September 21, 2011

Getting Back in the Saddle, and Life’s Other Idioms

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People are always asking me why I choose to write about sports. More specifically, they ask me if I played sports when I was younger.

The answer is somewhere between “kind of” and “not really.”

I started running track as a skinny fifth grader with braces, and continued to do so throughout junior high/high school, though by then I had lost the braces. (Always a sprinter, mind you, never a distance runner … to this day, if you ask me to run a mile without stopping, bad things will happen). While I was reasonably decent and even made my high school’s 4×100 Penn Relays team as an alternate, I knew I was nowhere near good enough for Division 1, and pretty much phoned in my entire senior season. So ended my career as a track star.

I began riding horses at about the same time boys started picking me for their Capture the Flag teams at recess, realizing I was the only girl who would actually bother to run. I would have started sooner, but most barns have a rule dictating you must be at least eight years old to take lessons. Trivialities.

Now, make all the WASP jokes that you like and say what you will about horseback riding not being a sport (you’d be wrong, by the way), but the fact remains that riding has always been an integral part of my life, and was easily the first thing I ever developed a real passion for.

While for some girls horseback riding is “just a phase” in the same way that being pre-med is a phase for most Cornellians — for me, riding represented a distraction from all the problems associated with real life. Sure, I would think about the problems I was having while on the horse, such as why I couldn’t get Herbie to do a flying lead change … but as far as I was concerned, the back of a horse was the only place in the world where my future didn’t matter, my mom didn’t have cancer, and where if I made a mistake, I could correct it immediately.

In fact, one of the perks that initially attracted me to Cornell was the Oxley Equestrian Center, and the reassurance that I could continue riding in college, which I did … for a semester. Then, as the saying goes, life happened, and suddenly horseback riding wasn’t a priority anymore. And when the time came to take another class to fulfill my P.E. requirement, I happily enrolled in Swedish Massage (which, by the way, should be a mandatory course for anyone who enjoys Friday afternoon naptime, and Enya).

Coming into Cornell as freshmen, we are inundated with unsolicited advice — some of which appears on the very pages you now hold in your hands: Think about your career prospects without thinking about your career prospects. Take classes way outside your major. Go to Clubfest and get on as many random list-serves as possible. Have sex in crazy places (read: academic buildings).

In short: don’t be opposed to trying new things.

I’ve always been a sucker for inspirational quotes, and one in particular by Dr. Robert Schuller has come to embody my life philosophy: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” It’s how I ended up joining The Cornell Daily Sun (and also how I kind-of-but-not-really almost ended up joining the debate team).

But for all the emphasis given to stepping outside our comfort zones, there is one reminder that often goes unsaid, and that is to not neglect the passions that brought us here in the first place.

Which is why as of two weeks ago, I started horseback riding again for the first time in three years. They say riding a horse is just like riding a bike — you never forget. Driving to Oxley for my Friday afternoon equitation lesson, I had my doubts … and not only because I’m pretty sure I’ve forgotten how to ride a bike.

Never before had I been nervous prior to mounting a horse, and with good reason. Horses can sense fear, and will respond accordingly to your nerves. But in anticipation of that first class, I was scared. Not because I feared a potential collision with the wall — or the ground, for that matter — but because I couldn’t stand the thought of failing miserably at a sport I used to be quite good at.

It was then that I realized I was experiencing the same sentiment my dad must have undoubtedly felt when he started running again after having knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Or why my friend is so reluctant to play intramural basketball again this year. It’s an unsettling feeling that has plagued many past-their-prime athletes coming back from an extended absence: the sneaking suspicion that they won’t be as good as they were before they left the game, and in some cases might not ever regain that pre-layoff form no matter how hard they train.

Fortunately for me, riding a horse for the first time in three years didn’t feel any different than riding a horse for the first time in three months (except for the ensuing soreness, that is … two weeks of being back in the saddle, and I’m still walking around like a girl who … well, you know).

The jury’s still out on whether I’ll ever be able to master a flying lead change again, but for now I’ll continue to look forward to those Friday afternoons at 2:15, where for one hour the entire outside world might as well not exist.

Original Author: Alex Kuczynski-Brown