What is time and distance? What are seconds and centimetres? To many people they represent units of measurement; insignificant and small. To me, however, they represent months of long training, constant practise, and interminable repetition. It can be the difference between first and last, winning and losing, being the victor or being the one who just takes part. In my sport of athletics, time and distance is everything because winning is everything. There are three things that are key to being a winner: mental toughness, physical strength and good coordination. And therein lies my problem.
I was diagnosed with dyspraxia at the age of 8, which means that my coordination is second-rate. People with dyspraxia generally have poor integration of the two sides of the body, trouble with sports that involve jumping, and hand-to-eye co-ordination. As a result they tend to have poor visual perception, with little sense of time, speed, distance or weight and a complete lack of rhythm. It is therefore difficult to rationalise how I found myself competing in the Scottish Schools pentathlon event.
I was always fast; tearing around the playground, chasing after boys. I took great pride in beating them. It allowed me to be me and I treasured the attention when I won. I lacked confidence in everything else I attempted – I couldn’t spell, I apparently never listened, I was rubbish at maths and my inability to read situations didn’t push me to the top of the class popularity poll.
However, with running, I was the best.
Forget the bruises, the cuts on my hands and knees from my multiple falls and the occasional visit to casualty for minor concussion, it was worth it. The athletics’ club was where I felt most comfortable and relaxed. A coach recognised I had talent and pushed me towards multi-eventing. My ego inflated, I naively decided it was worth a shot. Athletics then became more demanding; more about technique than fun; more about using my brain than my limbs.
The effort it took to evolve and adapt to the necessary technical requirements was exhausting even before I had even moved a muscle. As coordination is a problem, some events seem like an impossible task, especially the high jump. Watching it on TV it appears to be merely a run and an awkward jump but for the athlete there is much more happening. The technicalities are hugely demanding: In tempo, swing the arms, control the turn of the hips, hitch the leg, hop up, arch the shoulders over the bar and keep the centre of gravity low and— flop. Each of these movements needs diligence, but being dyspraxic, I can only focus on one of these movements at a time so that what should be a fluid, deliberate motion, dynamic and graceful, often ends up as awkward and clumsy.
June 3rd. The morning of the Scottish Schools’ competition. I lay in bed, muscles like lead and devoid of aspiration. The voice in my head was already telling me to give up – I didn’t stand a chance.
The memories of the drudgery of those long, cold winter nights of training and self-sacrifice were tormenting me. Entering Grangemouth Stadium, I began reciting the mantra: ‘I can do this’.
In as much as I enjoy being the victor, sometimes I don’t mind being beaten. Today was different. “Positive mental attitude”, my coach scolded the whole time I was warming up. However, my inner demon kept insisting ‘you don’t have the strength’, and kept persisting ‘you are not a winner’. I could have easily absconded.
First event – the high jump. Paradoxically, your success is ultimately measured by your failure: Every high jump ends with a miss. Fighting against the label of dyspraxia, I had spent countless hours and energy, determined to conquer this event. My coach had painfully researched how to instruct a dyspraxic person and instructed me to concentrate on only one aspect of the jump. Over-thinking would result in the whole motion collapsing. Stay up tall. These three words resonated over and over in my head. The high jump was centre field, everyone was watching. A churning sensation evolved within the pit of my stomach. Trying to block out the crowd, I took my first attempt. I cleared it. I couldn’t look back. I was petrified that just one glance would knock off the bar. I was elated. I repeated this several times before my luck eventually ran out. A personal best and the leader board established I was in fifth place.
The technique for the hurdles is simple: you sprint forward as fast as you can and then make some adjustments to clear its height. Having good coordination is a bonus, not one of my strengths, but speed is. Looking down the start lane, initially I was alarmed at the stature of the girls beside me, all tall and sinewy. Then I realised that all of my competitors, without exception were using starting blocks. I had none, they looked every bit professional; I, on the other hand, stood there looking quite amateur.
In the crouch position, I stayed calm. Bang! The starting pistol exploded. Simultaneously eight girls erupted, raising a rainbow of colours as they lifted into the air. I felt like a cheetah. I was blind to those beside me. I was on my own… out in front. The race lasted a little more than 10 seconds. I was shocked at my execution of the race, much better than I’d hoped.
After four events, I was fourth. The final event was the 800 metres. My event.
Approaching the start, I could feel the unnerving stares of my intimidating rivals and their coaches examining me surreptitiously. In the midst, I heard a faint voice plotting: “stick to number 108”. I wore 108. The expectancy of winning and how the race would develop now played on my mind. I waited patiently, each atom charged, for that signal to start running.
I pushed off the start line well and quickly settled into a rhythm; with each stride, the tension increased and the noise of a competitor quick on my heels grew in intensity. Instead of being intimidating, it urged me on, driving me to attack that bit harder. I couldn’t seem to shake her off but her breathing was laboured and wrong.
After competing for years one develops a special intuition, which allows one to identify when competitors are tired: a slight dropping of the head, a subtle shortening of the stride, a distinct quickening of breath. That’s the signal: one last burst. The bell rang for the final lap; it tolled for my main competitor, who collapsed with exhaustion. The strategy to stick to me had cost her a medal.
Approaching the final bend, we were running like a pack, reluctant to spread out though dispersing ever so slightly as we reached the home straight. Staying close, hanging on to each other, not allowing anybody to gain an advantage. All athletes pushing limbs to the limit, oxygen-depleted muscles powered now anaerobically. That last burst of power which flowed to my muscles allowed me to gain a few vital metres. I crossed the line first. I won the race.
Athletics, like most sports, is mentally challenging. ‘Losers’ don’t always lose because they were unfit or they didn’t get the best start. Many other factors come into play. Hence the reason sports psychology is so popular amongst top athletes. The winner takes the glory, because when all other competitors fade, they have that bit extra to give. June 3rd was my day. I came 3rd and exceeded all expectations I had of myself. My dyspraxia may give me obstacles to overcome but it has also gifted me with a determination that few others possess. Although my lane has more hurdles in it, it doesn’t mean I won’t finish the race.