Running With A Story
A lot of people don't realize what it takes to become an Olympic athlete. I do -- I almost was one.I'm a long-distance runner; I practice in obscurity. The only people who know anything about me are the guys in my running club and the people who bother to read the little write-ups we get in the local paper after the regional 5k and 10k runs.I always win. I'm one of the best runners in the country, but we're a fairly quiet fraternity. I didn't fail at the Olympic trials -- I didn't even get to go to them. Instead, I was eliminated from the running early on when NBC came to my door to do my profile."Tell us about the biggest tragedy in your life," the film-crew leader asked me as the cameras began to roll in my living room.I was bare chested -- at their request. There were lights set up behind me to cast me in half-silhouette. I was told that NBC had spent the better part of the morning filming in and around the little town I call home."Well," I said, "I had to practice a lot. I've been running since high school.""Yeah, yeah, yeah," the guy said, "Everybody has to practice. Tell us about the untimely death of your grandparents or your parents or your brother.""My grandparents died when I was a little kid. I didn't really know them." There was a bit of a pause."Your parents, then? Your brother?" the guy said. "Do you have diabetes? Asthma? Does your coach have a terminal illness that might cause him to croak before the games?""I don't have a brother," I told them. "My parents are retired and live in Florida. I usually go to see them in the spring. I'm pretty healthy. I run every day. I'm a runner.""And your coach?" he asked."I don't really have a coach. I run with a club, and we kind of coach each other.""Well, how about them? Any teammates about to buy the farm?""No. They're all pretty healthy. They run.""Listen fella," the guy said. "We're trying to get some color on you. You're a long-distance runner. We can't just show you running a race. It would be boring. We need to break away during the race and tell the people at home something about your brave attempts to overcome some obstacle. Did you have to quit your job to train?""No. I train after work. I work in a bank. I get home a little after five and run for a few hours. I also run a lot on the weekends. I only have to work every other Saturday, and then, only until noon.""Well, what about some childhood illness? Rickets? Scarlet fever?""I had the chickenpox when I was 7," I said hopefully."A particularly bad case?" he asked. "Did it leave some scars that cause you pain today?""No, it was just a regular case of chickenpox.""Are you disappointed that you didn't make the Barcelona team?""I didn't try out then. I really didn't think about trying out for the Atlanta team until two years ago."As I was talking, another member of the film crew approached me, who sprayed my face with water, using an atomizer."It makes you glisten," he explained."Listen," the first guy said. "Let me try to explain this to you one more time. A long-distance race is boring. There isn't enough drama in athletic events, so we have to do stuff to make the runners interesting or we lose our audience. Do you have any quirky collections? Old running shoes, perhaps? Have you worked with the mentally disabled? Or saved any children from a burning building while on a training run? Did your parents move here from a communist country? Did you ever work in a sweat shop? Or get thrown out of school? Were you adopted and recently reunited with your biological mother who needed a kidney transplant? Were you ever in jail?"I didn't say anything for a moment. It was a lot of questions."I used to collect baseball cards when I was kid," I offered."Did you have a Mickey Mantle rookie card in mint condition that your mother threw out when you moved to Florida?" he asked while scratching notes on his pad. "Are you hoping that bringing home a gold medal will erase some of the pain you suffered when you realized that your treasured boyhood collection had been sent to the dump?""No. I still have my card collection, although there's nothing very valuable in it."I heard a noise behind me as the back lights went out. My interviewer nodded to the camera men who were stopping their machines. He put away his notebook."Listen, uh, whatever your name is," he said. "Think about the questions I asked you, and if you can come up with some sort of personal tragedy, give me a call."He pulled a business card out of his wallet and flipped it on my coffee table as he strode out of the room.I called him a few days later to tell him about the dog I had in high school that used to run with me occasionally."Did he get hit by a truck or anything while you were running? Was he stolen from your house while you were attending a race? Do you have any pictures of him?""I have one kind-of blurry picture. And all you can really see is his nose poking out from under my bed.""How did he die?" came the reply, in a half-scream."He just died. He was old," I said."Do you miss him?" he asked, in an exasperated tone."No, not really. He was a good dog, but he was just a dog. I have another dog now, but he doesn't run with me."The guy didn't even say goodbye -- he just hung up. A few days later, I received a letter telling me I'd lost my place in the trials.It takes more than hard work to make it to the Olympics. It takes a good story.