The two guitars collecting dust in the garage? Those would be mine. How about the tennis rackets hanging on the walls with their strings bent and twisted? Mine as well. And who used to play that keyboard standing in the hallway by the heater? No one, actually. My mom has always been 100% supportive of my various activities no matter how half hearted they were undertaken or how untalented I was while doing them. She always wanted me to follow my dreams and try everything. Some experiences turned out better than others.
I don’t even remember how I got involved with the Jetts Storms community basketball team. I never wanted to play basketball, I wasn’t particularly athletic, and the practices weren’t even near my house. But somehow my mom managed to sign me up and every Saturday I attended a 2-hour practice in some school gym to prepare for Sunday morning games. I was just awful I tell you. I hated getting my hands dirty by touching the basketball, I couldn’t shoot, I was not an aggressive defender, and I couldn’t run more than a few feet without my sides aching. My teammates were a bunch of spoiled girls whose mothers gossiped about each other and belittled their husbands in public. On the first day of practice my coach asked me if I was “quick”. I shrugged. He threw a basketball in my face and I cried all afternoon.
I continued playing league basketball for a couple of years and I really hated going to practice. Games were even worse. I think the only points I scored were from free throws I was awarded for tripping over my own feet. I was a bespectacled child and one day someone threw the ball in my face and broke my glasses right at the bridge. I couldn’t play without them so I quickly taped them up with white athletic tape turning me into a proper nerd. During one game my coach decided to sub me in and I accidentally ran right onto the court in the middle of game play. I had totally forgotten to wait for the referee to call me in. Because of my interruption a technical foul was called and my teammates looked at me like I was Judas himself. I ran back to the bench and buried my face in my hands. Shortly thereafter I was able to convince my mom to let me quit basketball.
Tae Kwon Do
When I was 8 years old I decided to enroll in Tae Kwon Do classes because I wanted to learn how to “beat people up”. I had watched enough Jean Claude Van Damme and Jackie Chan movies to know that fighting was fun and hurting people was even more fun. My mom reluctantly signed me up for classes taught by a visiting Tae Kwon Do instructor from Taiwan. In the first class Master Wang made us swear an oath never to cause harm to another person or show off what we learned in class. I was immediately disheartened but I continued with the classes anyways. I really enjoyed Tae Kwon Do and Master Wang was a great teacher. He eventually opened his own studio and after being promoted two belt levels, I started attending classes regularly at his school. I gained a lot of confidence by studying martial arts and was able to get over my shyness by sparring with other students once I reached more advanced belts. Some of my classmates were scary motherfuckers. As a skinny little girl I had to spar with boys my age. The problem with boys my age at that time was that they were much stronger than me physically, but not mature enough to realize it so they would spar with me as if I were another equal-bodied boy. I can honestly say I’ve had my ribs kicked and shins bruised more than the average first-world-country 12 year old. The girls I had to face were sometimes scarier than the boys. I remember this one girl, Roxanna, who was such a sweet natured person one moment then turned into a scary, high-shrieked, warrior woman the next. I was deathly afraid of her. When time came to switch sparring partners I always tried to avoid her. There was another girl, Samantha, who was very quiet and unassuming but once geared up and ready to spar, moved at rapid speed and had the force of a fully-swung baseball bat.
After 7 years of training I reached the level of first degree Black Belt. I took regular exams where I was able to spar with boys and girls of varying ages, break wooden boards, and memorize long forms from each belt level. I worked hard and pushed myself but eventually tired of Tae Kwon Do and stopped rather abruptly when I was 16.
Like every other Asian kid I went to school with, I played the piano. Every Saturday my mom dropped me and my sister off at the house of our piano instructor, Mrs. Kubo. She was an old Japanese woman whose children had grown up and moved out. She had a cluttered house full of mementos, souvenirs, pictures, and knick knacks collected over a lifetime. She was nice, but strict. She had a huge white dog named Yuki that used to frighten me and she collected those “Love Is…” cartoons from the newspapers and stuck them on her refrigerator.
“She can’t serve for beans”, my 5th grade teammate’s mother observed rather accurately summing up my volleyball skills. I played a few meets and was laughed at when I confessed I didn’t wear a sports bra. I didn’t have to. I weighed about 80lbs and was tiny as a stick. But all the other girls wore one so I begged my mom to take me shopping for my first sports bra. I couldn’t even find one small enough to fit but I desperately had to have one so I bought a size XS that looked more like a tank top when I wore it.
Cross Country Running
Remember that girl who couldn’t run a few feet without getting intense side aches? Nothing changed. How I ended up on the cross country team was more a scheduling mistake than anything. It was the only way I could fulfill my PE requirement freshman year and all the other sports were full. On the first day of practice I reported to my coach and asked him what I should do. He told me to run 4 laps around the track. “Without stopping?!” I gasped.
When I finished my body was aching and tears were rolling down my face. Now that my “warm up” was over, I could start practice. I had to run around the block to a nearby church and back to the field. I began to think what would happen if I just opted out of PE altogether? Could I take a music class instead? Anything else! I began jogging away from the field but once outside my coach’s eyesight, I sat at a bus stop and waited for my teammates to return from their run. Once they were nearly back to the field I got up and walked after them.
One of my toughest cross country meets was the Mt. Sac Invitational. It was a 3-mile course spread over hilly terrain in the hot summer heat. I made the mistake of not going to the bathroom before the race because I wouldn’t pee in a port-a-potty. I ran the first mile without stopping but the hills became too much and I had to start walking. Some feet ahead of me a girl tripped and fell. In a total “Center Stage” moment, I wished it were me who had fallen instead. How I wanted to find a nice clean bathroom and end this damn race!
