Jerry Nelson: We were all Olympic athletes in training when we were kids

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum

My wife and I were recently noshing on burritos in the parking lot of a city park. We had the car’s windows rolled down, so it counted as a picnic. And since we were eating away from home, it also counted as a date.

Young families were scattered around the park, enjoying the obscenely pleasant spring weather. Honest-to-goodness picnics were taking place on some of the picnic tables. It appeared that much of the food was provided by Ronald McDonald.

Smatterings of small children were tearing around on the manicured grass and making use of the playground equipment. We noticed a toddler who had just learned how to run. She was scurrying hither and yon, her little legs churning like an eggbeater, her harried mother following in her wake. The child’s pink running outfit and the mom were both getting a vigorous workout.

“No wonder we don’t have any energy,” said my wife. “We used it all up when we were little!”

We were all Olympic athletes in training when we were kids. Almost every day, we set new personal records. Our homes should be crammed with medals and trophies commemorating those astonishing acts of preadolescent athleticism.

My academic career began at Oslo District #95, a one-room country school. On the last day of first grade, I was introduced to an activity called Field Day.

Field Day was not, as its name implied, a day that was spent pulling weeds in the corn fields that surrounded the schoolhouse. It instead involved competitive track and field events, with colorful ribbons awarded to the top performers. I instantly decided that I wanted a ribbon more than anything even though I hadn’t known what a ribbon was up until that moment.

I glanced at District #95’s playground equipment and tried to assess my odds. Few could zoom down the slide faster than me (my secret was to place a sheet of wax paper beneath my heinie during my preparatory run). And nobody could beat my double-leg pumping method on the swing set. I could swing so high that the swing’s chains would become parallel to the ground.

Sadly, none of the playground equipment that I had trained upon so strenuously would be used during Field Day. We were encouraged to compete in such activities as footraces and hurdles and the long jump. In other words, the sort of stuff that kids do even without the lure of pretty ribbons.

But there was a problem. District #95 was a one-room school, which mean that it encompassed grades one through eight. Our two eighth graders were both named Steve, so we referred to them as The Steves.

I looked up to The Steves. Literally. They towered over me and had deep voices that boomed like the hoots of giant owls. I think The Steves had to shave every day.

As much as I admired The Steves, there was no way I could compete with them athletically. They had legs like Clydesdales and their arms bulged with muscles the size of softballs. I, on the other hand, had broomstick legs; my arms were spindly twigs that hung from my shoulders.

An athletic competition with The Steves would be like a toad racing a cheetah.

But our teacher, Mrs. Engle, wisely set up the competitions by age groups. Scrawny little first graders thus wouldn’t have to run against the god-like titans from the eighth grade.

One of the events was the long jump. I learned that you had to run as fast as you could then hurl yourself forward, like an oversized frog, from a line that was drawn on the lawn. My long jumps invariably ended with crash landings; grass stains covered every inch of my body. I still have some of them.

I asked if I could launch my long jump from the seat of the swing, but the idea was swiftly vetoed.

The schoolhouse lawn was about 50 yards wide, so Field Day concluded with an all-school 50-yard dash. Even though I stood zero chance against The Steves, I bolted from the starting line with all the might my broomsticks could muster.

As I sprinted toward the finish line, I noticed that The Steves seemed to be having trouble running. They shot looks at the other older kids and they also began to slow down.

The three first graders finished first, second and third in the all-school 50-yard dash. I nearly burst with pride as we were awarded our ribbons.

I was extremely happy when I received the prize for third place. But I bet I would have won the race if I had started it with a zoom down the slide.

Jerry Nelson