In honor of Black History Month, espnW will run a weekly personal essay about the influence of black female athletes.
When I learn to love North Carolina, it is an Olympic year, 1984, and we run, we race. We suck wind in through our noses and out through our mouths. She is 8 and I am 10. We are obsessed with blooming breasts. In this moment, we do not worry about looking flat chested. Like little birds, we want to show our ballooning ribcages. Running is all we know. We are from the Carolinas where the beach cuts into the marshes that are stitched into the forests by fire ants and a whole world of predators. Running is the way.
We circle our grandparents' front porch. My cousin Brandi and I ringing around red and rust color tiles and the steps are paved green with plastic turf. We are Florence Griffith Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. My cousin is wearing her signature bun and bangs. Her face is a hue of honey; it makes her look Asian to some strangers. My skin is a shimmering cinnamon when lotioned. No one thinks that I am anything, other than a black girl. I have a puffy ponytail that is always wiggling out of barrettes. My cousin's kid body is tone with muscles and I wear my pudgy belly like a badge of honor. She has gapped teeth and mine are wildly crooked, but we wear our smiles like trophies. Because we imagine that we look like Flo-Jo and Jackie.
You can see it in our bonds. We jump from either end of the porch, hurling sticky bushes and vaulting saplings into a cushion of pine needles. We cheer for one another. We are girls and we learn early in our family, what everybody knows, that only boys have fans. We believe in Flo-Jo's motto until we can convince others to believe in us, "Dress good to look good. Look good to feel good. And feel good to run fast." We race fueled in giggles, uniformed in florescent colors and golden glitter nails just like Flo-Jo. My cousin is always the better athlete. I am running behind her and cheering for the athlete of century. She is set to win it all, when I do the unthinkable.
I crash into the cement. Bam-bam. Slipping on the turf-paved steps and worse, like a girl, I cry. My cousin runs to aid me. She forfeits her victory, like most women do, to take care of family. She cleans my injuries with kisses. This is something we see our mothers do. We are girls, we understand that chasing beauty hurts a bit. She promises me that this is a small thing and I believe her. We are generations. We are champions.
When I left North Carolina that summer, I cried lakes and lashes because I loved her. And any distance further than fingers between cousins is too far. We wished family forever. I blow kisses and wave to her through the rearview of my daddy's cranberry-colored Cadillac.
By the time Flo-Jo returns to the 1988 Olympics, I am 14. My nails are long, nearly six inches in my dreams. My hair is big and I have ambitions of being a writer, but not many know it. I am smart and have learned the rewards associated with looking beautiful. But I am also young and unsure how to be strong. I do not know how to run in heels, but I still wear them. I want my legs to be long and lean like Flo-Jo's, the legs that win her three medals that year, two gold and a silver.
I was sad to know that everyone is not like my cousin; some people are mean enough to bully butterflies. It hurt to hear them say that Flo-Jo's win was wind assisted. I say her victory was in the prayer she whispered. Let the record stand. The fastest woman in the world became a role model, before I knew I needed one.
DaMaris B. Hill is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Kentucky. She is particularly interested in Toni Morrison's theories of rememory in terms of a philosophy and an aesthetic practice.