“You were really good.”
I was swimming with my kids at a local busy swimming pool the other day, and I ran into another somewhat-beleaguered looking dad with a few young kids who looked quite familiar. After a few guesses, we realized that our paths had crossed peripherally on the ultimate fields a number times over the years. I felt badly for not instantly recalling his face, but in my defense, I have now played ultimate since 1989, and through those 28 years have played with and against thousands of people.
We exchanged names, and when he heard mine, he uttered the following words “Tommy Paley? I’ve heard of you. You were really good.” In the moment I was flattered. It is so rare to hear the words “really good” used to describe me, let alone having name-recognition. But when I look back at my long career on the field, if I am willing to throw humility out the window, I was really good. Limited in stature, and never the fastest or most athletic, I made up for those physical restrictions by being a very hard worker, having a creative flair as a thrower, developing a high-level understanding of the game, as well as having such a passion for all aspects of the sport. All of those combined to help me play at a really good level for many many years, definitely exceeding my “ceiling” when I first started all those summers ago.
Our respective kids pulled us in opposite directions and we said our goodbyes. As I swam away it hit me. The use of the past tense. “You were really good.”
We all get there, just at different rates: the proverbial other side of the mountain. And we all fight this inevitable slide to varying degrees. Some bail early while the kettle is still hot, others hang on for a while before reading the writing on the wall, and then there are those that just refuse to quit while trying to stay legitimate.
It’s not all purely one’s own decision. As we mature and invariably gain responsibilities, life gets in the way. Some of us start families and notice our free time vanish in an instant. Others take on more and more at work and have to sacrifice many of those weekends driving to tournaments. Then there are those that either burn out or discover a life away from the fields: “there are actually other activities I can do in the summer? Who knew?” And, for many of us, on top of one or more of the previous excuses, sadly, the injuries begin to pile up.
Considering the beating my body has taken over the years, I have been very fortunate to be relatively injury free. I have always stayed fit throughout the years; cross-training, doing yoga, and maintaining a healthy diet and weight. Not that I’ve been completely injury free — I think that is impossible considering how punishing ultimate is on your body (it’s not just tossing a Frisbee to a dog on the beach I’d always have to tell coworkers back in the mid-90s) — but I had a really healthy run for many years.
“You were really good.”
But then, a few years ago, right around age 42, it started. Over a period of just over two-and-a-half years, I hurt my throwing elbow, then my shoulder, then my ribs, followed by tweaking my already-bad ankle, pulling my calf, doing something weird to my back, straining a ligament in my toe and bruising my heel. On top of all of that, my allergies have kicked into overdrive, and I have had multiple chest infections and a persistent wheeze for 4-5 months.
When the injuries first started, I just attributed them to bad luck (and they were), but as each short period of health was truncated by yet another freak incident, it began to feel more and more like the new normal. “Injured again” I was always posting on Facebook or telling my captain or my daughters when they wanted to do a certain activity I just couldn’t do. And with each injury, I found my resolve to recover as speedily as I could slightly diminished. Not that I didn’t want to be pain-free and healthy, just that I began to feel like my prime playing days were in the past and, with nothing special to train for, there was just no rush.
My focus has been divided and diverted the past few years. Perhaps coincidentally, almost at the same moment when my body started misbehaving, I rediscovered my love of writing. Many of those moments in the gym or running in the woods or doing footwork drills on the squash court started being replaced, many times by choice, by sessions at the keyboard. Just as physical exertion does wonders for the body, I find that the mental exertion involved in writing satisfies the mind in a similar, yet different, way. The past two years, even when healthy, I am often stuck with how to spend my little bit of spare time. Write or run? Type or train? Edit or exercise? The answers to those questions are far from easy.
On of top of all of that, I want to spend as much time with my family as possible. The teenage years are rapidly approaching for my girls, and I need to take advantage of them actually wanting to spend time with me while it lasts. Even when healthy, a weekend away from my wife and kids to go play ultimate is less and less of a slam dunk decision, as I just love relaxed weekends at home playing games, practicing piano and just spending valuable irreplaceable time together. There is a small amount of irony in that if I didn’t just drop everything at the last moment to go to a tournament back in 2004, I would have never met my wife in the first place.
“You were really good.”
Yet, despite all of the great reasons to slow down or walk away, the fire still burns inside of me. Ouch.
As much as I attempt to deny it, I am just not totally ready to throw in the towel. I am not done yet. I think I still have it and, even if I am being slightly delusional (there’s always a chance), I need to see if I still do. I’m not ready for my competitive playing career to be past tense.
