Tuesday, July 3, 2012


When I was 23, I was invited to play on a recreational team for a nighttime adult volleyball league. My co-worker at a K-12 private school in Washington, DC had invited me, and even though she didn't know much about volleyball, she was naturally athletic and she was very competitive without being pushy. I liked these things in her, and I thought it would be a nice way to try to make a friend at work while also doing something that I liked a lot, too.

We usually taught and then coached afterschool until 7pm. After dinner and some work, I would meet her at the place where we would scrimmage or practice with our novice team and then go home pretty late to do more work for school the next day.

Playing on this co-ed team was fun, and usually there were enough of us to play, but not so many of us that there was a lot of sitting out. Generally, there was little hope of winning since the skill level was rather uneven (and low all around) but I liked the people well enough and really liked getting to know my co-worker better.

After a season or two of playing for this co-ed group, one of the guys on the team asked me if I had any interest in playing mixed doubles. I was a little surprised that he thought anyone from our team could manage double because our team was too lackadaisical to even try very hard because it was simply not very skilled or competitive. I hadn't played doubles on the beach since high school, and even at my best, I am not athletically coordinated. That being said, this guy who asked me was not what you would call an athletic-looking fellow either. I cannot recall his name, but it was something easy to say, like Ted. In any case, Ted was not what you would have guessed was athletic in any sport, and, having watched him play volleyball, he knew all the basics, but nothing stood out about him other than he was cordial, sportsmanlike, and did more things right than wrong on the court. Aside from that, he not much taller than my 5'3" height, which is short for women in volleyball, and considered very short for men. He wore his white athletic socks very high and his shorts were long, canvas cotton LL Bean walking shorts. I do not think he even owned a pair of athletic shorts for running, basketball, or volleyball, for that matter. Given how much white he had in his wardrobe, tennis might have been better suited for his clothing.

It was not the first time I have been asked to play volleyball as someone's partner or on their team, and it has not worked out. Often, people with some skill and a highly competitive attitude will snap at others for their mistakes when their own skills are not good enough to possibly warrant pushing others around. Even though I am extremely competitive, I do not bother with being competitive in situations where the skill level does not merit the effort; it just makes everyone feel bad. This felt like it could be just that kind of situation, but I have a hard time saying no to a volleyball invitation under most circumstances.

Tentatively, I agreed to meet Ted at the sand courts near the Memorial Bridge and the Lincoln Memorial in the late afternoon in two days. When I got there, I was nervous. Only one of the 11 courts was in use for a doubles men's game, so Ted and I began warming up. I felt really out of place as all the men were taller than we were, and they all looked pretty athletic and strong. Ted was there in his white t-shirt and white canvas shorts with his white socks, shoes, and white outdoor volleyball that looked like it had hardly been used before. We asked for the next game, and when it was our turn, we played quite well together. It is quite possible that we won, but I am unsure as it was a long time ago.

In any event, we stayed to play against a number of other teams who started arriving after work, and we finally left after a loss, agreeing to meet another day. I was surprised that we got along so well, and that we both did well as partners even though we had not played together much, even though we had been on the same six-man team, rotating in and out with our other teammates.

After our second practice through until dusk, he told me that there was a co-ed doubles tournament on the courts that weekend. He asked if I would be willing to enter it with him. Weekends were very hard for me to commit to since I always traveled to see my boyfriend in New York, but I told Ted that I would ask him to come down and meet me instead so that I could play in the tournament. I wasn't sure what I was thinking it would be like, but I did not think it would matter. We had not played long together anyway, and we were both pretty moderate in skill level.

That Saturday, the sun was out bright and early. It was going to be a hot one in DC. No clouds, a little humidity creeping in as we edged toward the summer, and a lot of time in the sun on the sandy courts. When we arrived, it took us a while to find each other, and other games were going on with men's doubles on most of the courts. Our first game was against a co-ed team that was apparently well known on the circuit. In my head, they could have been from the US National Team. Except that they looked like a bulging Mr. and Ms. Universe who also happened to have a lot of volleyball talent and a lot of tan skin (long before the days of tanning salons, mind you). Being from California, I am used to seeing tan volleyball players who have a certain smoothness of form and body shape that looks natural, not ropey. These two were body builders as well as athletes. Ted and I glanced at each other during their warm up. It was going to be a fast game, we could tell.

Although we did lose to this team, we were happy to have done better than we expected once again. It was turning out to be a durable partnership in some pretty stressful situations. But it was the next few games we played that really surprised us. In game after game against tall opponents who clearly had more skill than we had, Ted and I won again and again. This happened to us the other two times we played in pick up games together, but we also lost a number of games, understandably. Ted was the tallest of the two of us, but playing on a men's height net, it was very hard for me to block, so all of that was left to Ted, putting me in the position of handling the pass and hit, which was also hard for me on a men's net. I would always joke at the start of warm up how I could walk underneath the net and almost get clearance without bending my head. It was frustrating to play on such a high net, but any lower would have made it easier for men to hit even harder from the other teams. Somehow, though, Ted and I made it work. We always tried to set up a play, and we tried to move the play to where the other person was to make it easier for each other on such a large court. We did our best and were encouraging of whatever went right in each play. It was a simple recipe, but it worked.

It worked so well that we made it to the finals. And then, Ted got sunstroke. I couldn't believe he was going to pass out right there in between games when we were waiting for our finals round. Lying in the shade of one of the many trees in the park, Ted turned brighter and brighter red. His good friend, whom we had beaten in a prior game, was fanning him, trying to cool him down. I kept talking to him, hoping that he would bounce back in the next 40 minutes, when it became apparent that he would not be able to sit up and move around easily. I didn't want to play in the finals if I didn't have him as a partner--and I didn't even know him well as it was! He told me to find another partner because he would sit it out since the sun was still relatively hot in at 2:30pm. I ran to the men's doubles courts and looked for a game that was finishing to see if I could find someone. I spotted another guy whom I had played against just a few days ago. I knew he would know me. But his team was doing well, and he was trying to get to the finals on his side, so he declined to play in between games so he could be ready for his own game.

I was ready to give up. There was no point. But it would have been deflating for the other team to win simply because there was no competition. I had assumed we would play against the National Team, but somehow, that couple had gotten moved up to a different bracket where discovered card sharks go, so our bracket was relieved of their muscley madness. Ted suggested that I partner up with his friend, Brian, instead. Inside, I was not quite sure that Brian was going to work. He was much taller than Ted, and his skills were about the same level as Ted, so things looked rather decent on paper. But Brian was not very gracious as a player, and he was uptight and edgy instead of the easy-going, courteous player that Ted was. We lost in two games straight, and the tournament was over in due time. I thanked Brian for the last-minute substitution, and we went to sit by Ted again, who was looking just fine by now.

We went on to play doubles together for almost a year, never entering another tournament, but always playing on the sand courts near the bridge. At some point in the late spring of the next year, Ted and I went out to dinner for the first time, not long before I would be leaving to New York City to move in with my boyfriend. He told me he would be leaving to begin a course of study for the ministry, and we talked about his life and why he was choosing that. We hardly talked about the most incredible thing of all, which was how two people of relatively average talents could often beat teams with far more skill and strength (most teams were men-only). It was a sad ending to a fun and easy friendship, as we never kept in touch after we said goodbye, nor do I remember his name anyway, but I love to remember from time to time that a workable partnership can sometimes be stronger than a bunch of strong individuals.

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