Yesterday, as the boys and I drove home from archery practice, traffic slowed to a stop as it usually does during this drive-time commute. I don’t mind this lengthening of our journey because I know this age is fleeting. We get to talk, covering a lot of subjects that don’t get discussed once home with people being pulled in different directions by homework, eating, playing, planning or sleeping.
The line to the red light was long. As we sat in the car, I saw a slight figure on my right, moving very slowly up a driveway towards the street. It was a very old woman wearing a floral dress over sweats with pretty white hair and a walker. At first, my heart leapt, because I thought she was going to cross the densely trafficked road. She was ancient, really, moving one step at a time up the driveway, and leaning heavily on her walker. When I saw she was carrying a light plastic grocery bag, I put two and two together and realized, she was making her way to her mailbox at the curb.
“I think that lady is getting her mail,” I said, as our discussion turned to concern for her. We sat in the car, waiting. She moved, slowly. Traffic stayed. One step, lift walker, another step, lift walker.
We wondered out loud. Why is no one getting her mail for her? How old must she be? How long she has she lived there. What’s her name? And, what did she do for a living before she ended up inching up her driveway on a walker.
I was struck by her courage. The road is a busy one, her corner even more so, a confluence of four main local arteries.
Still a red light. If someone saw my mom, currently safely buried under double digits of snow up north, struggling up her driveway, would I not want them to help her? She lives surrounded by family and friends, but the thought bothered me.
I made a sharp right-hand turn into a nearby driveway. “Mom! You’re driving crazy!” the guys said.
I leapt out of the car, “One minute.” With the eyes of my children burning into my back, I crossed the lawns and gently introduced myself to this woman. I told her, if I saw my mom struggling up her driveway, I’d want someone to help. I pointed out my children in the car, and said, “We were worried about you.”
Being friendly, I said, “My mom just turned 81, you're not 81 are you?” “No,” she said looking way up at me through her glasses. “I was born in 1922. I’ll be 95 my next birthday.” Then she told me the day in June, repeating the year, just to cement the brilliance of the matter.
She stayed her third of the way up her driveway, and I took her baggie, walked to the box, collected the mail — no small feat as cars whizzed by inches away from the box opening — and returned the full bag to her.
“My name is Julia,” I said. “My name is Opal,” she responded. “Thank you…for your help today.”
More than any discussion about doing what’s right. More than any lesson in school or charitable donation, these are the moments when our children learn. My mother always says, you can’t schedule memories. It’s the lunches we have or the reading of a catalog on the couch that are precious to us. I think you can’t schedule doing the right thing in front of your children, either.
What does this have to do with sport? Isn’t this a masters athlete blog? Um, yes.
The thought I didn’t express out loud to my children in the car was, I may be high jumping at 56, but someday, I too will be struggling to get my mail. My current health, fitness and potential may be the gift of DNA — and some serious training — but thankfulness for it, gratefulness for what I have in this moment, and wanting what I have, is something I need to work on.
And I thank the courage of Opal, born in June of 1922, for providing me with that lesson yesterday.
Here's a conversation you don't want to have with your 12-year old, at midnight, the night before a national championship.
Setting: Hyatt Hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the night before the 2017 USATF Masters National Championships.
Child: (Rushing to the foot of my bed at the hotel). "Mom! I think I'm going to throw up!"
Me: "That's okay honey, if you feel sick, you can throw up."
Child: "Okay." Whoosh. Yep, he threw up right there at the end of our bed. (We're talking chunks on the carpet.)
So, there I was, 10 hours before I was scheduled to compete, mopping up my poor baby kid and his throw up. After tucking him back in, I crept in the dark to clean up the floor of the hotel room and thought about how to handle this nocturnal development.
My father used to say, "If nothing went wrong, you'd never have any stories to tell." Isn't that true? What if I turned up with the family all happy and well, saw their shiny faces in the stands, jumped a PB, easily won the event and went home?
But, that's not how this championship played out. So, guess what? I have a story to tell! I decided (while cleaning up vomit) that I would tell myself, I am a person who operates best under duress. And this situation was going to work for me. Or else.
I got a little sleep that night and woke up completely focused. I stretched, worked out some kinks, massaged oils into my creaky muscles, packed and headed to the track. The "throw-upper" ended up staying in the hotel with my husband, so I knew that was covered. My 14-year old came to the venue and was assigned "coach-duty," i.e., giving me some visual feedback from the stands and taking some video. And, I told myself to get out there and do my job.
At the end of the two-hour competition, I had won gold. My win was based on jumps, which is about as close to "leaning into the tape," as you can get in high jump. The second place competitor and I both jumped the same height, but miraculously, (because I was also sporting a hamstring and foot injury!) it took me fewer jumps to get there. Phew. Let me take a moment to say, that at these competitions, ALL the athletes are winners. Getting out on a track at our age, is miraculous. Really. The hours of training, focus and preparation before you even set foot in the stadium require great commitment. And, the fitness levels of some of these athletes, is remarkable.
My gold medal jump wasn't a PB and it wasn't easily won. It was tough with all I had going on. And I was pretty unsure as to how that entire morning would play out. But I did know this...I would have a story to tell!
Happy to win my fifth national championship and be the 2017 USATF W55 High Jump National Champion.
Julia Curran-Villarreal is a three-time USA W55 national masters high jump champion. After a 35-year break from her favorite high school sport of track & field, Julia returned to competition in 2013 at the age of 53. Follow her journey on @juliajumping on Instagram and @juliacurran on Twitter.