I planned to write a “virus” anecdote here to suggest how Cassandra and I hoped to infect ideas of hard work and perseverance in our children. The ideas would slowly take control of their insides, gain a foothold throughout the growth of their character, directing all their future actions. All we need do was to wait for the right moment and the ideas were sure to burst free. Actions of hard work and perseverance spreading, infecting so many others in its path…(yada, yada, yada, it was a lot like a virus).
Cassandra is right, a story is probably the more direct route…
Just after Mike left for the war, Alexes and I, went to see the state championship at her age division and watched this one team demolish their opponent without remorse. At halftime the score was 15-0, and Alexes could not get over how skilled the forwards and midfielders were.
They placed the ball where they wanted in the back of the net. Every shot was deliberate.
On a whim, I suggested she tryout for the championship team to measure just how she stacked up in the goal against those forwards. Players and parents alike were terrified of those girls, that team, the coach, from the “Eastside” (east side of Lake Washington, across the floating bridges, making it feel like a far-off place when, in reality, the fields were less than 10 miles from our apartment at the UW).
Alexes agreed, put on her best Manchester United jersey, and bravely stepped into the goal as the girls played several small-sided games. As the tryouts progressed the coach, a blonde curly haired, intense man named Dick McCormick, talked to girls that he pulled off to the sideline. He smiled gently and seemed encouraging. I never once heard him yell, or use that deep “coach voice” all too common in competitive sports.
Dick called later that day to offer Alexes a spot on the team. When I said no, it became apparent why his team had no mercy. The man knew what he wanted and would not take “no” for an answer. He explained that his team was basically a collection of the best players in the state at each position. Dick needed another goalkeeper and argued Alexes would not get either the training or experience that his team had at any other club in Washington.
He gave up only because I explained that Mike had been activated, that I was by myself, making it impossible to shuttle Alexes to practice on the Eastside, when Mikey’s practice was still in Seattle. He understood, but left the door open should there be a change in our circumstances.
The problem with seeing that level of talent on the field was that afterwards, Alexes seemed unsatisfied with the players on the Seattle team she recently joined. On rides home from practice, she would recount their naive “We could beat Crossfire” claims. Alexes knew the truth: their claim was a complete fantasy. And worse yet, it was obvious that no matter how good the Seattle girls were in local tournaments, at state cup, that Crossfire A-Team would be waiting.
Thank goodness for Bill May. Alexes then, and still today, is a product of that 6’4,” Information Technology, goalkeeping-training masochist. We sought Bill for private training even before Mike left for Iraq, to prepare Alexes for state playoffs. Even though private training was expensive, Bill coached Alexes virtually for free while Mike was gone. He never cared about the money, but rather, he saw that training hard seemed to make Alexes happier in Mike’s absence. According to Bill, he was happy to work with her for that reason alone. It helped that he was always impressed by her ability to push her limits.
She was little and “upper V’s” (shots to far, high corners of the goal) were her weakness. Seeing this, Bill would kick one ball after the other, pushing her to reach farther and farther. He would chip balls over her head to teach her to time her jumps better, to even use her finger tips if need be. It was astounding to see him work on a skill at the beginning of a training session, when Alexes would give him one look of death after another as he repeatedly attacked her weakness, and the session would often end in her actually stopping the ball. The more he pissed her off, the more she wanted to catch the damn ball.
I regularly caught Bill giggling out of the side of his mouth, almost like he was shocked she could get to catch certain shots. The man did not care that she was a girl. He did not care that she was 11 years old. He could care less if she didn’t feel well. When she would get injured, he would tell her “there is always another goalkeeper sitting on the bench waiting to go in for you.” In response to that, Alexes would rub whatever hurt, stand tall in the goal, and then challenge Bill, “let’s go”.
Early in their training history, Bill got a new job making it impossible to train in the afternoon so he offered a 6:00 a.m. alternative, almost playfully at first. Alexes accepted immediately. I explained the requirements of a morning practice, expecting to discourage the idea. Alexes must get out of bed with only a single prompting on my part. She must surrender to maternal hair assemblage without getting lippy, as was her norm. Following practice, she must shower and change over to her school clothes after which I would drive her to school. Finally, under no circumstances, were grades allowed to stutter as due to the schedule change. Alexes again agreed to all terms without hesitation, even the morning hair part.
I offered Bill a final “out” of the morning training schedule, reassuring him that a wife and newborn were acceptable reasons to balk. But, it was hard to deny the tornado-like work ethic of his young charge. He was all in, and 6:00 am practices were born.
