I always loved playing sports as a kid. I grew up with two older brothers whose bats, balls, and mitts I’d smuggle away on late summer afternoons with a friend. We’d cross a busy street to reach a neighborhood tennis court and toss a baseball across the net or play badminton until the sun set over the nearby ferry dock.
But don’t let the enthusiasm fool you. Enjoying playing sports doesn’t mean a skill level to match. Thrown baseballs frequently lodged into chain link fences, tennis rackets swung across courts in frustration, and basketballs bounced back from rims.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised at what happened when I passionately tried out for junior varsity volleyball in the 7th grade.
Three dozen 13-year-old girls lined up for try-outs in the Olympic View Middle School gym. I recognized some girls as popular in our grade; others lived on the sidelines of our hallways—labeled as gothic or nerdy, sweet or shy. I stood somewhere in the middle and appeared among the smallest in the group with gangly arms and legs, thick hair and bad eyesight.
In the try-outs, volleyballs shot our way, wrists ached and burned, and knees got a terrible beating. The windsprints or “lines” were the worst. Sprinting from one end of the gym to the other to dip down and touch end lines felt brutal. Being among the shortest there, I lagged behind. The other girls—bigger-boned and developed Caucasian girls—loomed ahead of me. The coach, a tall and slender dark-haired man who I recognized as a science teacher, rarely smiled and his worn-down polo shirts always had a hole near the armpit.
At the end of the 3rd and final day of try-outs, he called out the coveted names of the new junior varsity team. As you can predict from the headline, I didn’t make the cut. A different and much less glamorous position was in store for me. The coach didn’t have much choice, really. I offered free labor; to run around collecting volleyballs and set up nets for practice. I wanted to be a part of the team so badly I didn’t care at the slight indignity I’d face at being the 7th grade JV ball girl.
Being a ball girl is a strange experience. You’re the team lacky. It’s dorky—the team knows you didn’t make the cut and some wonder why you’re still there. So, you compensate by being as helpful and needed as possible. I just knew somehow, if I stayed on coach’s radar and demonstrated initiative, I’d get on the team.
A few games passed and one of the players stopped showing up. The rule is, if a player misses three practices in a row, they’re automatically off the team; the player missed five or six. I approached coach. “I think there’s an extra uniform that will fit me, too!” I suggested. And he did something I’ll never forget. He hesitated and shrugged off my proposal.
A few more missed practices and a disappointing game later, I got a shot to don the green and gold uniform. I’ll tell you, no one dressed, complete with a matching scrunchie faster than I.
I had no idea at the time I’d learn a valuable lesson that first game against Sedro-Woolley. The match began without putting many points on the scoreboard for either side. We rotated positions until my turn came to serve. I held the ball out with my left hand, reared back my right and just as I took a breath and let go—I remembered the chance coach didn’t want to give me, the girls’ expectant faces in front—and launched my serve with the same emotion I swung tennis rackets across the court as a kid. It landed square on the opposing team’s side. My team exclaimed, high-fived, clapped, and cheered. Now, focus. I took a deep breath and served again. The ball landed on the opposing court like a grenade. I served again and again. It was twelve points later (twelve serves later) until Sedro-Woolley stopped this 13-year-old serving superstar.
At the end of the round, I sat on the bench, out of breath. Coach sat quietly nearby. At last he whispered, “You did good.” “Thanks,” I whispered back. But I beamed. It didn’t matter our team lost every game that season, including the one against Sedro-Woolley. I wore the uniform proudly each game, smoothing out its school logo with satisfaction—and in a 0-15 record season.
I discovered a new angle to the old adage that with a positive attitude and hard work, your dreams can come true. That may be the case, but may I add—not always on your terms, and if you’re OK with that—then your dreams can come true. Regardless of whether you’re smaller, have less experience—or another disadvantage, you can carve a path to your dreams if you’re willing to do the grunt work to get to it—and if you want it bad enough. It won’t always be on your terms—but few things worth fighting for ever are.