justin called it that was seven or eight feet off the ground. They sailed off the end of it, landing hard about twenty feet down the mountain. I couldn’t watch for long – I just pictured them falling off sideways and breaking their necks. All of them. They broke plenty of other stuff in the three years I was in charge, but never on these little side adventures Justin took them on.
We were having a kick ass season, and then the injuries started piling on until we looked like the Portland Trailblazers – many of our best snowboarders got sidelined with broken wrists and dislocated shoulders – the most typical snowboard injuries. One girl broke both wrists at one time.
State was coming up, and we needed people who could qualify for the boardercross team – a six man group that races down the hill together and tries to get the best average team time. Only the top four times are used, but you were supposed to send six guys down.
Two weeks before state my son broke his collarbone. Then a couple of other guys got injured. Luckily I had fixed it so that a ton of kids got to go to state because we rented a huge house and I wanted as many people as possible to pitch in on expenses. Plus I wanted the new people to get the experience. We allowed up to three alternates to come along with all those who qualified so we ended up with about 25 kids.
The night before the boardercross, one of our fast boarders said his back hurt too much to compete, so that left us with two fast boarders and the rest would have to be alternates who had shown themselves to be anything but speedy. At first Justin tried to talk my son into doing the run with his sling, but I nixed that immediately. With that hope dashed, there wasn’t any way we could finish anywhere but last, which had the two fast guys bummed, and the slow guys felt bad because they knew they weren’t good enough to make a difference. All our heads were hanging low.
Then Justin came up with an insane idea. “If we can’t be the fastest, we can be the coolest,” he said. When he said it, I didn’t realize he meant that literally. He met with the dejected six and explained that the only way they could redeem themselves from finishing last would be to go down the mountain in style – and by that he meant bare backed – no coats, no shirts, no nothing.
“No way,” I said. “You are NOT going to catch pneumonia on my watch.”
They all gathered around and begged. “We won’t catch cold. We’ll take everything off just as we get ready to load in the gate and Justin will carry our stuff down and be there when we get to the bottom.”
“No. End of discussion,” I said. But I was starting to warm up to the idea. They were so enthusiastic, and I could see that it would build team spirit. Plus it would put an end to their moping around, which was depressing everybody. I let them beg and plead a while longer, and then I grudgingly gave in. “But if anyone gets sick, I don’t want to hear about it.”
“Oh we won’t. We won’t,” they said, adding, “You’re the best!”
The next morning was overcast, windy, cold, and miserable. The boys were beside themselves with excitement, and it had infected all the rest of the kids and the chaperones, too. Someone told someone in the crowd, and before long people were coming up to me to ask if it was true that the boys weren’t going to wear shirts.
“Fraid so,” I said. “They’ve made up their minds, and what can you do?”
When it was our school’s time to go, the crowd was cheering like crazy. I was midway down the course, and since it twisted over hills and through trees, I couldn’t see the starting gate but I had an official two-wary radio and heard the crowd up on top get really loud so I knew they had taken their shirts off. I was bundled up for Siberia and was still freezing, so I couldn’t imagine what that cold mountain air felt like on bare skin.
“They’re on their way,” one of the officials said over the radio, “AND THEY’RE NOT WEARING ANY SHIRTS!” We could hear the wave of cheers coming down the mountain. When the first guy rounded the corner, he had his hands over his head, pumping his fists and yelling, “Woooooooo.” The people loved it. I got my camera ready and snapped a few shots as they flew by. They were scattered – the fast guys passed in a streak and the slower ones came into view like they were just moseying along. They all had their arms up to show what tough guys they were, and I got chill bumps when they went by – and not from the cold.
Soon after the last guy passed, two of the coaches snowboarded down, arms loaded with coats, shirts, and fleeces. “Hurry,” I yelled, “they’re going to freeze to death.” Justin grinned like a mule eating briars. “Don’t worry. Those boys are SMOKIN!”
The team came in a distant last, but they did it with style. If any of them got colds, they had the good sense not to tell me about it. When I got home I wrote up a play by play of the race for all 90 kids and their parents and emailed it to them with the pictures. I called it, “The Bareback Boys Win the Crowd’s Hearts at State.” I got a standing ovation at our end-of-season banquet – all because I let those boys turn a bunch of lemons into lemonade.