Team Slayer

Don’t let physique fool you. I am toxic to your sport.

Don’t let physique fool you. I am toxic to your sport.

By Susan Anspach  •  Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

Northern Virginia, if we went on a blind date, here’s what you’d be looking for: jeans, hair that’s somewhere between dirty blonde and light brown, black fleece jacket, or a peacoat and some ChapStick if I’m feeling fancy that day.

Slow your roll, fellas, please. One at a time.

There is one thing that sets me apart in a crowd. I’m 5-foot-10—soaring to 6’1 or higher in heels, which I do wear—which I lately learned makes me taller than about 97 percent of other American women and an easy 50 percent of men. Over the years this has meant good things and bad. It zaps the guesswork from that dating game for you real quick; on a website, at a party, the options self-select fast. At 5’10, I’m rarely lost in a crowd. I co-starred in every class photo from kindergarten through the sixth grade, alongside some fun metal exoskeletons I wore on my mouth and glasses the size of beer steins. (Again, gentlemen, settle.)

This time of year, however, my height means one extra thing to the lady and menfolk alike, and that is recruitment for team sports.

Avid, fervid, at times relentless recruitment.

Because I’m tall, not an amputee and wear my hair in a ponytail, people have always tended to assume I’m good at sports, something I’m reminded of every spring when the ultimate teams are coagulating and the kickball captains are on the prowl.
In high school I could feel a lacrosse coach’s eyes burning into me a field’s width away. My social studies teacher, Mr. Schultz, ran the girls’ basketball team and the thing I worked hardest at in social studies was slouching while avoiding eye contact with Mr. Schultz.

What those coaches could never appreciate was that they are the ones I’m looking out for. If you like sports and you like winning at sports, we can like each other, but not in the same room as sports.

You may not think you’re the type to get heated over a game of doubles table tennis or bocce but ask yourself this: Have you considered the possibilities? Have you held a table-tennis paddle in your hands and considered all its angles, its velocities? Have you considered the ball and the ball’s environs? You may think we’re playing ping-pong in your neighbor’s garage but it’s that kind of inside-the-box thinking that will get you a split lip in the end. (Sorry, Casey. Seriously I am so sorry about that.)

It’s the pressure that tanks me. What you’d never believe is I’m not half-bad on my own; on a bike, on the ski slopes, I can make tracks with the best of them. But in team sports it’s not your reputation in your hands. It’s the reputation of your teammates, the unheeding blockheads who insist on rooting for you. How can anyone live with knowing the grade-school field day championship was in our reach, and that all that stood in our way was the last lap in the egg-spoon relay race in which I was, naturally, running anchor?

We cannot. We could not, which is why, before I even took my first step, my hand shook so badly the egg leapt from its resting place and suicide-bombed to the blacktop—a better option, I guess, than having to watch.

The brand of stress sports breeds has never sat well with me. At 5, I can remember actually telling my co-kiddie soccer goalie to chill out and stop
working so hard, then going back to work picking grass. But when the other team scored a goal, I barely noticed, you see? The other guy was pretty upset, something he could have avoided if he’d just listened.

My parents, bless them, not only persisted in believing I had an athletic streak in me, but in mining for it. After soccer they nudged me in the direction of doubles tennis and more than one swim team, which is blind love at its purest, that to their minds the problem must have been the swim team, not that the other kids were streaking through the water like moray eels while I was kicking off the wall into the lane rope. My best day on swim team was the one my uncle took me to my meet, fell asleep on a pool chair and didn’t wake up to hear the announcement for my meet. Did I hear it? Memory’s fuzzy. What I remember from that day’s having gotten a really excellent daisy chain out of it.

Middle-school girls’ track, now there’s a sport. I ran mile, which meant loping a few easy laps around the school by myself, maybe once in a while chancing upon another of the other three girls doing the same thing, sometimes taking breaks together to walk and talk about our days. Sometimes we’d take walk breaks during our meet events, and no one ever seemed to get mad (historically, middle-school track meets fly under the radar; who knows why). I think I placed third once out of seven. Glory days.

Of course, by the time high school rolled around, group sports were out of the question entirely. Here’s what I looked like in high school: about the same as before. Taller. Bumping into things. Here’s what the other girls looked like: really pretty, petite lumberjacks. Shoulders the width of headboards. Calves the shape and hardness of small boulders. In gym I kept my head low and concentrated on being the same color as the wall. We got through it.

Better or worse: when I graduated with a GPA no longer in flux over whether or not I could kick a ball. You’d think better, right? But here’s the twist. When we’re out of school and not playing for credit anymore, the stakes surge: If a team’s going to get something out of this, they’re going to win. They’ll lie and say what they’re really after is the discount beer after the game, but here’s what you don’t want to throw on top of the nagging malaise and unrest that nips at the heels of second place: alcohol.

Anymore I can avoid most team sports if I keep an eye out, although they can be crafty at sneaking them. Team-building days. Those will get you. There was a team-building day when we shot pool and I launched my cue cleanly over the table into the plate of food of the person across me. Team building’s a crapshoot. You can’t say no to an employer who needs a pinch hitter on his softball team, but your inappropriate footwear can say no. Plan ahead.

Screen jogging partners. Check for high ponytails, water bottles that look glossy, suspiciously aerodynamic. You don’t want someone who gets that first kick of endorphins and signs the two of you up to team-train for a half-marathon, or maybe you do want that, and we should jog our separate ways.

Establish yourself. If you’re serious about ducking future recruitment for team sports, there’s one sure way to do it: Sign up for them. Do what it takes. Eat it the first game, tip your hat, take a stroll back to the bleachers. Don’t rush it. Maybe wave as you go by, depending on how bad you want this.

On top of never fielding an invitation from that team again, it could turn the tides of your love life! Be ready for it: Classic original ChapStick sells for $1.50 a tube.


(March 2013)