By: Mollie Merkel
When you’re a teen, it’s normal to get a mixed tape from your romantic interest. I broke the mold when I got one from my track coach.
One of my first childhood memories is of my mother timing me to go get milk from the cellar. My three favorite words were not “I love you,” but rather, “I’ll time you.” If someone had to run up the 400 meter gravel driveway to get the mail, “I’ll do it!” I’d proudly offer heading out the front door in my bare feet. Doing it in bare feet somehow made it feel more rustic. Not in an un sophisticated way but more In a tomboy shabby chic kind of way. Later in my teenage years my running to the driveway had different motivations, it was to get the Victoria’s Secrets catalog, and when my mom discovered a stack of them underneath my bed she banned it from the house say, “They are selling sex, Mollie!”. The only thing that could cure the void in my heart of Gisele Bundchen, was running.
Naturally people started to notice my speed. My mom decided to sign me up for the track team. For her it was affordable babysitting; for me it was a form of community outside my eight siblings that I was curious about.
I found my best friend early on. Carolyn had tan legs, brown hair, and loads of charisma. She had two of my favorite qualities in a person. She was mysterious and free spirited. She wore purple Umbros, and it was what I like to call, “love at first umbro”. We couldn’t seem to stop talking after that. Our teammates marveled at how Carolyn and I could run and talk at the same time. They acted like we were sewing the stitches of a brain back together.
We quickly found common ground: fast running and troubled families. Why else does anyone start running? I always looked forward to practice on Tuesday and Thursday nights after school, because those were the days I’d get to see my best friend. We would meet on the track at 6 pm and start doing warm ups: jumping jacks, grapevines, and chatting about whatever was topical in the news (at the time, Nancy Karrigan and Tonya Harding). Sometimes we would reenact Tonya hitting Nancy with the baton from our relay team and exclaim, “Why Me?” Caryolyn started inviting me over for sleepovers, and when I wasn’t sleeping over at Carolyn’s house I was doing my own guided meditations every night. I’d envision myself doing a victory lap at the race to get me to the Junior Olympics. I never lost a race that year. To me it was a science. Bust out of the starting blocks and get ahead of the pack. And then stay there. And at the very last minute sprint like you mean it, through the finish line, sealing the deal. I realize I sound like a lesbian admitting these athletic strategies, but other things make me more so. Like my attraction to Julianna Moore.
The track coaches were a couple, Pam and Len. Pam was in her 30’s. She was petite with very short dark hair, dark olive complexion, and her license plate said SMILE9. Len was also in his 30s. He was a muscle man that was a man of few words and at all times wore glasses with gold frames and tinted brown lenses. Who knew what was behind those eyes. Pam coached the sprinters and Len coached the long distance runners. Which also seemed like a metaphor for their relationship. Pam handpicked Carolyn and I to be with her as sprinters. Next thing you know I was talking to Pam on my parents landline in their bedroom. Was I sneaking it? Yeah. Did I know why? No. Pam and I mostly talked about sports stuff. Like how to beat my time from last weekend. She would say I had it in me to make it to the Junior Olympics. She would ask about my boyfriends, a subject in which I had little to offer. “Yeah right I’d say…I never want one. I have to focus on Track”. I don’t remember her talking about Len at all.
For my 11th birthday party I invited Carolyn, my sister Marta, and Shannon, the 3rd leg of our 4 × 100 meter relay team, to sleep in a pup tent in the backyard of our farm. Pam must have overheard us talking at practice. I was telling Carolyn “This was the year my brothers all pitched in and got me the Bodyguard soundtrack by Whitney Houston. It’s going to be a good year, I can just feel it. Party is on friday,” Pam decided to surprise me and showed up in the middle of the night. We invited her into the tent, and the five of us were giggling like school girls. A week or so later, I saw my mom talking to Pam out on our front porch. She looked serious. Pam was crying. What’s happening, I began to wonder.
Things became more intimate when Pam nicknamed us her “JJK Team.” JJK stands for Jackie Joyner Kersee, our favorite female track runner. So, when Pam gave us a JJK Pump It Up mixtape, we were happy to be receiving music, but things were starting to get “too involved.” The tape was to help us get pumped up for our Regional Meet, or so she said when she handed us each a copy. There were for sure some songs that were meant for pumping up. There was M.C. Hammer on there, 2 Legit 2 Quit. But, the first song on the tape was very mature. It was the song by Elton John, Your Song. Now if you can’t quite remember the song, let me refresh your memory. It goes like this…
“It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside
I’m not one of those who can easily hide, I
Don’t have much money but boy, if I did
I’d buy a big house where we both could live”
To be clear about 2 things:
This is tonaly a piano ballad.
I was 11.
We all drove together to Newport News, Virginia for Regionals. Pam and Len rented a minivan, and Carolyn, Shannon, Marta, and I sat in the back listening to her pump up mix. We were having a good time. Once we got checked into the Super 8 hotel for the night, we walked to Long John Silvers and I had popcorn shrimp for the first time. My mind was blown. I was traveling and enjoying food I’d never had before. At the time, it was the greatest dining experience of my life. When we got back from dinner we were still high on our first taste of fryer freedom. Carolyn asked Pam and Len to throw us on the bed and they did. After throwing us for a couple minutes they threw Carolyn so hard she cut her shin on the bed and we had to rush her to the Emergency Room to get stitches. I don’t know why but I remember feeling so much guilt. Like it was somehow my fault. Later I’d find out through a nice Jewish therapist that this guilt was a very particular part of the Catholic psychological makeup. He taught me how to unravel healthy guilt and neurotic guilt. I believe I had what Ester Perel calls, survival guilt.
Carolyn got stitches and couldn’t compete the next day. Our relay team didn’t qualify for Nationals like we all hoped, but I did myself in the 80 meter hurdles. So I was headed to the Junior Olympics all by myself. It had been our dream, Carolyn and I. And somehow it didn’t feel as fun or exciting without her. While Carolyn’s leg healed, I got on my first plane and headed to Iowa for the Junior Olympics. All that time, I was grieving Carolyn. Pam and I were sharing a hotel and I remember she yelled at me for water getting on the floor when I didn’t stick the shower curtain to the wall. In my defense, my mind wasn’t quite there. Pam tried to make up for the fact we were fighting like a couple on the rocks by offering to take me to the movies. Sure, nothing mattered in that trance-like moment. So we went to see Clueless starring Alicia Silverstone. I longed for the days with Carolyn, eating pixie sticks, and reenacting Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding fights as I looked out the window as the corn fields passed.
The next day at the finals of the Olympics I couldn’t care enough to try. And just like that, I was a Junior Olympic tragedy.
Track had a glamour to it. There were the Colosseums, starter guns and the night lights. The cheering in the bleachers. The diverse families and potential to travel around the world. There was a beginning, middle, and end to every race. But ultimately what I loved most was my connection with Carolyn. That relationship influences me to this day. She was the first person I had a dream with and taught me that having a good time while doing it is actually the most important part. Had she not been hurt, I believe she too would have been a Junior Olympian.