There was a lingering chance that the whole idea might still fall apart. It had rained the night before so the ground would be likely soaked. I fully expected the workout to be a miserable affair for all involved. I told Alexes on our groggy 5-minute drive to the field directly as I could: “Do not disrespect Bill’s time on these morning workouts. If he willing to train at this ungodly hour, then you will have the courtesy to show your appreciation by working hard the whole time.”
How did Alexes perform on that first morning, her in front of the goal frame in the wet grass, Bill cycling her through one diving drill after another? From the very beginning, I watched the young Warrior face Bill, set on the balls of her feet, knees slightly bent to ease into the explosion off the grass, and in the direction of the ball to cut off the frame. In the instant, the ball was in her hands, she sprung to her feet, set, and was ready to explode to the opposite side, not an ounce of regret for the conditions was seen in her face as she worked through the sequence.
There were never counts to drills between these two, say five times in each direction. A stop was not enough. Rather, Bill required a certain number of consecutive clean touches. The catch had to be clean, the reset had to be energetic, the transition had to display power and in her reset back to the balls of her feet, fully poised to defend the next shot on frame. On a bad day, 5 clean catches could become 8, 9, 10 attempts, 15 attempts, or worse yet, the dreaded bicycle. On those occasions when Alexes failed to worked to her potential, Bill would “put her on her bike”, translated loosely to: Former University of Washington Starting Goal Keeper takes a soccer ball, turns in the direction on the field with the furthest reach, and goalie kicks the ball as hard as possible. Offenders were required to run/jog to retrieve the ball before they could return to the work out. As far as Bill figured, fitness was fitness.
There were no “bikes” that morning. Alexes worked relentlessly for the entire morning. Maybe she harbored some resentment at my comments in the car ride of over, as if there might be some inference on my part that she was not as serious as she claimed to be about these getting better. She worked with the kind of focus that dared Bill to push the limits of the drills. The defiant scowl on her face was visible from my position on the sidelines.
At the end of the hour, Alexes and Bill walked off the field, both sweating like they just were trying out for the junior national team. It was tough to hide my concern for the level of attitude she had shown Bill throughout the workout, offering teenage attitude as a final rationale for scratching future morning workouts. Bill simply responded, “If she is going to work that hard, I am all in.”
Over the next 8 years, Bill trained Alexes before school at 6:00 am, gave up Sundays with his family to train her, brought both his little girls to play on the sideline while training, met her on any field that met their needs, be it in the snow, rain, sleet, mud, and heat as the Pacific Northwest could offer. Their relationship was one of mutual respect for their shared commitment to being the best. In Alexes’ mind, goalkeeping training was her team and Bill was her coach. The Seattle team she was on simply offered her the opportunity to practice what Bill had trained her for.
It was Bill that first suggested Crossfire. Our actions when it came to decisions that impacted the whole family were becoming more deliberate, more intentional than the hair brained “I Love Lucy”-ish schemes that filled our history. This Crossfire team was the reigning state champion. They played a year-up during the regular season against older girls, and consequently effortlessly powered through their age group state tournament, and this was an opportunity for Alexes to play against the best soccer players in the Puget Sound area. Alexes kept her side of the bargain, was willing to do the work, proving as much with Bill, and making that team had all the prestige of the Olympics for soccer loving 11-year-old girls. For our part, we were prepared to funnel all disposable income downward to the soccer. By any means necessary.
Despite having a law degree and passing the Bar I had no connections in the Pacific Northwest, therefore no legal job opportunities. I settled for a job as an assistant at a downtown law firm, somehow convincing them to believe the lie that I remained unsure about actually practicing law, even though I now had a Bar Number. It was not demeaning at all. I had great benefits, I read legal briefs, drafted responses, and enjoyed the comradery of the staff. I did the work to the best of my ability and enjoyed being a working mom.
With all that Crossfire boasted, there was still the Pooh to consider. Disposable income was always sparse and Mikey had to choose between Tae Kwon Do and soccer. We were hypersensitive about the Tae Kwon Do cut, especially because he enjoyed it so much, constantly taking the time to work on his forms, splits, and even his Five Tenets.
Mikey and I even carved out some “Rules of Engagement” regarding the use of what he was learning with Master Han. Preaching non-violence and participating in Tae Kwon Do sent a mixed message, so there were modifications. We agreed that if someone was bullying him, he had the right to defend himself. But, he must meet the following criteria:
One: Insist that the person stop picking on you, warning that you will defend yourself if necessary.
Two: Warn the person a second time that you are about to defend yourself.
Three: Ensure there is a witness that will confirm that Rules 1 and 2 have been satisfied. If so…
Who could predict the influence Master Han’s training would have on transforming the Pooh into the Gentleman Warrior?
