I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a part of a community. I grew up in a Catholic parish in Cincinnati, as part of a large extended family. I graduated grade school in a class of 60, with whom I’d played soccer, basketball, volleyball, and Red Rover. I grew up on a street with 12 houses, where all the kids would gather in our back yard to play soccer at night. Mostly, my overwhelming recollection of home is that it always felt like I had people – you know, PEOPLE – in church, in school, at soccer games – pretty much wherever I went.
Like most adults, when I moved away from home, I had to start over. I did an okay job in college of finding new friends and having fun – but it wasn’t until I came to Chicago, alone at 21, starting an intense 3 years of law school, that I really ached for some nice, genuine friends to call my own. I had never been as alone as I was then, and I wasn’t quite sure how to recreate the acceptance and support of that community.
Somewhere along the way, I landed a job at a company. That company had a softball team. I hadn’t run more than 90 feet since 9th grade, but it seemed like something my hungry peers in school would do to network – so I signed up. There, I met real people. I met women who worked hard, but who set aside one night a week to get together and play softball in Grant Park. There was Kristin and Audrey and Becki, Karen and Carla and Amy C. and Morty and Julie. And before I knew it, I wasn’t just playing softball with them – I was developing a social life – and I was invited to come to a Sunday morning co-ed pickup football game – which happened every weekend.
Of course, my first concern was “what do I wear to play football?” I was a former soccer player turned couch potato turned library rodent. Just getting through the softball season was enough (as most of those women still howl with laughter while remembering my Superman impression in Left Field one night. Hey, I hadn’t moved quickly in awhile, unless you count squashing bugs in my terrible first apartment. Momentum got the best of me, and while running for a ball, I windmilled into a belly flop in short Left. It happens. And you wonder why I was self-conscious?)
Anyway, I could have shown up for Football Sunday not knowing a fly route from a post. Mercifully, Karen (the invite-or), had a grand plan. She took four of us out one Saturday – just the girls – and ran a clinic. “This is a down and out” she said, drawing the running route you would take, and where you would expect to catch a pass. “You should block the big guy like this” she said, demonstrating how to best avoid being flattened by a talented but aggressive guy who sometimes ran the line. She walked us through all of it – and got us all ready for the first game. And man, was it fun! I caught passes. I got knocked down! We had interceptions. We laughed and got sun and played outside like little kids. And that crew still plays, today – every Sunday from Labor Day through the Super Bowl. More surprisingly, for years, that crew became “my people”. We hung out, went out together, celebrated weddings and children, job successes and failures, and even today, though I’m not a regular attendee at Sunday football, I can still show up on a Sunday and play. They are always kind, and good, and funny, and welcoming. And like any good community, they opened my eyes to what I could do.
Shortly after I met that crew, we began playing Ultimate Frisbee on Saturdays. Really? Yep. I had never played before, but we had a critical mass of people, and it was fun! Then I started playing on a Tuesday softball team. More fun! Then I wanted to keep up with them, so I started running a bit. Then we played Floor Hockey every week. It was never-ending, for awhile.
A few years later, I wanted to play soccer again. I found a team who needed a single, and, again worried about what to wear, I signed up. I showed up at the first game, knowing I was going to be totally out of shape, but wanting to play anyway. Even though I was slow, the captain, Tim, found a place for me. I helped meet the “two women on the field” requirement – he helped me get my skills back. I wasn’t getting any faster, but I was able to see the field better, and to really enjoy playing the game. My feeling welcome was all due to Tim, just another random good-luck story who knew that athletes came in different skills, shapes and sizes. A few weeks later, I began recruiting for extras. Karen joined the team. Then, occasionally, other friends. We had some folks who had never played before, so one night, Tim held a clinic for all of us. We ran drills. We fell into holes in the grass. We learned how to move and pass and get open. We gave a whole new crew of people the confidence and skills to start playing the sport, and it didn’t cost us a thing except our time. But without Tim, I wouldn’t have joined – and the crew wouldn’t have played.
And eventually, I found my running group – Chicago Endurance Sports. I say their name often, because I love the group of men and women who run there. When I first showed up for the Indy Mini training in 2003, I was nervous as anything. The first night, one guy showed up in neon blue lycra running pants. One woman tripped as we were heading back to the store. I struggled just to run the distance from the store to the park without a walk break. But we all showed up then, and six years later, John and Sherri, and I are still running. I met my friend Val, who was also a new runner, and we commiserated about what it was like to be in the back of the pack. But we kept running.
All of this is not my way of giving you a littany of my life in sports. My point is simply this: my life began to change the day I set foot on that softball field in 1999. It happened slowly, over a number of years, but what I managed to do then was to create a whole new community in which to live. It is a community of kind, funny, compassionate, friendly, active people. It’s a group that I can commiserate with, laugh with, and aspire with. And that kind of community is exactly what I love about Chicago. Each of the sports I have enjoyed here, I have done so because the people I play with do not believe that you have to run a 7 minute mile, or beat someone on a down out and up every time, to be welcome. My community believes that if you show up, and you bring effort, and intelligence, and just a little skill, you’ve got a place. And my running community here is not just about running – it’s about having fun, showing up on Sunday to run – and get coffee. It’s about finding out how the new baby is, and the last surgery went, and the last trip. It’s also about figuring out who isn’t quite sure they can make it, and making sure they’re never finishing alone.
In general, my community recognizes that every single one of us has a place in a run or a walk or a football game or a bike path. This community is a large part of the reason why I’ve stayed active for the past 10 years – because I am welcome, always, to be an athlete like anyone else. And, in large part because of people like Tim, and Karen, and Val, and Coach Jenny and Mike and all the people who have always made me feel welcome, I believe that I have an obligation to make others feel welcome, too.
So my message to you is this: If you’re somewhere right now, wondering whether or not you’re worthy of joining, or whether you can keep up, or whether someone is going to tell you to sit down until you lose weight or get faster or decide whether you’re “serious”, all I can tell you is this: Your community may be out there, just waiting for you to join. Don’t assume that it doesn’t exist because you don’t see it. Take a chance and try to find it. Join a team, say hello to a stranger, or reach out to a friend. You might have to take a risk – do something you never thought you’d do – but it might just be the risk that gets you started on the path of becoming a more active person.
Alternatively, if you’re someone who already has a community you love, think about opening it up. Think about what it would take to let in a new friend. To welcome someone who may not have ever thought of themself as an athlete. You have the power to change someone’s life – and that is not an exaggeration. So the next time a friend or relative seems like they may be interested in joining you, reach out, and help them. Take them on a run. Introduce them to your pickup game. Play a little soccer in the backyard.
So get out there. Find your People.