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An Ode To Sports Girls From One Who Is Not

How I've lived my life without cultivating any athletic ability.

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Young girls playing soccer standing on the sidelines arm and arm before the game
Getty Images
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When the United States team recorded the biggest-ever victory in the first game of the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup earlier this year, I watched the news footage in admiration. Yet the victory was a reminder of how I have lived most my life without cultivating any athletic ability, and being intimidated by women who had even an iota.

The closest I ever came to feeling like I could hold my own was when Neil, my husband of 31 years, and I were about 10 years into our marriage.

Neil’s friend was divorced, and after doing the newly single man’s backstroke through New York City’s pool of available single ladies, he’d claimed to have found “the one.”

She was an attractive package: long summer-blonde hair, sun-kissed skin (FYI it was winter) and a toned, muscular body.

Definitely a sports girl. A guy’s girl. She knew the names of teams and the players who were on them. She knew who made what touchdown, double play, and winning basket. She knew the score (and I mean that in the most double entendre of ways).

Although, as always, I was feeling 10 pounds overweight, next to her I felt like a 90-pound weakling.

Neil and I had been invited over to his pal’s apartment one Sunday to watch the big game. We were one of many couples. They all cheered and hooted and yelled and cursed at the TV.

I tried to be a team player. I asked questions: “Why are they all jumping on the poor guy; he’s already down on the ground?” “Ouch, that looks like it hurt. Do you think he’s OK?” “Hey, that guy just grabbed the ball out of that other guy’s hands. Are they allowed to do that?”

My queries were met with the same looks given to children who demand to know why the sky is blue, where babies come from, and what that “bad” word means.

“She’s so cute,” Sports Girl said to Neil, as though I was his daughter instead of his wife. “You’re such a girly girl,” she said to me as though she felt sorry. I smiled and said a silent prayer that she would get jock itch.

When the pain — I mean game — was over, everyone left, except for Neil and me. Sports Girl wanted us to stay so we could get to know each other. We were going to do this while playing a board game, which was a knockoff of Trivial Pursuit meets Jeopardy!

I admit it, it was fun.

Neil, who was the smartest person in the room, lost big on some question about which supermodel was married-divorced-remarried to which rock star. “I must have missed that episode of Entertainment Tonight,” he smirked.

His friend missed his challenge about who discovered the cure for which incurable disease. “Gee, and I never miss Bill Nye the Science Guy.”

Both guys, as men often do, covering their defeats with humor that implies it was the question that was dumb, not they.

It was down to me and Sports Girl. The final round. It was her turn to pick a category for me to answer a question. If I got it right, I would deprive her of just enough points to win the title. For my category, she chose … what else? Sports.

She read the card with competitive satisfaction, “When shooting hoops, a player who runs with the ball without dribbling it, is doing what?”

Without missing a beat, I replied, “Traveling.” I smiled sweetly and added, “I win.”

The three of them just stared at me. The men were first to recover from their stupors and congratulated me. I looked at Sports Girl, who was now glaring. What was this? A sore loser?

“I thought you didn’t know anything about sports?” she interrogated.

“I don’t.”

“Well then, how’d ...?”

“Easy. ‘Traveling’ is what the other girls used to yell at me in gym when they made us play basketball in high school.”

Sports Girl burst out laughing to the point I thought she’d roll off the sofa. When she finally contained herself, she extended her hand and exclaimed, “Good game.”

I offered to help her clean up before we left, proving that I, too, could be a good sport.

Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels Fat Chick and Back to Work She Goes.