It was my second week at a Polish sports camp. The cool evening wind blew as I scurried to the gym. On entering the hall, I could hear the sound of sneaker soles screeching with pain as they were mercilessly torn on the wooden floor. I sped up the stairs with the anticipation of being recruited by a team.
As I walked into the gym, I looked down from the bleachers and saw two boys volleying a soccer ball with their feet. The ball was like a humble servant that obeyed their masters' every command. Flawlessly, it flew back and forth with perfect rhythm and never once touched the floor.
This is when I realized that today's sport would not be volleyball, like the night before, but soccer. At first I was not certain that I should play because I was not as skilled in soccer as I was in volleyball, but the game seemed to beckon. I had played during my middle school years on the PAL (Parents Athletic League) Team, and now playing would be like meeting a long-lost friend.
At first, I wandered around the gym weaving among the clusters of guys asking if I could participate. All their responses were the same: a rapid flow of Polish too quick for me to decipher, except for the fact that they already had a team and did not need more players.
"Team Sign Ups," I heard one of the counselors yell. Once I reached the sign-up table, I smiled and asked the counselor which team I should join. His response was unexpected. His eyes widened and his mouth plunged in shock and amazement.
He asked me if I wanted to play, as though he had not heard my first inquiry. I told him I did, but he was still not convinced. He asked again, but this time swung his foot back and forth in an attempt to demonstrate to me, a foreigner, what soccer was. Once again, my reply was an affirmative. I realized what was occurring. The reason he was giving me a difficult time was to discourage a girl from joining a team. My heart filled with indignation and dismay. I could not believe the way I was being dealt with. Why was I different from everyone else who wanted to participate? What would happen if I play poorly? Should I walk away and pretend that this never happened or challenge him?
His explanations seemed to go on forever, and the more he spoke the more I became insulted and disgusted. I thought of only one solution: to ask "Why not?" Knowing full well that he would not admit to being sexist, I listened to him stutter, not knowing what to say but "Okay."
While waiting for my turn, I sat with the crowd that gathered to watch the games. "Girl! Where is the girl? One of the counselors bellowed, and I stood up thinking it was time to play, but the counselor just pointed at me and said we were not playing yet. From the corner of my eye, I watched them as they returned to their huddle and occasionally glanced at me with curiosity. My stomach started to tie into knots, and I felt my face turn red. The once-simple gym turned into the Coliseum right before my eyes. The crowd was the jury, judging the competitors. Soon it would be my turn to face my lion in the Coliseum, and it would be a battle to the death. It was too late to retreat. I took the challenge and would not runaway with my tail between my legs like a poor beaten dog. I must stand strong in front of the crowd or be destroyed.
When the time came for me to play, I rose, jumped the last few steps and landed with a boom to declare my presence to the lion. The crowd released a loud "OOohhhh" as if I were there to challenge the male players. During the game, I felt the crowd's eyes burning through my skin to determine why I was there. To them, I did not appear to be a player at all. I had no name except "The Girl."
Far from an extraordinary player, I was probably the worst on the team and my blunders were probably ten times as noticeable as anyone else's because all eyes were on me. Sometimes I stumbled and fell or missed the ball. I felt like a failure, sick and scared, wishing I could just sprint off the court and hide, but I could not. When the game ended, it seemed as though my lion had won.
After the game, I was ready to abandon the team even though they would play again. Everyone knew who I was because of my blood-red face, the same as a scarlet letter signaling out a sinner.
My only comfort was the company of my friend, Annia, who must have arrived while I was playing. I asked her if I had looked like a fool, and if she were me, would she finish playing. She continuously replied that I did not look like a fool, and she admired me and believed that I should go out there again. As she talked, I felt confidence building up, little by little, until I was ready to face the lion for the second time.
This time I played and fought twice as hard and even scored a goal. This gave me more confidence, but I was still unsure of myself. I was uncertain whether my team or the crowd wanted me to return tomorrow for the conclusion of the tournament.
When I walked out of the gym. I saw the counselor, who smiled and asked, "Are you going to play tomorrow? Right?" He sounded as if he expected me to return. I felt like jumping for joy because now I knew I had defeated my lion.
"Of course," I reassured him and returned his smile. My heart was no longer burdened with anger or fear, but with pride. l
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.