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Wildcat to Thorn: A journey to fandom

“Come the f*** on!” I half-mutter, half-yell from Section 105 at Providence Park.

“It’s okay.  They aren’t even close to the goal.”  My husband Josh reassures me.

My daughter Mavis grabs my arm, eyes serious. “Mama!  Stop cursing.” She admonishes me when my language turns blue, but at least she’s stopped trying to cover my mouth with her grubby, Sprite-sticky hand.

“Sorry, guys,” I say with a shrug then return my attention to the field, to the ball being batted around expertly by my athletic obsession of the past three years, the Portland Thorns.

How did I go from purchasing tickets to a Thorns game on a whim because my seven-year-old daughter showed a passing interest in soccer to getting so involved in the game that I introduce profanity into the family lexicon to checking the National Women’s Soccer League standings at the end of every game to monitor the impact of other teams’ victories on the Thorns’ standing?

I didn’t care for soccer as a kid.  In fact, aside from swimming, I didn’t care for sports in general.  I dismissed them as boys’ territory. My brother played tee-ball then baseball and I liked trips to the ballpark because hot dogs and Fun Dip were on the agenda, but the prospect of watching the game itself sent me on aimless walks around the dusty fields where I found more entertainment in the stories I would whip up in my mind than watching kids swing at a ball.

In fifth grade, I quit ballet after it dawned on me that my tall, pudgy form would not fit the shapes that my taskmaster of a teacher, the fearsome Miss Leslie of the gloriously bulging neck veins, barked out.  The Sugar Plum Fairy, I was not. Against my will, my mom signed me up for basketball.

After I finished pouting, I laced up my sneakers, slipped into a pair of scratchy polyester shorts and flopped onto the gym floor while the coach of the Weems Wildcats lectured the captive audience on the rules of basketball.  My first year of basketball was not a voyage to discovery of the untold depths of basketball talent that had been locked in me all along. It was a slog. The few times I was able to catch the ball without it slipping through my hands, I forgot to dribble.  If I grabbed a rebound, more often than not, it bounced off my slab-like palms. When a shot found its way through the hoop during the final game of the season, I couldn’t believe my eyes. A cheer arose from the crowd. Had I been carried out on the shoulders of all the boys who’d sneered at my clumsy shot attempts, I would not have felt prouder. Not boys’ territory anymore.  There was space for me to stake my own claim.

Emily Menges: Soccer is my (insert adjective here) place

Through the blur of middle and high school misery, basketball continued to be a flicker of hope.  In my too-tight uniform, I ran line drills, listened to my coaches, and soaked in the few moments of glory on the court that were absent from the rest of my life.  The girl’s high school basketball team began practices three weeks before the start of school in the miserable August heat. Despite our record of success, we were in constant competition with the mediocre football team for practice space.  The whole reason our season happened in the fall and not winter was to accommodate the “real” basketball season for the boys. As I ran line-drills in the sweltering “old gym” while the football team did their conditioning in the comfort of the air-conditioned new gym, I accepted the situation with a shrug.  Of course, they got the AC, they were boys. Their games mattered.

The message was clear: Girls sports were a Title IX obligation, an after-thought, an appendage to Real Sports.  Men’s sports.

In gym class, our teacher with his pregnant barrel of a belly flopping over the waistband of his polyester gray shorts, rolled his eyes when he split the class into teams to play the sport du jour.

“And because it’s ‘sexist’ not to include everyone, you have to play too,” he said, eyes ranging over the female population of the class, always sure to make quote marks with his sausage fingers when he sneered the word “sexist.” Some young women groaned.  He then nodded in faux-sympathy with the girls, not considering that our groans were multi-dimensional. In addition to working up a sweat, that the five minutes we were allotted to shower and change back into our civvies was inadequate, participation meant scrutiny.  The jock-inclined boys in the class smirked at us as we pushed off the dusty floor and tugged at our scratchy, too-tight shorts, awaiting the separation into teams where we would be viewed as a liability no matter our skill level.

