Super Bowl Sunday: Who Are Your Champions?

Who Are Your Champions

It’s Super Bowl Sunday and the grocery store was packed. I mean packed. I don’t know why I didn’t think to get my weekly stash of life-sustaining food yesterday, but I didn’t. So I drove over there today, in a blizzard, parked on the lower level of the garage after driving through every row of the first level, and managed to push my way down the aisles for an hour without having a breakdown. Huge success, considering it was so crowded that they’d run out of hot sauce, and almost everyone in the store was packed into the condiments aisle waiting to see if it would be restocked.

As I was patiently waiting in the checkout line and handing over my coupons, it occurred to me that this is crazy. Continue reading

Pierogies, Pens, and Pamela’s

Last weekend, Jim and I were faced with an impossible task. We had to show Jim’s cousin Greg, and Greg’s girlfriend Sarah a great time in Pittsburgh in the short span of their less-than-24-hour visit.

If you’ve ever lived in or been to this city, you know that there is no possible way to do everything worth doing in just one weekend. Between all the fantastic restaurants, neighborhoods, museums, and sports teams, it takes days, weeks, even years to experience it all. With our limited time constraint, we did our best to show off our personal favorite spots and try some new things as well.

Continue reading

7 Awesome Things about Running in a New Neighborhood

As you may or may not know, I have been haunting a new neighborhood lately. One more urban, more crowded and certainly more interesting. I’ve come to this neighborhood with plans and hopes and fears and dreams. I have ventured out into this unknown…

Part of my plan for exploring this vastly unfamiliar area is to run. After my first (and last) 5K, I stopped running for a little while. I figured I could celebrate my small and insignificant victory by taking a break. When I tried to start back up again, I was out of shape and my knees were bothering me. I needed to start slowly and that is hard. All I wanted to do was pick up where I’d left off.  Continue reading

My Travels into the Steelers Nation

If you’ve never had the opportunity to watch your favorite sports team play at an away game, you should make time to do that right now.

Two weekends ago, I visited my boyfriend in Buffalo, New York and we saw the Steelers play against the Bills. It was only my second time going to a Steelers game, I believe, and my first time seeing them away. You see, when I was younger, I was told the Pittsburgh Steelers games get really rowdy and there are too many drunk guys who get so worked up about an incomplete pass or a sack that it’s not morally a good decision to take young children to games. Not to mention that the tickets didn’t exactly sell like $12 Pirates tickets– so with limited funds and a straight moral compass, I just hadn’t gotten to go to many games.

But there I was in Buffalo, wondering what it would be like to wear my Steelers jersey. I told my boyfriend he had to defend my honor, even though he was a Bills fan. I was also thinking about the fact that my jersey was slightly out of date. Randel el officially retired this summer and is no longer on the team. But the good thing about being at an away game, I thought, was that few people would even realize this fact. So the jersey stayed on.

And good thing it did, because after we parked in someone’s front yard near the stadium, I saw almost as many Steelers jerseys and Terrible Towels as I did Bills fans. It was like I’d found long-lost family. With every interception the Steelers caught and every touchdown scored, the Steelers fans grew louder. After half-time, Bills fans left the stadium in droves and Steelers fans outnumbered them in their own city. You could look across the stadium and see crowds of black and gold with yellow towels waving proud. I was high-fiving the 7-year-old kid next to me and making bets with the couple behind us (all of us Steelers fans of course). You could hear “Here we go Steelers, here we go” resonating from the end zones. It was quite a sight.

But what was also amazing to see was the level of pride the Bills fans showed. Excuse my telling the truth, but we all know the Bills haven’t had the greatest track record. But despite the fact that they showed up to the game knowing they would inevitably lose, they did still show up, they wore their jerseys, they painted their faces, they cheered for their lone touchdown in the first quarter, and they brought their kids to pass on their pride to the next generation. They weren’t sore losers, they probably just left after half-time because the kids needed to go to bed (it was Kids’ Night, that’s why there were so many there).

There was a young man in the front of our section who started the wave. Now, I’ve been at sporting events where one wacked-out guy tries to start the wave (dude with the crazy wig at Penguins games, this would be you) and it never truly works. You get two or three sections that follow along but it’s always brought down by the people who are actually dedicated to watching sports and the people with so much food on their lap they can’t stand up anyways. But not at the Bills/Steelers game. This guy started this wave and the entire stadium joined in. I wish I could say every single person, but that’s probably not true–but it sure looked like every person if you saw it. It went around at least ten times, flawlessly. Granted, the Bills fans at this game were not interested in the game since they were already losing by at least two touchdowns. So it was seriously awesome seeing all of these people, who don’t know each other, who aren’t from the same city, and who probably wouldn’t like each other if we were all to meet, standing up as a single “wave.” There might have been a major play that occurred during this wave time and I’m sure not many people noticed. I sure didn’t, I was too enthralled with the fact that people really just want to be a part of something. And especially when their team fails them, it’s fun to be a part of this crowd, this “family,” for a few minutes. For a few minutes, doing the wave, we all had something in common.

