Earlier this month, the Lander Valley High School girls swim team won their fourth state championship. I haven’t lived in Lander for 10 years now, but their victory made me proud and happy. I almost said, “We won!” before remembering that a) I don’t live in Lander anymore, and b) I did absolutely nothing to help them win the title.
And, yet, despite the fact that my link to the Lander team is tenuous at best, I felt invested in its success. I loved seeing the big grins on the girls’ faces as they posed for photographs beside the pool. I feel the same about the high school I attended 40 years ago, and about Jackson’s high school athletic teams.
I think a lot of people in small towns across the country probably get that feeling. For many of us, high school sports represent something pure and innocent. It’s about kids working hard for rewards that are less tangible than a paycheck or fame; rewards like teamwork, camaraderie, perseverance, a sense of belonging, pride, skill, dreams, success and failure. It’s about athletics without the politics and money that can taint professional and even some college sports.
Sure, some high school athletes will turn their success into a tool for getting into college, earning a scholarship or even moving onto a professional career, but for most of them that’s not the motivating factor.
Rather they are motivated by the joy of being part of a team and of pushing themselves to be their best, and, for those of us sitting along the sidelines, their joy can bring us joy, especially in this day and age when so much of the news that bombards us is bad and depressing if not outright terrifying.
Reading about a bunch of teenage girls from Lander, Wyoming, earning their team’s fourth-straight state title feels like a reprieve from reading the news about impeachment and environmental disaster, and that reprieve feels good.
At their best, high school sports are about community. As fans, we get out of our normal circle of friends and form bonds with people we otherwise might never meet or talk to. We sit in the stands cheering for our team without thinking about whether the person sitting next to us shares our political values. It doesn’t matter during the emotional roller coaster of a game, match or meet what the people around us believe in. We all believe in our team. We share the highs and lows of the game with each other. Together we applaud the incredible athletic feats taking place or moan as one when things go wrong. We leap to our feet and hug each other blindly when our team wins or cry in unison when they lose. We become part of a team, which many of us haven’t been since we left own high school athletics behind. It’s a powerful, unifying emotion that helps us overcome our differences, and I am grateful for the student athletes who help us achieve these moments of camaraderie.
But it’s not always so pure. I was surfing around the internet, reading about fandom, and found an Associated Press article from Oct. 6 that talked about how unruly spectators at high school soccer games in New Mexico are threatening the future of the sport in that state. Games are being canceled, and soccer is losing officials because parents and fans have become verbally abusive during matches. It’s gotten so bad, players have even tried to get their parents to be quiet at games.
And it’s not just soccer. According to the article, the state was also considering canceling next year’s cheerleading state spirit competition following death threats and inflammatory social media posts.
What does it mean when people make death threats about a sport that should be synonymous with sportsmanship? That seems like the ultimate irony, and it makes me sad to think about.
The article made me wonder if I was being naïve in looking to high school athletics as a last bastion of innocent, pure, unadulterated sport. Is there really such a thing anymore? We all have heard about the ugly side of kids’ sports — competitive parents, cutthroat coaches, unfair refs, unsportsmanlike conduct and disruptive, rude fans. I doubt our local teams are immune to these things, and yet I still think that the benefits of athletics for kids can, and should, transcend those potential pitfalls, especially when we, as parents and fans, can remember that in the end it’s about more than just winning.
This fall I had an experience that brought home the potential power of sport. I happened to be in Chamonix, France, for the start of the 170-kilometer UTMB race, one of seven ultra-endurance races that are part of the larger UTMB festival. Roughly 10,000 athletes from around the world come to compete in the festival. Our hotel room looked out over the starting line. We sat on the windowsill and watched hundreds of racers milling around, waiting for the signal to run. Announcers spoke French, English, Spanish, Japanese and countless other languages. The athletes were young and old, and all were excitedly talking to each other and reveling in the enthusiasm of the crowd as they waited for the starting gun.
I found my eyes welling up with tears, my heart warmed by watching these athletes get ready to set out in pursuit of their dreams. The spirit of friendship and sharing was overwhelming. It made me wish that our world leaders could get out and run, play a sport or do something together that required teamwork, hardship and sacrifice. It felt like such a powerful way for people to overcome their differences and find common ground. It made me believe in humanity.
NPR had a story earlier this month about the high school football team in Paradise, California. Paradise was destroyed last year by fires, and many people have left the town. In fact, only three members of the varsity football team now live within city limits, the rest commute. But the team has given the players — of the nearly 300 male students at the high school, almost 100 play football — and the community a much-needed boost. They are undefeated and heading for the playoffs. Their success has given the town a sense of hope after the devastation of the fires.
Kasten Ortiz, who plays right tackle for the team, told NPR he is happy the team has given the community something positive to believe in.
“They start to feel that passion that we feel for the game simply because we represent them,” he said. “And I think that gives them a sense of pride. And it helps inspire people to just give a little extra, I think, in a day.”