Personal best

1. Training

I have to get to New York.

I’ve spent so many months dreaming and planning and fund-raising and going to meetings. Not to mention those endless but crucial debates about the colour of the uniform. And now the Gay Games are nearly here.

I guess I’d better start training.

For my whole life I have avoided doing one thing, one sport. My father does it. My grandfather too – he made a comeback at the world championships at 80. Not me. I was never going to do it. Growing up with an Olympian for a father makes you look differently at sport and sacrifice. Nobody was ever going to make me be the third generation of sport stars in our family. No way. I’m the black sheep and proud of it.

Apart from anything else, it’s just so geeky. I did every obscure sport I could imagine, anything. But not that.

But now here I am at the track with my dad, and his training mates who have known me since I was born. I have watched them all race together for more than thirty years, barracked for them for endless kilometres, lap after lap. But today they can’t just help smiling to themselves. My grandfather has come to watch. Because everyone’s little girl is finally down here, warming up.

And we’re all going race-walking together.

I know how to do it, I grew up with it. I have the genes. My father has perfect technique and medals to prove it and I have his legs.

I just have no stamina. Never have had.

I’m the person who ends up walking halfway through a fun run. I’m the one gasping at the back of the training exercises at touch footy. I always came last in the school sports. Because dad was a hero, they put me in every race, and I came last in every race.

And now here I am again, dawdling along behind these sixty year old veteran athletes out on a slow warm-up lap. I can’t even keep up with Verna and she’s 75.

Dad stops by the track and waits for me.

“Sit right back on your heels,” he says, “until you think you’re going to fall over”. I do what he says. I fall over.

He’s so supportive. He laughs his head off. “Maybe not quite that far,” he says. “Sit back and relax. Time your arm movements with your breathing. Your style is fine, you just have to get more out of it.”

So around we go, around and around, and then we take off into the suburban streets and night falls and we keep going and I am huffing along behind but just keeping touch with good old Verna. She chats away cheerily about her gay nephew and I huff back.

Around and on we go for weeks until it’s time to take off to New York and saying goodbye at the airport Dad suddenly decides he’d better give me some advice on how to kick off from the start line and how to cope with rough tactics during the race.

“This is the Gay Games, Dad. It’s about participation, it’s not about winning. Everyone’s just there to do their personal best, and share the experience.”

“Uh huh,” he says.

Image of rainbow flag against sky
2. Opening
We can hear the crowds inside the stadium as we form up into columns to march in. In the assembly area are thousands of over-excited queens in uniforms as daggy as ours and many in their own private national dress – with heels.

We’ve been milling around for hours, acting nonchalant and chatting to dykes from Alberta and princesses from Rotorua. But now we’re ready to go and I think I might vomit.

We’re just about first to march off, and everyone else waves and claps as we hold hands in stage fright and smile forlornly.

Through the stadium tunnel and we’re there. White lights hit us, as Kate Clinton on the microphone screams “Please welcome, AUSTRALIA!”

The crowd goes wild. No really.

There are thousands and thousands of people in the stadium and they are all screaming and clapping and waving. At us. At me.

We hold our breath, wave back, try to keep moving, laugh kinda crazy. I look around at the volleyball boys. They are all crying. I must be crying too.

And every rotten moment, every bad coming out, every ugly taxi driver who asked if you were married, every violent parent or sleepless night or yelling hoon or basher or bad sport or broken heart is gone. One loud brilliant moment of perfect acceptance and pride and our worlds will never be the same.

The world will never be the same.

3. Racing

Here we are on the start line. God, it’s hot. The back straight stretches away into the distance. It looks further than it ever has before.

There’s some jostling on the line, and I turn to tell someone to get her elbow out of my ribs when the gun goes. What the fuck was that? My body figures it out before my brain and heads off down the straight with everyone else. It’s on.

I hit the first bend. I’m getting the hang of this. Only twelve laps to go.

Way out in front are two finely built very tanned women in matching Hawaiian print lycra. They know what they are doing. A bunch of eager beavers are trying to keep pace but they won’t last more than a lap. Sitting in behind them is a tall blonde in colour-coordinated charcoal grey. Legs up to her armpits and she is cruising. Moves like a shark. A white pointer.