Everyone was so into it, that when it finally died, this crazy wacko started doing a slow wave (kind of like a slow clap). And we all did it. It didn’t make it all the way around the stadium because I’m not sure the other side knew exactly what we were doing. But our side of the field raised our hands in slow motion and sat back down in slow motion and watched the next few sections to our right follow suit. Talk about crowd mentality. We’re all doing something just because all the people around us are doing it, but we like that sense of belonging.

As we left the stadium, I got high-fived by a couple other Steelers fans and heard all the ruckus they were making, in true Steelers-fan style. The Bills fans walked out calmly, not bitter, not angry at our celebrations, because they still had a good time. They still supported the team they grew up with and love, and they all did it together.

This is a Steelers nation and you will find Steelers fans across the U.S. in practically every city. And we are all proud and we all bleed black and gold. So I do think you should go see an away game. I think you should experience the camaraderie, the feeling that you’ve found family far from home, people that you can high-five and cheer with. And hopefully you’ll find great people from the enemy’s side, who also find that camaraderie, just in being at a football game. But if you’re going to a Steelers game, I wouldn’t recommend going to Cleveland–you’d probably have a whole different experience.

Achieving Olympic Dreams: Running on Blades

Of all the inspirational stories that emerge from the coverage of the Olympics, the one that caught my eye a few days ago was that of Oscar Pistorius, of South Africa. He is called the Blade Runner, using prosthetics in place of both of his lower legs and feet. Oscar is quite literally a runner without legs. If that doesn’t inspire someone, what will?

He was born without fibulas and was not even a year old when his legs were amputated. Think about the kind of life he probably had, growing up. It’s hard enough to live in the hard world with all your limbs. And still he had Olympic dreams. He still knew that he could do more, even without his legs. And luckily, we do live in this hard world, because it enabled him to find a way around his “handicap.” Building him some prosthetic legs put him on the path to greatness. If only it could work like that for everyone with the Olympics in their sights.

Pistorius worked hard and has to have tons of natural talent in order to get where he is today. But he also has to be incredibly lucky. Not every double-amputee with or without prosthetic limbs ends up in the Olympics. He is lucky that he has the money to afford his state-of-the-art legs, and to replace them when necessary. He’s lucky that his case was reviewed and ruled in his favor to allow him to compete in this year’s Olympics. It can’t be easy for him. Why don’t you try running with no legs?

Yet there are still bitter critics saying that his artificial legs give him an unfair advantage; they give him spring in his step that other runners don’t have; they reduce his fatigue because there are no muscles there to use up oxygen and make him tired. But if he had such an advantage, wouldn’t there be more amputees running as fast as he is?

It might be easier for people to yell “unfair!” than to admit that their guy will get beat by a runner with no legs. We want everything to be equal and fair, but that’s not how the world is. It’s not even fair for the people who do have their legs. Some of those runners have had better coaching, or are in a geographically more agreeable country or city. Some athletes are better off financially and can concentrate on just running, while others are trying to hold a job and provide for a family. People aren’t going to come from the exact same circumstances, so can’t we call it unfair for everyone? Can we kick everyone out who we think is too old or too young, not allow someone to compete because they had more time to practice than we did?

His artificial blades were proven to not give him any extra spring. They are shock absorbing, like many running shoes claim to be, but they do not add extra power. I’m sure with today’s technology rapidly advancing, that power boost may  not be far behind. But of course, the Olympic committee would shoot down a competitor with a power boost in their feet, just as they would someone who takes performance enhancing drugs. There is obviously a line between artificial feet and rockets for legs.

It would not be easy to learn to walk on blades and certainly not easy to run fast enough to qualify in the Olympics. Whatever “advantages” this guy has, it is not his feet.  I salute him. I hope he runs the best he can and keeps up with the best of them. I hope he wins medals and proves to everyone that you can achieve dreams even with disadvantages like the loss of your legs. I hope he becomes an inspiration to other amputees in the world, and those who are trying to overcome major challenges in their lives. I do not, however, think that he should be able to compete in the Paralympics after the London Olympics. If he has the chance to prove how great he is now, he shouldn’t need to prove himself again, or against other amputees. He earned the right to compete in the Olympics and he deserves that. But no one else gets two tries. Now that is what is unfair.

