I don’t recall when and where I read it, but I remember the impact this phrase had on me at the time: Children are powerless. They are easily hurt, easily damaged, easily broken. Consider, if you will, the USABMX Bluegrass National of this past weekend. It was a purpose-built track in a lovely facility… but there was too much moisture in the dirt, courtesy of an accident during storage and transportation. A layer of muddy sand extruded itself from the track surface. And my sixty-two-pound child with his single-digit body fat and ethereal proportions, always so fast and so capable on concrete or asphalt or a wooden box jump, was stuck on that surface like a butterfly in a Venus flytrap.
He’d won five races in a row going into the weekend, but against the bigger, stronger Southern children he struggled. Always first or second into the initial corner, he would then simply be dragged to a near halt while the competition chopped along. The track conditions affected everybody — on Day One, we had 21 riders in the 46-50 Expert class, on Day Two, just nine of us returned — but it was hardest on the lightest and smallest racers. After barely making the main event on Saturday and finishing sixth of eight riders, John was simply furious. I told him that we had an option: we could cut his gearing by seven percent. It would give him a chance to climb out of the sandy ruts. But he would have to pedal at least seven percent more — this, on a track that was already a few hundred feet longer than anything he’d ridden in almost a year.
“I think,” he replied, “I am okay to try anything.”
On Sunday morning I made a critical mistake: I let him sleep too long and we arrived at the track just as his first moto was leaving the gate. This meant he would have a single chance to make the main. In that single chance, he bounded out at the statt and led the pack into Turn One… but then he started slowing down. A child passed him, then another, then another. He needed to finish fifth. Which he did, barely. At the finish line, he was in tears. “It hurts so much to pedal at the end and I’m not going anywhere!” It took the combined efforts of both me and his coach over the course of nearly half an hour just to calm him down. “I can’t do it! I’m going to get dead last and I’ll look like an idiot!”
I asked him to trust me. I told him that I would take the responsibility for his loss, should it occur; after all, I’d been the one to change his gear. “It’s my fault, not yours!” he snapped. “I’m too small and too weak to keep up!” And in truth he was at least twenty pounds lighter than the majority of his competition. In a normal race he simply glides and jumps where they chop and pound — but out here in the mud, chopping and pounding was the order of the day.
“You can’t fix that right now. You have to be smart, and you have to push harder than anyone else. Otherwise you’ll lose. And I won’t care about that, not for a minute. But I know you will.”
“I will try as hard as I can.” There were five riders in the main. He was in second place exiting the first hairpin. Then he slowed. And he was caught. Third place. Then fourth. Then the fifth place child simply rode straight through the second turn and rammed John off the bike. They both fell. John’s shoe was tangled with his handlebars. The other rider got up and sprinted off. John stood on unsteady feet, mounted his bike, and started pedaling. He was ten feet behind going into the last turn. He railed it high, relying on his superior balance, and exited dead even with the other rider. From then on, it was a street fight between an eighty-pound Kentucky boy and my own insubstantial clone.
John won by six inches. He gave me a thumbs up then chattered to his coach in pure ecstatic joy. He’d pushed himself as hard as he could go. He clutched the fourth-place trophy like it was true gold instead of bright plastic. He had been a little damaged by this, but not, I hoped, in any way broken.
“You did what I asked you to do, John. What do you want from me in return?”
“I want to go to Dairy Queen.”
And we did.
In my second to last column for R&T, I discussed the slippery slope of need and want.