Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

3:33 Sports Short #12 // Young & Scrappy

by Judy Sobeloff

I accidentally joined the cross country team on my first day of high school, having never run a mile. My new art teacher was the coach, and I happened to be in his office when he was passing out permission slips, which I thought were for art.

My father had died on the last day of school two and a half months before, and I would cry during practice when we did fartlek, or any drills with a funny name. I came in last in one of our first big meets when the other girls I was running with toward the back all cheated by cutting across a field, and I kept going on the course. About half the people who came out for the team quit, a point of pride for those of us who stayed.

My friends and I made t-shirts that said “young and scrappy,” a phrase used to describe our team in the local paper. I got faster and stronger and stopped crying. “See how her body has changed!” my art teacher announced to the class.

We rarely took a day off. By junior year I had chronic running injuries, and by senior year my only option for continuing was surgery on both hips and knees. My biggest lesson had been about determination, but heartbroken, I stopped running.

This past fall my eighth-grade daughter decided to run cross country, completely of her own accord. A wave of feelings washed over me at every meet, seeing those kids working so hard, especially the ones at the back.

She loved being on the team, but suddenly she was having asthma, every single day. Her doctor prescribed a steroid inhaler in addition to a rescue inhaler—and still, nothing helped. In a meet everyone feels like they can’t breathe—but what about the kid who really can’t breathe? How to navigate the determination question then, especially since cross country means being out in the woods on your own?

Watching my daughter run with her rescue inhaler in a pouch on her arm or in her hand, I wasn’t so sure. Every meet I was relieved when she made it to the finish—and every meet she said there’d been a time when she hadn’t been able to breathe. Even so, we were both enthusiastic for her to figure out how to deal with the breathing question and keep running.

After the season she was diagnosed with not asthma, but something we’d never heard of: Paradoxical Vocal Fold Movement, a condition in which the vocal cords close over the windpipe. It responds well to some simple breathing techniques, and while it can make someone pass out, unlike asthma it can’t kill them.

Around this same time, I was in an exercise class when a friend tore off her shirt and bra, suddenly unable to breathe. I was so grateful to have one of my daughter’s rescue inhalers with me, and be able to hand it to her.