As technology continues to improve and we become better able to make limbs for amputees, and give people the chances that they wouldn’t have otherwise had, we’re going to have to keep re-evaluating what is “fair” and who has the “advantage.” It is a continuous process, just as everything else dealing with rising technology is an ongoing process. With everything in a state of constant change, nothing is going to be cut and dry forever.

Oscar Pistorius proves that someone without legs can run in the Olympics. Hopefully this will open doors for others like him and we can continue to be supportive of all athletes who work hard and persevere through all the obstacles they are given.

And if he can run races in the Olympics, without legs, I can surely get off the couch and hit the gym once in awhile. Like I said, truly an inspiration…

 

image from usatoday.com

Olympic Dreams

 

This was the year I was supposed to go to the Olympics.

I started swimming competitively when I was nine years old. It was the only sport I could do well, with my flat feet and lack of running skills and hand-eye coordination. I became as dedicated as any swimmer could get. I was the first one in the pool, last one out, before school, after school, weight lifting. Never skipped a set or a lap. (Ok, rarely skipped.) I distinctly remember one of my old coaches sitting down with me to discuss my future in swimming. He asked what my goals were, whether it was getting a better time, beating a certain person, or going to the Olympics. I looked at him, all confused, and said, “Doesn’t every swimmer want to go to the Olympics?”

I calculated my age and the years that the summer Olympics were held and decided that I would probably be at my peak when I was 22 years old, for the 2012 Olympics. I figured I wasn’t going to be a Michael Phelps at age 15, but by 22, I should have it in the bag.

So, yes, this was the year I should have gone to the Olympics.

I would never have come close to the fast times that these Olympians are going. I would have been drowning in their wake as they swam circles around me. I was never, ever on track to swim that fast. I had the most drive and motivation a coach could ever want in an athlete, but you have to have more than that to be the absolute best. You have to have some kind of innate talent and ability that cannot be taught or learned. These Olympians are naturals to the point of having super powers. But children should have dreams. The goal of every young athlete should be to go to the Olympics. It’s what teaches them to work hard, never give up, shake off mistakes and learn to work even harder.

The Olympians, not just those competing in London right now, but all of the past and future Olympic athletes, are heroes and role models to so many people, especially children. I looked with awe and wonder at the massive shoulders of my heroes competing on television and I watched them break records and I wanted to be in their shoes someday. And that is where I learned my dedication and commitment and my drive.

I had posters of swimmers covering my bedroom walls when I was younger. I meticulously cut pictures out of magazines, even tiny pictures that were barely three inches wide. So many you could hardly see the wall. Pictures of Dara Torres, Aaron Piersol, Dana Munz, Misty Hyman, Natalie Coughlin, Brendan Hansen, Michael Phelps. When I took them down sometime in high school, I’m pretty sure I saved them, because I couldn’t bear to throw away my childhood idols. These athletes were the ones that kept me in the pool, made me go to practice, and helped me with my stroke. I imagined I was one of them when I practiced and raced. I watched videos about how Michael Phelps swims his butterfly, and I tried to emulate him. These athletes were and still are my heroes and convince me every day that great things can be achieved, with hard work and a dream.

Every kid in sports needs that. Every adult not in sports needs that. We need to be able to believe that impossible is possible, that dreams can come true. We can see it on the athletes’ faces– the smiles as they touch the wall, score the last point, finish the race– that this is the moment they prepared for all their lives, and we’re living that moment with them. Because those moments are our moments. Those were our dreams too and we might not be the ones competing in London, but that was our goal, that was supposed to be our Olympics. So we’re left to live vicariously through the ones who were lucky enough to be born with the natural talent that we didn’t get, the monstrous shoulders, the massive legs, the precise stroke, the better coaching and more pool time. It’s not difficult to see why we didn’t go, so we’ll settle. We’ll let them swim our races, let them win the medals. We’ll cheer with them and cry for them and our hearts will break for them, in their successes and failures. These are our heroes, representing the United States, representing all of the young athletes whose dream it is to get there, representing all the non-athletes who can still find joy in their triumph.

I will let them swim my races. Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Dana Vollmer, Missy Franklin, Allison Schmitt, Cullen Jones…I guess they’re pretty good, they probably worked pretty hard. But by God, they better swim well. Because that was supposed to be me there.