I think I’m about halfway through the field but it’s a little hard to tell. Tweedledum and Tweedledee have taken off at a sprint – they are probably home in Hawaii by now. My new best friends from the warm up are scattered around the track. God, there is some shocking technique going on out here. Where are the judges?

I can see the white pointer sliding around the laps, picking off victims and spitting em out.

Push harder. Come on. It’ll be over soon. I know I have genetically ideal legs but they are rather shorter than anybody else’s. I’m taking two strides to the white pointer’s one.

Just don’t let me come last. That’s all I ask. I just don’t wanna come last.

I hate that thing people do, applauding the valiant loser down the back who is busting a gut to get home without being noticed. Yeah, sure, I know it isn’t whether you win or lose, and yeah sure the Gay Games are not about winning. But let’s face it nobody really wants to be the schmuck finishing three laps behind the rest of the field.

This thing’s about participation, not humiliation.

I decide there and then that if that looks like happening, I am pulling a hammy and limping from the track. Maybe I can even get carried off on a stretcher. I just so don’t want to come last.

Go faster, come on, I don’t care if it hurts.

The white pointer cruises past another poor sweating sucker.

She looks like she’s lifting to me. Blond, colour co-ordinated outfit, long legs, attitude and lifting. The judges have to notice that. Honey, if you’re going to cheat, try to look inconspicuous.

Ah ha! They got her. Red card. Ordered off the track.

Not that I’m gloating. Oh no. Actually, I’m hurting too much to gloat, and if it hurts much more I’ll start to break up too.

So focus. Focus on getting there. This is the thing, this is the moment you imagined. The stadium, eerily decrepit, out  on an island in the middle of the Hudson River. There’s blue sky and hot sun. There’s cheering from the stands. Three people are cheering and they are all on my side.

I’m going right on past that woman in the blue shorts. Look at that. Just right on past her. That’s not so hard. “Hell,” she mutters as I fly by, “where’d you get your cheer squad?”

I don’t know how she does that. I couldn’t talk if my life depended on it. I’m just pushing now, somehow my arms are pushing my legs from the inside and I think this is how it is supposed to feel.

I wish my parents were here. And my grandfather standing by the finish line calling out the laptimes as I’ve seen him do it so many thousands of times.

So this is how it feels. I can see how you’d get addicted to the feeling, maybe you even get used to this pain. Maybe.

My legs are gonna fall off. I can tell. If I stopped right now they’d go to jelly. How embarrassing. That would be worse than coming last, as well.

So don’t stop. Only two more laps.

Someone’s bum in bike shorts looms up ahead. I’m chasing her. It’s very slow, like passing a cattle truck on the Hume Highway.  Pull up alongside and drop back. Can’t do it. I’ve gotta do it or I’ll crash into the back of her. Try again, push and through into open air.

Clear track ahead, other people are miles in front, miles behind, all of us circling in our own private orbits.

I’ve got no idea where I am in the race, but wherever I am it isn’t last. They are racing all the age groups together so we don’t know who we are competing against. You could be coming first or last in your age group, or just racing against yourself. But at least I’m not last in the field.

Home straight. Here it comes. My personal cheer squad goes crazy and I can’t help grinning like a fool. There’s a slight groaning noise and I think it might be me, as I decide to go for the gun finish.

It doesn’t hurt now, and I’m there, over the line, keeping right on walking onto the grass because my legs have gone mad.

It’s done.

I think I need to lie down.

4. Finale

We walk out onto the sacred diamond of Yankee Stadium for the Closing Ceremony. The stands are full of cheering crowds – we are Babe Ruth, we are Joe Di Maggio. We are utterly exhausted and most of us are hungover.

There are fireworks, lasers, stars singing our praises. Cyndi Lauper. Barbara Cook. Patti La Belle. I think it’s really Streisand but it turns out to be a drag queen.

We dance in the stands. It’s a party to end all parties but it’s over. The Games are over.

They are about participation but also about much more. They are about pride and sweat and bodies and showing off and art and sex and sport and friendship and family.

And it is about winning. But you win some, you lose some.

My grandfather died in the early hours of that morning, me not knowing, he not knowing that his third generation had finally come good – that everyone’s little girl now has blisters and a gold medal.

But a full moon comes up over Yankee Stadium and instead of crying, I am laughing out loud.

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