It takes time to understand a sport. To grasp the ins and outs and appreciate the nuance that comes from a deeper understanding.
All that work isn’t necessary to enjoy a sport, certainly.
But it definitely adds to its appreciation.
To me, football came easy. So did baseball and basketball.
Other sports took a little work. And with that extra work comes a level of respect for those sports.
I have covered my share of rodeos over the years, which would have made my dad incredibly happy. He was a rodeo cowboy in the days before I came along, and he loved the sport. I grew up on stories about Wild Cow Milking contests and how a particularly unfriendly bull had rearranged the placement of his nose on his face.
He used to pontificate that rodeo was the world’s most incorruptible sport. You can’t bribe a bull, he would say. When I pointed out that you wouldn’t need to buy off the livestock – all you need to do is rig the draw, he stopped talking to me for the better part of a week.
I’m a self-taught soccer fan, and my appreciation for it as an art form is home grown.
Running sports have taken a while.
For starters, I’ve had a bias toward those sports, both track and cross country. If you ever hear the words “I’m going out for a run” come out of my mouth, you can be sure that I have been kidnapped by aliens and replaced by an android with a faulty program. If I ever had an impulse to go for a run, I would most definitely go back to bed until the impulse passed.
Still, the appreciation has come.
I understand the need to run, even if I don’t share it. You get that when you meet people like the Iron Nun, Sister Madonna Buder.
And I’ve learned the nuance of the sport from talking to some of the sport’s top coaches in the area – lessons like the difference between running and racing, and how different runners take their inspiration from each.
Which brings me to cross country.
When you live in a region dominated by the persona of Steve Prefontaine and an area that produced runners like Gerry Lindgren and Rick Riley, which produced one of the state’s most impressive dynasties – Pat Tyson’s Mead boys teams, you know a little bit about what the sport is all about.
Watching a race up close and you gain a good deal of insight. Walking the course at a state meet is especially so.
Coaches talk about the temptation being strong at a big meet, especially a state championship meet, to go out too fast and burn yourself out. You see that first-hand, along with the deep frustration that comes with it.
Digging deep and finding that something extra is an internal process, but you see it play out at a state cross country meet. That’s why you see so many personal best times in this meet.
But one of the most interesting things you learn covering an array of sports is how deeply they run in families.
At West Valley, running grows especially deep.
Mark Esvelt and Bob Stone both ran cross country for long-time West Valley coach Jim McLachlan. Esvelt still holds the school record in the mile.
And both have daughters leading a running renaissance at WVHS.
Last year the Eagles fielded a full girls varsity cross country team for the first time in years, and the team qualified for the state tournament with a flock of freshmen.
This year, led by Annika Esvelt’s 14th place finish overall, the Eagles placed second to Sehome at the state Class 2A meet. Sydney Stone was the Eagles fifth runner to cross, turning in a time of 20 minutes, 26.10 seconds.
And they did it with five sophomores and two juniors. Esvelt, Emma Garza, Jenna Engeland, Sadie Langford and Mikayla Davis all are sophomores. Stone and Sarah Adamson are juniors.
Athletes talk about their teams in the parlance of family. And with cross country running, the shared pain, the shared wear and tear from long miles of road work, have a way of giving runners a bond.
You strip away all the artifice, and you have, together, reached deeply into your soul to find every ounce of competitive juice, you end up with an exceptional bond.
And when there is actually family factored in, it’s even stronger.
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