I’ve always watched retirement speeches at work and with professional athletes on television with a keen eye. When the retiree inevitably begins to tear up I totally get it. The toughest thing for all athletes, whether professional or not, is to admit that you just can’t perform at the level you always did; that you have to walk away from the activity or job that you’ve done for the better part of your adult life. In my mind, I am still that same player that I’ve always been, but my body is just not as strong, flexible and resilient as it once was. Every once and a while (with a depressing decreasing frequency) I recapture that feeling that is still so fresh inside my mind. But, though I have flashes of my younger self, my back is so tight, my knees hurt (or literally creak occasionally), my ankle is perpetually one misstep away from sidelining me and I find myself out-of-breath when I used to just go and go.
I’m constantly surprised that I’m almost 45 years old, even though my body feels every one of those years as I sit here. In my mind’s eye, I am still that 28-year-old freckle-faced kid, chasing after a disc with a huge smile on his face and with a mess of red curly hair shining and flying to and fro in the wind. The picture I see in my head is clear, like that photo my parents have in that album on the shelf. I always had a never-ending bounce in my step, an engine that just kept going and a knack for finding the exact right spot at the exact right time again and again and again. Man, I loved those days.
“You were really good.”
It would be so easy to walk away, but do I want to do that with the last memories being those nearly-faded highlights or the cold slap of reality in the face? Why can’t I stop? Do I really want to put in all of the work away from the field, the hours at physio, the time at practice when I may fall short, look old, be embarrassed by younger and hungrier players?
We all know the old guy — we’ve all seen him before. The one out there at the practice or on the field who stands out like a sore thumb because the game has passed him by. I always told myself that I’d never be that guy. But then there is also that other guy — a bit old, but still kicking it and impressing everyone around that he still has it. I always imagined I’d be that other guy.
I know that I’m used to having a certain role on competitive teams, and while I know that role will naturally diminish as I age, I won’t be one of those guys who will just be happy to be along for the ride, trekking to tournaments to play three points a game. Once I can’t contribute as I always have, I won’t have a desire to go out to play competitively any longer, but I do see myself playing ultimate in some form for a long time still.
One goal I have always had was to one day play on the same team as my kids. With my younger daughter being almost eight (and the older one 10), she could be ready to play on a league team with me when she is 16 or 17 (if she chooses to play ultimate at all…she better!), which means that I need to at least keep playing league for another eight years, or when I’m 53. No problem, right? A number of times when I’m standing there throwing a disc with my girls in the summer, I can imagine being flanked on either side by the two of them and feeling so happy (maybe we’d even pull my wife back on the field too)
“You were really good.”
It was meant as a compliment and it was taken as such. But, it was also one extra piece of motivation to kick at that can at least one more time. I think that just so much of my self-identity is through the sport that I play. I have always thought of myself as Tommy, an ultimate player, a squirrelly lefty with a good first step and crafty throws. Though I define myself in so many many many other ways, I am just not ready to lose that definition yet.
It’s interesting looking back over time at how one’s perspective changes as one ages and gains experience. I remember when I first started how little I knew — I was basically trying to stay out of the way and “not screw up”. I remember getting so nervous and anxious in big moments of games and making horrible decisions, or just not executing a basic throw. And then I reached a moment, when I just relaxed and was able to bring a confidence to my game that I rarely had previously. Despite a huge gap in skill and talent, I felt just as comfortable playing with and against some of the best players in the World. Not bad for a nerd with glasses who was always picked last for soccer in elementary school.
Allowing my friends to convince me to come out for ultimate that first time back in May of 1989 was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. It had rained that morning and I, without cleats, slipped a million times, but I was instantly hooked and went and got cleats the next morning. I knew that this was the sport I had been looking for. I think of all the amazing moments, teammates, and tournaments over the years. I sense the feeling that only comes with beating my check up the line, or throwing yet another lefty forehand break or releasing a flat backhand huck that just sails through the air. I constantly think of all of the ways the game of ultimate has helped me grow as a person and how it has impacted me in such a positive manner countless other ways off the field for years and years.
Quitting feels to me like an admission of old age, and though that day will come, I’m just not there yet. While I have to admit I’m not as excited as I once was about practices full of drills, or playing in a downpour or games that start 45 minutes late, or losing to a super-cocky young team who don’t know me from a hole in the ground (despite the fact that we don’t look anything alike…well, just a little)… I’m still so excited every time I walk past a field and see anyone throwing a disc. Or anytime I smell that smell that comes when the calendar hits spring, knowing that the first pull of another season is almost upon us. That feeling when lacing up my cleats or raising my arm signalling that my team is ready to receive the pull.
“You were really good.”
Yes, I may have been really good, but I still love the game. And this year, if my body is willing, I will attempt to be as good as I can be in the present.
I just can’t wait.
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