At the time, I didn’t become enraged with his poor old white guy being forced to enfranchise teenage girls in fifty-minutes of physical activity routine.  Still I wasn’t psyched to play with the boys.  Any mistake, any slip-up by a girl would only add fuel to my gym teacher’s obvious belief that sports were the domain of boys and men.  Even though I was better than most boys in my class at basketball and in fact was one of the best players in a winter coed league that my coach encouraged me to join to keep in shape, I absorbed this belief.  I shuffled onto the court and instead of feeling the swell of “Eye of the Tiger” propel me to victory, I moved as little as possible trying to quell sweat from beading on my forehead.

During my senior year of high school, my interest in basketball dwindled.   My happiness was no longer tied to bumping the number in the win column higher.  I was more concerned with ending apartheid, staring sullenly into the distance while listening to The Smiths on my Walkman, and escaping my hometown.  Sports were a meaningless distraction. Women’s sports especially so.

Nothing came of the small liberal arts college that scouted me for its team.  My few attempts at playing pick-up basketball in college with my guy friends left me winded and dejected at how quickly my skills and conditioning had faded.

“They used to write articles about me,” I said, bent over and heaving after a sprint up the court.

After I moved to Portland in my twenties, I had a brief flirtation with Trailblazer fandom, but the jail-blazer era hit and I realized that I couldn’t align my feminist ideals with supporting an NBA team.  I’d rather put my guilty pleasure money elsewhere, like Ol’ Dirty Bastard CDs and PBR.

During an unemployed summer in 1996, I spent mornings shooting baskets at the tree root-scarred basketball courts near my apartment, pretending that I was practicing for a shot on the Portland Power, the team that was part of the new women’s basketball league.  But my interest never translated into support for the new league.

“I should check that out,” I said, instead opting for another night of PBR and punk rock at E.J.’s.  Nor did I find any interest for the WNBA, the league that still survives. Its existence felt patronizing and half-hearted.  Women’s sports were getting the appendage treatment once again.

Twenty years later when my daughter Mavis traded her ballet slippers for cleats at age five, I was glad.  Sports had been good to me. When I was going through difficult periods in my life socially, like the nightmare hell-scape of junior high as a dorky hulk-girl, my teammates had my back.  Basketball made me believe that my tall, thick body wasn’t an obstacle to overcome, to whittle down to acceptable thinness, but a force, a source of strength and power, at least for the ninety minutes I was on the court.  Basketball was a refuge for my teammates, some of whom battled domestic violence and drug addiction that would have dragged them under had it not been for the team, for the need to attend class just to play in that week’s game.  On the court when I felt the ball leave my hand, arc perfectly to swish through the net, I felt joy, pride. I basked in the glow of the cheers from the crowds and was buoyed by the high-fives from my teammates. I felt strong. I felt light.  I mattered. I wanted Mavis to have her own support network, her own shelter from the storms of adolescence.

Photo provided

Her first year, Mavis played soccer in an afterschool program that emphasized good sportsmanship and the fundamentals.  Nothing serious. Especially not compared with her peers, some who exclusively donned soccer jerseys day in and day out and played futsal in the soccer off-season to keep in shape.  At age six.

I bought the Thorns tickets on a whim, as a way to fill the yawning emptiness of a Saturday afternoon on Memorial Day weekend.

At the recommendation of the box office employee, we chose General Admission seating.  As we descended the stairs into the stadium, we were careful to not sit in the area where flags leaned among the rows of seats.  I didn’t want to be disrespectful to the diehard fans who milled around, beers in hand, clad in red and black. I wanted to take in the spectacle from a safe distance.  I knew little about soccer beyond the obvious. My poor foot-eye coordination and inability to resist using my hands in the vicinity of a ball kept me far from the pitch.  Also, the running. So much running. The basketball court was a mere sliver of the vast open space of a soccer field. Josh was our resident expert, having played on a youth league.   We found seats close to the field, but not too close, loaded up on hot dogs and drinks then let the fun unfold.

At our first match, the Thorns versus their rival the Seattle Reign, most of the star players were missing from the roster.  They were out-of-town practicing in preparation for the Olympics. Since we didn’t know anything about the stars, we didn’t miss anything.  We watched. We chanted, our Rose City Riveter chant sheets balanced discreetly on our laps. We sang and cheered, buoyed by the thousands of fans surrounding is.  Going in, I imagined that Mavis would want to spend most of the match wandering the halls of Providence Park begging for merch and pretzels. I’d heard similar reports from other parents.  They complained of missing the action while ferrying their children from concession stand to gift shop to face-painting station.