Early on, the always-intuitive Mikey recognized his disadvantage as a function of his July birthday, which ensured that he was the youngest of those in his age group. Had he been born 3 days later, on August 1st instead of July 28th, he would be grouped with the next younger age and perhaps benefit from an extra year of strength and height over some of his fellow players. Alexes enjoyed a little more luck. Those two late weeks that she was late being born moved her birth year from the end of 1991, to the beginning of 1992. While birth year had no impact on Crossfire as in Mikey’s case, Alexes benefitted from those two weeks she was late. It appears her obstetrician, Dr. Jordan-Harris, was correct when she insisted, “I’m done trying to control that baby. We’re just going to assume it will be in the right position when it’s time to be born.”
As it turned out, Alexes was in the right position when she was born, and as a result, her birthday was on the fourth day of the new year, again, putting her in the right position. Those two weeks were the difference in the Olympic Development Program birth year cut-off, which complied with FIFA rules pushing her birthday from the end of December to early January.
The youngest version of Mikey summoned all the Beak-bool-gul (invincibility of his spirit) he could muster, a quality retained from his tutelage under Master Han, and bravely questioned the trajectory of soccer for him compared to Alexes. Even as a youngster, he could sense the “Gladwellian” irony of it.
Historically, pools of athletic males willing to play competitive sports are predictably deeper for boys than for athletic girls (Thankfully, a trend that appears to be changing.) Threats to the “Tao” of our Pooh would not be tolerated. So, we, like First Responders to his feelings, faced his questions head-on, with the full force of our belief system, recognizing very early that if we got too caught up in the Crossfire team, we would risk damaging Mikey’s self-esteem. When younger, we might mollify his concerns with hopes of late growth spurts. Legend has it that Cassandra’s brother enjoyed a sizeable growth spurt after leaving high school. It did not take long before the ever-cerebral Pooh Bear quickly saw through that ruse, recognizing immediately that if he did not catch up to his soccer peers in a timelier fashion, (say, before tryouts), he would spend all of his energy just trying to catch-up, forever trying to overcome narrow-minded coaches obsessed with the present size of their prepubescent players.
Mikey was used to this scenario. He was the smallest kindergartener because he insisted on going to Elementary school with his sister. The early start ensured that he would always be almost an entire year younger than many of the other boys in his class, almost a year less tall, less strong, or a year goofier.
The warrior in Mikey emerged and that same little boy with the courage to face Master Han engaged his In-Nae (perseverance and patience). He agreed to do the work, eager to tag along and work out alone on the sidelines of Alexes’ practice. Together, we would practice headers where I tossed soccer balls for him to return to me as long as I could manage, always the first to tire. When I did tire, Mikey simply collected the ball, found a piece of grass, and practiced his individual skills, ending his workout with lone sprints up and down the sidelines, mimicking the end of his sisters’ workout on the field.
As soccer gained momentum for Alexes, I feigned Mikey’s observations with stories of my own sister. Growing up, we considered my sister an academic freakazoid. There were times when it seemed she worked as hard on her high school studies as my father did in medical school. She also was a starting forward on the varsity basketball team for four years, a feat that none of us (her three brothers) could claim.
My sister managed to graduate from high school first in her class and then proceeded to gradate second in her class from Columbia University, finishing with a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from MIT. The only emotion I ever felt for my sister was pride. I saw first-hand how hard she worked. She earned all that she enjoyed. Somehow, my parents managed to raise me to be one of Cathryns’ biggest fans, and I wanted that for Mikey and Alexes, for them to be each other’s’ biggest fan.
With that in mind, we addressed Mikey, “But Son, there are pieces of you, your spirit, your power, your ability to see people, to communicate, your indomitable spirit, and your unyielding ability to motivate those around you; that can take you so much further than soccer might ever take Alexes.” We continued, “Someday, and probably sooner than you think, you will understand the width and the depth of your talents, and when you do, Alexes will be there, still your biggest fan, as you are hers.”
To his credit, Mikey did not resist our analysis and worked to improve all of his talents with the Guk-Gi (self-discipline) to make even the indomitable Master Han proud. He accepted our commitment to the preservation of his sprit. In return, his loyalty to our collective cause wove Yom-Chi (integrity) into his emerging personality like a tailor stitches a badge onto a boy scout uniform for all to see. Few sideline family members matched his Ye-Ui (courtesy) and his genuine enthusiasm for the success of his sister. If she was all in, then so was he, eager to try out for the equally skillful Crossfire boys’ teams.