 

(image from time.com)

 

An American (Pittsburgh) Past-time

Everyone expects posts about independence today, stories about freedom, tales of dreams fulfilled and promises made. Everyone writes articles about picnics, fireworks and community gatherings at the park. They detail the history of our nation and possibly criticize the society today that has grown away from that history. We see biographies of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, the founding fathers who had an idealist’s hope for the growth of a free, unified nation. We read the uplifting stories about ways that our country has fulfilled that dream and how far we have left to go.

But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about baseball. Which is an American dream in itself. But it may strike you as ironic that I write about this American sport, since I am not a huge fan of baseball. In fact, I haven’t been to a baseball game in I don’t know how many years. I’m pretty sure one of the last times I went to a ball game, my girl friend and I were painting our nails. I was young.

But then on Monday night I went to a Pittsburgh Pirates game and it all hit home for me. Pun intended. Now, I won’t bore you with facts and statistics about the Pirates. I don’t know them. But I will tell you about the Pirates from the vantage point of someone who bleeds black and gold.

I am always excited at the prospect of going to a baseball game. I am the kind of person who thinks sports are much more fun to watch when I’m actually at the game. The idea of baseball is appealing. It’s relaxing, not too many drunk fanatics, time to talk with family and friends, Primanti’s for dinner, beer and cotton candy. Why wouldn’t anyone like that?

And then I sit down and I’m bored by the third pitch. The batter hasn’t hit the ball and even if he does, the ball is in the air  for about three seconds before it’s caught and the guy is out anyway. The beer is eight dollars, the line for Primanti’s is too long, the bathroom is gross, and the guy with the box full of cotton candy never makes it to row Y of section 325. And of all the seats in the whole stadium, you’re sitting right in front of the one drunk guy who yells very loudly at every pitch, at every batter, at the umpires, at the team on the bench, at the outfielders, etc… (It’s like that old computer game “Backyard Baseball” where the computerized players are yelling “We want a batter, not a broken ladder.” Yes, THAT guy.) Not to mention, you run out of things to say to your family after one inning.

This may or may not be your own baseball reality. But the fact is, most of the time, all that doesn’t matter. And I realized on Monday night that it didn’t matter. Yes, we did sit down and I was immediately bored. And no, we didn’t get Primanti’s  for dinner, my mom had made a delicious meatloaf for dinner at home. But we moved our seats to a quieter section, splurged on a few beers and bonded as a family, watching the Pirates make a come-back.

When people hear that I’m from Pittsburgh, they immediately ask me if I’m a Steelers fan. (I still don’t understand why that is the first question they feel the need to ask. Everyone from Pittsburgh is a Steelers fan. There is no doubt about that, no need to ask that question.) Sometimes that is followed by whether I’m a Pirates fan (never the Pens, which I don’t get because the Pens are pretty good and hockey is exciting, but whatever). And always, someone finds a way to chime in that “the Pirates suck”. I almost always agree with them, but you never turn your back on your team. But this year, something happened and the Pirates are actually winning games. There are actually more than ten people in the stands. We actually hit several home runs and won 11-2 on Monday night. So stop bashing my team. Your football team sucks, but you don’t hear me saying anything.

The level of fan loyalty in Pittsburgh will never cease to amaze me. On a day when we’re talking about unification and dreams and promise, look no further than this city here. Our sports teams will always, always bring us together. Just like Independence Day brings our divided nation together to eat hot dogs, watch fireworks and forget about politics–even if it’s just for one day. With nothing else in common, Pittsburghers can bond over the fact that we all love our football, hockey and baseball teams– even when they’re terrible. And we will root for those teams through thick and thin. Maybe the Pirates went through some rough years (or decades) but every summer, they come back, they try their best and their fans are behind them. And here they are, winning games, hitting home runs, filling the stadium with cheers. Now that is the American dream.

(Alright, this post actually is about uplifting American hopes and promises. Sorry about that.)

The Boys of Title IX

As a girl who tried out almost every sport at least once before finally finding my niche, I must say that I owe it to Title IX. Not that I knew it at the time. Starting at five years old, I was introduced to organized team sports and I didn’t know any different. I thought all parents automatically signed their children up for t-ball and soccer when they turned five. Of course that’s not the case, but I couldn’t compare.

