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Checkers or Chess?

Photo: Bruce Buckley

Chess or Checkers? Do you play the long game, planning multiple moves ahead? Or do you play the short game, living and deciding in the moment? I would love to be that clever person who can tell you the next 27 moves to checkmate, but let’s be honest, I’m the one who up and moved to Honduras for two years because I felt compelled to experience Central America. All I had was a very strong sense that that was what I needed to do in that moment: gather up some clothes, a passport, and a Dummies Guide to Teaching and board a plane for a country with the highest murder rate in the world. On the practical side, growing up as the oldest of seven siblings, teaching middle school for over a decade, and traveling for large chunks of time, have also forced me to think ahead and to anticipate future scenarios. However, on the level of life choices, I’m definitely a checkers gal.

It’s a bit of a life parallel that I ended up racing cyclocross. There are very few straight lines in cyclocross, and my life has not followed any sort of straightforward, logical plan. After many adventures and paths taken, things have come full lap for me in a way. Initially an art major in college, I ended up getting my bachelors in kinesiology instead because I was very interested to understand the body and how to get faster. Unenthused by being an athletic trainer however, I found inspiration in the thought of traveling outside the small community in which I had grown up. That’s when I moved to Honduras and supported myself by teaching at an International School.

Those were an amazing two years of adventures and misadventures, of reinventing myself in a place where no one knew me and had no preconceived ideas about who I was. Rather than trying to be a different person to different people in my life, it was a time when I finally could just find the one me I wanted to be. Listening to that voice that told me to go to Honduras helped me figure out that it was, in fact, my very own voice

Though a very painful decision to leave the life I had built there, I decided to move back home. The truth is, I missed my family, even if I had needed that vacuum to create an original “me.” Teaching had really intrigued me, and I decided to get my Masters in Education in Human Development and Psychology so that I could be better at it. Afterward, I went on a “practice” job interview for a middle school position that turned out to be exactly the job that I wanted. I juggled two other previous job commitments, working 12+ hours a day, so that I could secure the job. The following summer, I devoted 8 hours a day during my break to study French so that I could teach both languages for the school the following year.

At first, the job was indeed everything I could ask for: 5 grade-level colleagues who became close friends (and we worked together for an amazing 11 years), a community with high expectations and ample resources, and an administration who supported by growing interest in competitive sports. During the weekdays I sprayed shaving cream on desks and made PowerPoints with Justin Bieber references, and in the afternoons and weekends I sweat through threshold intervals and practiced dismounting and remounting my bike.

Since I taught Spanish and French, my eventual travels to race cyclocross World Cups in Europe meshed well with having first-hand experience actually using other languages to pursue my cycling dreams. The students enjoyed following my racing, and it helped us form a connection; my love of moving myself also reminded me to keep class active and lively for the students. I learned to be efficient with time, grading papers while flying back in the wee hours of Sunday night/Monday morning from races, and planning future lessons in my head while out on solo 3-hour rides.

At the high point, I conducted a parent-teacher night via Skype just 3 hours before racing the World Cup in Las Vegas - to a personal best World Cup 7th place. The sacrifices and ingenuity to me were worth it: teaching gave me a meaningful way to give back and racing gave me a personal satisfaction and a way to connect with and inspire the students. I had an identity I was proud of as the teacher who was a crazy racer, and as a racer who impressively balanced a teaching career.

Sadly, over the years, the climate at school changed. Initially seen as a valuable example for the students, my passion for racing became seen as a distraction and a threat. Even though I missed fewer days than almost any other teachers (who called in sick), and even though neither parents nor the administration had any issue with my teaching itself, they did not like that I did not “think 100% about the kids all the time.” Things got ugly fast! Under pressure to explain why I was “allowed” to both race and teach, my principal threw me under the bus, claiming I had lied about my whereabouts (I had never done this, and always got permission any time I traveled). The parents started gossiping on Facebook behind my back. A reprimand was put into my file, and I had to enlist my union rep to clear my name. Even though I was cleared in the end, the Superintendent reinstated me with the caveat that I could not talk about racing with the students, and that I needed to choose which I wanted to do.

When given an ultimatum, I knew instinctively which I would choose. I could never opt for a situation that restricted who I was, and I could not be an effective teacher pretending not to be a racer too! However clear the choice was to me, suddenly the life I thought was the perfect situation was suddenly gone and it was terrifying. Perhaps even worse, all the sacrifices I had made over the years to be the best at both teaching and racing felt thrown back in my face, and I was crushed and angry.

With the help of supportive friends and family, I got up the nerve to quit the teaching job. I left my home and rented it out, and stayed with a friend for a while as I had no income. At this time, my team also folded, and an erratic driver totaled my car! The amount of loss felt overwhelming, and for one of the first times I had no compelling checkers sense urging me to the next move.

Trying to be sensible, I talked through various options and listed pros and cons and steps and asked for thoughts from others who had pursued similar endeavors. Inside I was just uninspired. A tiny thought was in the back of my mind, and I didn’t give it much credence at first. Then my coach at the time asked if I wanted to come on board as an assistant coach. The thought I had had was maybe I could work with him and try coaching! I had been dabbling in coaching already, though nothing “official” due to an already packed schedule. This was just the small bit of opportunity and serendipity I desperately needed.

Looking back now, just two years down the road, I have my own coaching business, a new mountain bike and cyclocross team, and a life that makes a lot more sense (at least for now!) If I hadn’t been given an ultimatum, and if I hadn’t been all but forced out of teaching, I may never have made the transition and found this new and happy situation. Getting railroaded was actually a gift. Maybe if I were that chess player I would have seen that a long time ago, or been able to see how many threads of my life would come together usefully: my backgrounds in kinesiology and psychology are incredibly relevant to coaching, racing is something that informs coaching and vice versa, and coaching allows me to travel freely to races. Teaching also gave me practice in backwards planning and other useful strategies for designing training. Being the oldest of seven gave me certain instincts for sensing and anticipating the moves and needs and many people at once! Sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing until something else is gone.

Sure I’d like to say I’m a Chess player with incredible foresight who planned all of these things coming together. A part of me also would love to just find the right formula and just stick with that for the rest of time. The truth is, all I’ve ever had is just that go-to-Honduras voice. The most I can do is be open to what it reveals, to be willing to change course, and to take the time to appreciates the gifts I can only see in hindsight.

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