When I think deeply about the time, I am struck by the fact that Mikey never batted an eye about the whole Crossfire question, never doubted his own power for a second, never even noticed the threat to his “ism”, brushing it aside with the sheer power of his “will do” attitude. Even then, his “Where the wind takes us” attitude would evolve to include the extreme notion that he might be able to provide some of his own wind. He spent his energy practicing, intensely prepping for his own Crossfire try-outs, the ones he knew would come eventually.
Dick McCormick, the legendary Crossfire coach of the Championship team, also lived in Seattle so his younger sons played for the same club as Mikey and Alexes. When Mike was away in Iraq, I saw Coach McCormick out of the corner of my eye at Mikey’s first practice, also leaving his boys at their practice. Because of the war, I had not seen him since tryouts, and because I had not been sleeping much, I was not in the mood to chat about why Alexes was not playing for him. He walked over and simply said, “Your husband and your family are in our prayers. We have been following the news and hope he is ok.” The look in his eyes showed true understanding of just how hard it was for me to sit out there at practice and keep my shit together.
I was hooked.
We thought of the move as a promotion, one we were eager to share with parents of the Seattle team. Some supported us completely, admiring Alexes for her courage in accepting what was sure to be a challenging endeavor. In fact, that parent that approached me that first practice after I returned from Iraq was in that group that supported Alexes 100%.
Others were not so civil. The team manager and her husband outwardly rebuked us for selfishly abandoning the team, reminding us of the fact that Alexes was playing under a partial scholarship. On some level, we were not leaving at the most opportune time. It was before the regular league began, early enough to make Alexes eligible for the post season roster on an opposing team. We were aware of that fact. These same parents did not help their case when they repeatedly proclaimed that Alexes was not as good as those girls, and would probably never even play, since that team already had a good goalkeeper, if not two.
My friend, Gene, tagged along to that last game with the Seattle team as a show of support while Cassandra elected to stay home, as if her baby girl was about to get her ears pierced at the mall. We all agreed it was probably better for everyone. I have Gene to thank for calling my attention to the underlying motives of the parents’ hurtful words. (The team managers took both their daughters to the very same Crossfire tryouts. Neither made it.) These people were not concerned with Alexes’ future, only their own child’s present, and the success of their own team.
We were disappointed in the disingenuous comments of the Team Manager and her husband that contradicted the “we care about your player” mantra they were in the habit of pandering. It was a stark contrast from the kindness Dick had shown Cassandra on the sideline of some random field during an unrelated practice. By contrast, those people from the Seattle team were all-to-willing to question Alexes’ potential and to guilt us into staying on the basis of our family partial-scholarship status. They conveniently ignored the sacrifices we made for our two children to play premier soccer in the first place. Worse yet, they were completely ignorant of what Alexes wanted.
Alexes wanted nothing else but to compete at the highest level possible. That was, after all, what she and Bill worked for on those cold wet morning practices and this Crossfire 91A team was like a phantom at local tournaments, never actually seen, only rumored (or feared, truthfully) to be competing, hopefully electing to play in the older age bracket. Parents were always quick to judge their motives: why else if not to more easily dominate at the state championship tournament. When a Crossfire team did show up, dominating opponents, and usually winning, it would be discovered later that the team in question was actually the Crossfire B Team, those girls that were not quite ready to play for the A team.
Whatever the case, the phantom presence of the Crossfire 91A team meant that many of Alexes’ Seattle teammates never actually saw the phantom play, making it easy for them to stand around at practice and talk about swatting the reigning champs down like so many flies. But
Alexes saw this team at State and competed face-to-face against the best players at their tryouts. She saw them more as extraordinary; considered the idea of beating them more like the possibility of catching a single fly out of the air with a set of chopsticks, virtually impossible.
We almost made the decision to stay at the Seattle team out of a sense of obligation, somewhat, but more so, to put down any perception that we might be acting less than honorably. Recently, Alexes shared the news with one of her friends from the team. Without acknowledging the magnitude of Alexes’ commitment and hard work, without reference to the morning goal keeping trainings (of which the friend knew of), the friends’ only response was,
“That’s not fair, Alexes is so lucky.”
The comment smacked of “maybe cosmetology school is better for Mexican girls”, and so many other shots across our bow meant to define our place in their worlds. The problem: this shot was taken at our child and times were changing. Truthfully, neither Cassandra nor I had any idea exactly what we were doing, why we made each decision we made. We only knew that if given an opportunity, Alexes and Mikey, would find a way to excel, each in their own way.
If we ever were unsure, Dick McCormick’s kind words to Cassandra on the sideline of some random, his willingness to recognize the weight of our situation, would prove to be the difference.
Alexes would leave immediately, eligible to play with Crossfire in the state championship tournament. Mikey would follow at the end of the season.