We admire elite athletes for their seemingly superhuman feats of skill and strength. We marvel at their athleticism and ability to execute on command, to have such fine control over their bodies. And yet, it is perhaps athletes — those who are constantly pushing and testing their physical limits over and over — who are most aware of the frailty of their own bodies. Most of us don’t even think about it — we implicitly trust our bodies to carry out routine tasks. But what about when our bodies let us down? Life can change in a moment. Just ask Kevin Ware, a sophomore guard for the Louisville Cardinals.
During a US national quarterfinal game this past March, Ware was flying upwards through the air to make a standard defensive play, challenging a 3-point shot. In a freak accident that became a worldwide Twitter trend, Kevin Ware’s body did not absorb the force of the landing like it had countless times before, resulting in a gruesome compound fracture that has been seared into our collective memory. Ware was only doing what any respectable and hardworking athlete does every day — hustling hard and putting his utmost effort into making the defensive stop for his team. But even hard work and hustle cannot prevent a busted tibia.
It is a frightening thing to lose confidence in your body. It is demoralizing to see your body crumble in a task it once undertook with ease. Earlier this April, Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles tendon and ranted about it on Facebook: “All the training and sacrifice just flew out the window with one step that I’ve done millions of times! The frustration is unbearable. The anger is rage.”* And if unexpected injury doesn’t steal your confidence, then aging eventually will.
Athletes feel and fear the effects of aging, the diminishing of the skills they’ve spent their whole lives perfecting. Their playing days are numbered. In February, Michael Jordan, who always thought he would die young, turned 50. As ESPN writer Wright Thompson observed about Jordan, “The chasm between what his mind wants and what his body can give grows every year.”** Once revered as the best basketball player in the world, Michael Jordan struggles with the reality of aging, preoccupied by the past and his body’s inability to return to its glory days:
Whenever [Jordan] obsesses about returning to play, he tries to sleep, knowing that when he wakes up, things will be better. […] He knows he won’t ever play pro basketball again. He knows he’s got to quiet these drives, to find a way to live the life he worked so hard to create, to be still. ‘How can I enjoy the next 20 years without so much of this consuming me?’ he asks, sitting behind his desk as his cellphone buzzes with trade offers. ‘How can I find peace away from the game of basketball?’**
Life is short. Athletics are simply an arena in which the brevity of life is experienced more acutely. A basketball court is a poor place to hide from aging. And like the moment when an athlete snaps a tibia or tears an Achilles tendon, today can hold the unexpected and the abrupt. We are not even guaranteed tomorrow. To some degree, the wear and tear on athletes’ bodies should cause us to reflect on our own mortality. Instead of leading us to despair or hopelessness, our transitory existence and our heartfelt desire for longevity should cause us to search for what is truly lasting.
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