So my story followed the path of a shy child, with flat feet, who couldn’t run if the world was ending. Naturally, I was signed up for soccer at age five and failed miserably. Age six– slow-pitch softball and I was afraid to catch the ball. I suffered through that sport for two years. The next year that I would have played was supposed to be fast-pitch and I refused to go back. For a few years in there, from about age five to age eight or nine, I did dance–ballet, tap and jazz. I took a few tennis lessons each summer, maintaining amateur level with my backhand. I signed up for a gymnastics try-out week. When they wanted me to do a flip over an 8-foot-high bar, I realized my fear of heights. My mom signed me up for an ice skating lesson–the only thing I learned was how to properly fall so that someone else skating by doesn’t slice your fingers off. Finally, at age nine, I joined the Hampton Dolphins swim club. And the rest is history. I swam for twelve years, three years varsity at a Division 1 college. I can’t say I loved every single minute. But I loved most of the minutes. So thank you Title IX.

The 40th anniversary of the passing of Title IX is tomorrow, hence my seemingly random thoughts about my many team sports failures. Once I learned, probably in middle school at some point, that Title IX was responsible for all of my childhood mishaps with soccer balls and balance beams, I became intrigued. Title IX became the subject of many school projects and papers throughout high school and college. I was curious because I couldn’t imagine a time when girls weren’t allowed to play sports. It boggled my mind. My parents always told me I could do anything I wanted to. So here we are, 40 years later, and girls can do anything. We have female wrestlers, football players, body builders. We have girls basketball, soccer, and softball teams. It is pointless for me to even list all the sports because girls have an opportunity in all of them. Even if it might be hard for a girl to get onto a professional football team, it is possible for her to try. So the evidence is clear that Title IX has done wonders. And not just in sports, because that is not the only reason why Title IX was passed, that’s just the most prominent thing that stands out to the public.

So why bring it up then? If it’s simply a fact of life now, then why keep talking about it? Because first of all, girls and boys are still not entirely equal in schools and in sports. Girls still have some ways to go in some parts of the country. Second of all, people continue to look at Title IX from the girls’ perspective. But what about the boys? What about the wrestler whose college team got cut right before his senior year when he is about to be voted captain? What about the schools that cut track and cross country because their football team brings in way more revenue than track teams could dream of? When looking at the big picture, people argue that boys teams have not been hurt overall. That there are other opportunities for them and that just because a few teams get cut does not lower the overall rate of boys in sports, and the gap between girls and boys in sports is still decreasing.

I think Title IX is a good thing. But I also sympathize with the boys whose dreams have been crushed or altered because of it. The big picture is beautiful, yes. But look at it from that one boy’s perspective.

As a swimmer, the effects of Title IX on boys teams has hit a little closer to home for me than for someone else maybe. When I was looking at colleges, I was trying to find a school where I could swim. One school seemed great; the team seemed fun, the academics were awesome–but they told me that was the last year for their boys team. I eliminated it from my choices. I wanted to swim with boys. Swimming is a co-ed sport and I had always swam with boys. They motivated me and made the team more interesting and I wouldn’t swim at a school without a boys team. So I may have been a great asset to that school, but they missed out. They shouldn’t have cut their boys team.

My boyfriend, whom I met on the swim team in college, told me that he had wanted to go to Rhode Island, that he was signed and ready to go to Rhode Island. They called him last minute, telling him they cut their boys team. (Thank God, or I wouldn’t have met him. Best decision Rhode Island ever made.) So he had to change his plans. He was in line for a scholarship from RI, but at Delaware, boys scholarships weren’t really available (they were saved for football). So I watched his dreams change as he adjusted to the consequences of Title IX.

During the spring semester in 2011, I had the opportunity of speaking with several of the athletes on the UD Track and Cross Country teams. I invited them on my TV show to talk about the fact that the school had just reduced these varsity teams to club status. There was outrage across campus about this decision. Students couldn’t understand why the football team (which wasn’t the best football team) couldn’t get slightly less funding. They couldn’t understand why the university couldn’t promote a girls club team to varsity status to make the participation equal. I’m sure it was a difficult decision for the school and they felt this was the best option. But when you talk to these kids, as individuals who were really great athletes, who had planned their lives to run track at UD, and you see their varsity-level team get swept out from under them with hardly any warning, then you wonder about Title IX. The track and cross country athletes had dinner with the president of the university to voice their complaints. They signed petitions and spoke to kids around campus. 

These are the boys who are affected by Title IX and just because their numbers may be small in terms of the bigger picture, their sport was important to them. Their individual stories will always be affected by Title IX.

There is no denying that Title IX is doing a great job of promoting sports for girls and enabling their involvement. However, there must be some other way to continue this progress without cutting boys teams in order be be in compliance. Talk to any boy whose team has been cut or downgraded to club status. I’m sure they have some ideas.