Oh yes. I was a high school wrestler. It was as planned as a teenage pregnancy. My 9th grade history teacher Mr. Williams doubled as the school’s wrestling coach. One day in class he asked how much I weighed. I told him 95lbs and he asked if I wanted to join the wrestling team as a featherweight. I didn’t see why I shouldn’t.
I walked into my first practice wearing glasses, sneakers, and my hair down. Coach Suarez was going to be my trainer for the season and his first words to me were, “Take off your glasses, put your hair up, and go buy wrestling shoes this weekend.” He began to teach me various wrestling positions and moves and explained the rules of a 2-minute wrestling match. When I showed him my newly purchased shoes a few days later, “Bitchin’” was all he said. He was a man of few words. The other boys in the JV team were assholes to put it mildly. They didn’t appreciate that I pranced into their macho world of swinging dicks and “girls are sluts” talk. They resented my presence and let me know it. Because of my long hair I had to wear a swim cap that the boys always pulled causing me to be blinded by my own hair. It didn’t take much effort to pin me since every single boy outweighed me by at least 20-30lbs. Sometimes for pure amusement they’d throw me into a headlock and hold me there as long as they felt while I squirmed like a fish out of water. I cried a lot during those practices. Not because of the physical pain but because of how mean they were. None of them wanted the possibility of losing to a girl so whenever they had the chance to wrestle me, they’d use extra force just to ensure their physical superiority. One day a new kid named Carlos joined the team. He weighed the same as me so Coach Suarez decided we’d be wrestling partners for the season. Carlos was a little bitch when he wrestled. He used every dirty trick he could find and slapped me in the face while taunting “don’t cry” every ten seconds. I hated Carlos immediately. He was friends with the rest of the boys so they always cheered him on when we wrestled. The things they said were so demeaning and inappropriate I’m surprised any of them ever had girlfriends. The amount of locker room talk I was exposed to was unsettling. It became blatantly clear just how much teenage boys lie about sex. If the old wives’ tale is true that your eyes could get stuck from rolling them, I’d be blind by now. Even the fattest, ugliest, pimply faced boy had some story about a “girl” who really “wanted” him and he only “gave it” to her because he “felt sorry for her”. Whatever. I also learned that one of my older teammates was in the closet. It was surprising because he was a very popular jock whom many girls liked. By the end of the school year however, he would attend Prom with a male date.
The Varsity wrestlers were like older brothers to me. Once they saw I lasted longer than a week they became a dependable source of encouragement. They told me to toughen up around the JV guys and offered to kick anyone’s ass who gave me trouble in school.
Before matches Carlos and I had to wrestle each other to determine who would compete in the match. I usually lost so Carlos got to compete before I did. In every match he got pinned within seconds of starting. It was actually pretty embarrassing and the other guys gave him a lot of shit for it. He took his frustrations out on me and his dirty tactics became increasingly sadistic over the weeks. I finally had enough of his cap snatching and face slapping that during one practice I dove right into him, slapped him in the face and put him in a full nelson—a move illegal in wrestling. He whined, “Ouch, you’re hurting me!” and I called him a pussy. I decided I was done taking shit from him.
I won our next wrestle and got to compete in the following day’s match. It was my first wrestling match and I was up against a boy who weighed 107lbs to my 95. I was frightened. I was more than frightened. I knew there was no chance I could win but my only goal was to not get pinned and to last the entire 2-minute match. The Varsity guys wished me luck but the JV guys messed with my head, reminding me how weak I was and how I was going to get pinned in seconds.
The match felt like an eternity. My opponent wasted no time in taking me down. He was 12lbs heavier and in no mood to lose to a girl. He moved quickly and aggressively and threw me around like a ragdoll. Coach Suarez coached me through the whole thing from the sidelines, giving me step-by-step instructions to get in and out of the various holds I was stuck in. My brain stopped working and strategy went out the door. My body just kept fighting and struggling, refusing to wind up on my back. I never felt so tired in my life. I had surprisingly survived the first round. My teammates were both ecstatic and shocked. Coach Suarez advised me to just “stay alive” and “don’t get pinned!” The referee asked me if I wanted to continue. I just stared at him then nodded. Once round two began my opponent took me down right away. My muscles were aching and I wanted to give up but I knew that was exactly what my teammates expected me to do. In one big “Fuck you” to the haters, I stayed alive and didn’t get pinned. My opponent won, but I was no loser. Mr. Williams, Coach Suarez and my Varsity teammates shook my hand, a major sign of respect in boy world. The JV guys just laughed at Carlos telling him, “SHE didn’t get pinned.” I managed to survive 2-minutes of mind and body numbing hell.
My confidence was lifted and I could see my teammates looking at me differently after that match. Mr. Williams started to acknowledge me in practice to the jealousy of the JV boys. Coach Suarez lowered his guard and was able to joke around with me.
One day in practice I was wrestling with a tough guy named Jose. Overall Jose was an immature asshole like the other guys but as a wrestler he was dead serious and dignified. I was certainly intimidated by him. He was a lot stronger but knew not to use full power against me but I got sloppy on this particular day and next thing I knew I was on my back gasping for air. I could neither inhale nor exhale and I literally felt paralyzed. I thought I was going to die. Coach Suarez came running over and told me to keep breathing. When I was able to breathe normally he carried me off the mats and gave me a big crooked smile. “Congratulations, you just got the wind knocked out of you.” Some of the other guys shared their stories of how they first got the wind knocked out of them. I guess I had lost my wrestling virginity and could join the ranks of the initiated.
My experience as a wrestler was a character-building one, no doubt. I toughened up both physically and mentally and I had no idea at the time that my training would one day prepare me for an even tougher type of training—as a dancer.