It’s 3 am on the night before my first badminton match of the Beijing Olympics. I’ve tossed and turned for four hours now and still no closer to falling asleep. My roommate in this tiny room snores peacefully beside me, which does nothing but increase my anxiety.
I imagine my family, sleeping soundly I’m sure, crammed into the small Beijing apartment they’ve rented for the week. Halfway around the world they’ve come to cheer me on. I must not disappoint.
Relax. Relax. Relax, damn it- I tell myself. But I can’t, my mind is racing and I have no control of where it’s going. I’m paralyzed, fear is running this show.
Finally, as the sun begins to rise, my mind tires and I’m able to sleep a few precious hours. The alarm goes and my mind jumps out of its temporary slumber, skips the warm up and goes straight back to full speed ahead.
“Today’s the day. You’ve beaten her every time before, the pressure’s on you”, my ego shouts.
I pull myself together, take temporary charge of my misbehaving mind, and get through my pre-game routine. Things are looking up, my no-it-all ego has taken a nap, I pray it’s a long one.
It’s 6pm at the Beijing Institute of Technology Arena. The stands are full. I’m on centre court, tv court, the only match in play.
I win the first set, things are going well. My shots are on, the calls are going my way, my American opponent seems tight. But something changes halfway through the second set: someone woke my ego from her nap and she’s clawed her way back to the front of my mind.
“Move your feet!”, I hear my coach shout from behind my court in a voice that sounds to me like a slow-motion humpback whale call. I may as well be under water, my legs are moving about as fast.
As my ego takes the reigns and ups the volume on my fear button, the panic that I might actually lose this match grows, and with it the closer I get to doing exactly that.
And there it goes, I’ve lost the second set.
Second set won by U.S.A., I hear the umpire announce. The line repeats a few more times in my head while I collect my badminton bag and switch onto the other side of the net.
Coach walks calmly onto the court, a smile on his face.
“Why are you smiling?” I snap at him, still out of breath from the last rally that assured the need for a third and deciding set.
“She’s playing well, nothing we can do about that, so let’s’—“ But I don’t let him finish. My ego wants nothing of solution and only wants to continue the panic that’s about to go temper tantrum.
“Why has the draft changed all of a sudden? I can’t believe the umpire didn’t overrule that line call! It was so clearly out and—“
“Ok that’s enough”, Coach interrupts, his smile now replaced with a scowl. “You need to chill the *&^% out.” I lose my train of thought, shocked to hear my coach drop an F-bomb on centre court at the Olympics.
“We can’t do anything about the umpire or the lines people, but what we can do something about is your attitude right now.”
“Listen to yourself. Have you forgotten where you are, what you’re doing here and who’s sitting up there in the stands halfway around the world to support you? I would cut off my right arm to be standing where you’re standing right now.”
My eyes drop to the floor. Shame and guilt, two of my ego’s favorite playmates, are welcomed to this party with open arms.
As if reading my mind, my coach responds. “I’m not saying this to make you feel guilty, just to help you appreciate this moment. No matter what happens now, your family loves you and we love you. Win or lose, Anna, this will be true.”
My heart settles. Little ego and her friends shame and guilt run off to pester someone else, and I feel my blood pumping joy and excitement again.
As the umpire calls us back to the court, I feel invincible. The deciding set begins, I’m moving well, making great shots, enjoying the moment.
I could never have guessed that it was all about to change.
As the third and deciding set begins, I’ve calmed myself down.
My coach’s rant seems to have snapped me out of victim-hood. For a moment I even laugh at my thoughts; was I really feeling sorry for myself, as I stand here on centre court at the Olympics? Oh Ego, funny little girl, the games you play.
The serve is up and the rallies are long and hard, but I feel no sense of panic because this is my strategy, my style- I live for this. My legs are back, my breathing under control.
Steadily I creep ahead of my seemingly weakening opponent. Her pace is slowing and I can see her frustration seeping out into her body language between points.
“You got her now, take it to her!” I hear my Ego shout.
Oh, you’re on my side now, are you? Well that’s a welcome change.
Suddenly, the entire stadium falls completely silent, like someone’s just pressed the mute button, save one familiar sound. It’s a comforting voice, one I already miss so terribly, and it’s slowly bringing tears up my throat.
It’s my Grandma, she’s laughing her deep, powerful laugh.
My heart sinks to the pit of my stomach. I’ve managed to fight off these thoughts for the past few days but now- in this vulnerable state, they break the barrier and come racing in like a pack of wild horses on the move.
My Grandma died five days ago, on the very night I arrived in Beijing. My biggest supporter, my confidante, my friend, it’s a devastating blow that I haven’t let myself address. Not now, not here.
But my thoughts can’t resist that wonderful laugh, and as it starts to fade I chase after it to no avail.
“Eleven-nine,” I vaguely here the umpire announce.
Eleven-nine? Did I really just lose the last five consecutive points? Five points turn into eight and I’m now a few rallies away from losing this match, but I don’t care.
The sadness gushes in and hardens immediately into self-pity. Just at the absolute millisecond that I’m about to let my Ego dive deep into victim-hood and call it a day, I hear my Grandma’s voice again. She’s not laughing, just talking softly now, whispering in fact, as if she’s right beside my ear.
“Anna Baby: I know you can hear me. You’re here, you made it, and I know how you love this game. Don’t forget it was me who drove you to your very first practice some twenty years ago. You came running out beaming from ear to ear and you’ve never looked back. I’m exactly where I want to be, no need for sadness. Besides, how else was I gonna get here to watch you play? I’ve got the best seat in the house. Now go and be free, play like you’ve got nothin’ to lose. Cause you know what? There IS nothing to lose.”
And back I come, fearless.
From 17-14 down I rally back, winning the match 21-19. I hear my family roar from the rafters, and I know I owe this victory to one person.
I point up with both hands and thank her.
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