Not Mavis.  She was captivated.  Her eyes followed the ball while she peppered Josh with questions.

“What is she doing?”

“That’s the goalkeeper.  She tries to keep the other team from scoring.”

Mavis snorted.  “Yeah, I know that.  But what is she doing?”

Josh whipped up an explanation of the goalkeeping strategy then, over Mavis’ head, shrugged.

She refused to miss a second of the action to get a drink or use the bathroom.  Two years later, she is still reluctant to do so lest we miss a goal or a red card.

The first match against the Reign ended in a draw, surprising me since I figured they would have a shoot-out or some way of deciding a winner or a loser.  In basketball, a tie was not an option.

“Nope, some games end in a draw.  That’s why there are three columns, Win-Lose-Draw.”

You don’t say.  No overtime during regular season.  Fascinating.

I learned a lot in my first couple of matches.  The “F” in PTFC stands for football. The clock stops for no one.  Offside is a bitch, and still, after a few years of fandom, an enigma.  If I don’t know why play stops, and no one is writhing on the field in pain or stalking a referee awaiting the dramatic displaying of the yellow card, I feel safe rolling my eyes and saying, “Freaking offside.”

I loved the atmosphere of the match.  The crowd of mostly-women, the whipping scarves, the rituals, and chants.  I loved watching fast, skilled women play a sport to the cheers of 18,000 captivated fans.  I got goose bumps. I still do.

Before you could chant PT—clap, clap—FC we went from casual observers to planning our weekends around watching the matches to season ticket holders.  Our loyalty was forged in heartbreak. During the 2016 semi-final match against the New York Flash Mavis started to cry when the match went into overtime.

“I want to go home,” she said, feeling keyed up by the palpable anxiety of the crowd, feeling like she had something to lose.

“But this is when it’s getting good,” I said, my stomach churning.

The Thorns fought hard but lost.  We tried to tell ourselves, “it’s just a game,” but we couldn’t deny our obvious sadness.  We stayed to cheer on the players, to scream love through our tears. The wait for the next season felt eternal.  And the 2017 championship victory against the new incarnation of the New York Flash, the North Carolina Courage, felt especially sweet.  I am not one for the redemption stories that networks peddle during the Olympics, but I couldn’t deny that when the final whistle blew, I felt vindication for the semi-final loss.  I didn’t want to stop screaming or hugging Mavis whose arms wrapped tight around my waist, “We did it!”

In the Thorns, I have found a home, a space to express the pieces of my sports-loving heart that long sat dormant.  I can cheer for strong, skilled, tough women in a full stadium buzzing with excitement to watch women play. After a couple of seasons, I came to realize that the prejudices I experienced during my athletic life linger.  Not all women’s soccer teams are as well-supported as the Thorns. And no matter how many new voices emerge to support women’s soccer, no matter how many stadiums the U.S. Women’s National Team sells out, there are still voices that dismiss an entire sport, an entire gender.  People who see sports fandom as a zero-sum game with room for only one gender. Some of these voices take the form of internet trolls who prowl social media for opportunities to tell women they should go back to the kitchen. Others are more subtle, more insidious, like a recent Oregonian column denouncing Notre Dame basketball coach Muffet McGraw as “sexist” for her refusal to hire men to her coaching staff.  Men whose dominance in coaching men’s sports is taken for granted.

I watch Mavis absorbing the action, seeing the reality where women’s sports aren’t an appendage–they are the main event, and I feel hope.  My first basketball heroes were men: Patrick Ewing and Larry Bird. Until I attended a basketball camp and had my picture snapped with Anne Donovan, I couldn’t have named a women’s basketball star to save my life.  Whereas Mavis can rattle off every Thorn whose feet have touched the pitch since we started going to games.

I have entered the stage of fandom where I have anxiety dreams about Thorns matches.  Did we forget our tickets? Did I leave home without my scarf? Where are our seats? Where is Mavis?  The answer to the last question is always, as close as she can get to the action, clad in her Tobin Heath jersey with her scarf draped around her neck.  I follow close behind.

Katherine Sinback’s essays and short fiction have appeared in The RumpusdaCunha, Gravel, and Foliate Oak, among other publications.  She lives in Portland, Oregon with her Thorns-loving family and can be found on Twitter @kt_sinback.


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