I'm leaning into an old identity and remembering my father.
Updated: Sep 3, 2022
Incredibly, I have now lived in Durham for three plus months, and I have been at my job for two months! I am enjoying my work and putting a considerable amount of energy into it, and “scientist” is taking up more of my sense of identity once again. But right now my life needs to be broader than work, and I have also been leaning into my “athlete” and “women’s sports fan” identities.
One of the very first out-of-my-apartment things that I did when I moved to Durham was play ultimate frisbee with Durham Queer Sports. I kept this up all summer (there were a few really hot evenings!), and it is continuing into the fall. I also played on a Women Matching player Rec league with Triangle Ultimate, attended a one-day ultimate tournament, and have signed up to play in the Masters Ultimate league this fall (Masters as in no longer young). In addition, I have also been engaging with the area running community. I ran a charity 5k in August, I am signed up for a 10-mile race in October, and I have now attended two local weekly running groups.
Attending these events has been a nice way to have fun, meet new people, but also, just be around people. When I show up to play ultimate or run, I already have a common language and interest with the other people there. We cannot immediately relate to new people who we are in our entirety. Instead, we get to share a side of ourselves initially, and we build something from there. A beauty about routine events and communities is that we get the chance to interact with the same people over and over again, to eventually find that second point of connection, or build something slowly with time. To meet people on the ultimate field or before a run is to lean into a side of myself that has been dormant for a while, but that has been part of who I am for a long, long time.
I am an above average (but not that far above average) athlete if we consider the entire span of athletic ability, but I spent a lot of my youth playing sports. My entree to team sports was the fall I started 2nd grade. I played girls' recreation league soccer, my team had red and blue pattern jerseys, and we were named the “Macarenas.” Some parent brought a boombox to every game, and if we won our team would dance the Macarena. I was not very excited about this; I did not know what the Macarena was before the season, and I had zero affection for dancing. As it turned out, my team won every game. I don’t remember that much about the soccer. But it must have been fun, because when we moved to New Jersey, I started playing travel soccer.
I played fall and spring travel soccer until high school. In middle school, I started to play basketball and lacrosse. And in high school I added field hockey. My senior year of high school, I was a three sport Varsity athlete. I was a starter on the field hockey team, I got some playing time in lacrosse, and I was basically told by my basketball coach that I was on the team because she liked my hustle at practice. The sum of all of this was that while in middle and high school, I played sports five to six days a week for the majority of the school year.
Despite all of that time on the field, I never committed time to these endeavors outside of scheduled practices and games. I was not the kid shooting hoops after dark or working on my stick skills in the backyard. I remember my last high school lacrosse game and thinking it was the last time I would be on a field competing. But playing sports was important to me. I loved blowing off steam at the end of day of classes, as a child and teenager who really struggled socially, it was a way to be around others and be part of a group, and I loved being outside. It was a privilege to run around on the expansive fields across from Carnegie Lake where I played soccer as a child, the fields at my New Jersey school that required a short uphill walk through the woods, and the “Lower Fields” at my boarding school where I got to watch the leaves change color on the hills. I also loved playing; I loved racing an opponent to the ball on the sideline of the soccer field, powerfully connecting stick to ball playing field hockey, and making an effective cut during a fast transition in lacrosse.
And despite that explicit thought during my last lacrosse game that this might be the end of it all since I wasn’t going to play Varsity sports in college, there was in fact a real return on investment when I went to college. I played club ultimate frisbee all four years. My years of developing “field sense” from soccer, field hockey, and lacrosse served me well, as did my strength of being able to run a lot for a long time. My ultimate team was my refuge from a taxing relationship during my sophomore year, it provided important leadership experience when I captained my junior year, and driving to a tournament on a Friday evening and finally getting to see stars was a way to escape campus and explore a new part of the country. But what was really special about my college ultimate experience was that I finally was on a team where I felt enmeshed in the group and found community. My teammates were also nerdy, serious students, and, although I didn’t realize it at first, many of them were also queer. Attending a deeply heteronormative university where there was super limited lesbian visibility, the exposure to queerness from my ultimate team was key to my journey coming out. The first person I came out to in-person was an ultimate teammate who I ended up seriously dating, and the team provided a safe environment for me to explore this new identity during my senior year.
Playing sports was also a way to spend time and connect with my father, especially when I was young. My father liked to talk about his youth and high school ice hockey careers, he loved to run, and until he could no longer play, he competed in the annual golf contests in Fenwick, Connecticut. My mother did a lot of driving me (and my brother) to sports practices, but I have so many distinct memories of driving to soccer games with my father in the pre-iPhone or even pre-MapQuest days when coaches handed out printed driving instructions before away games. When I was playing high school sports in New Jersey, my father would sometimes come to late afternoon games. He talked often about how the ability to do this was one of the reasons he had made the transition from law firm lawyer to corporate lawyer. And when I was at boarding school, he would drive the not insignificant distance to watch me play at least once - but often more times - each semester. We would have dinner afterwards, and his visits were a way to spend time together now that I wasn’t living at home. He talked about these visits with deep nostalgia the rest of his life. My father was not just standing on the sidelines cheering or yelling at the refs, he was photographing me; my entire athletic career is documented. It is only with hindsight that I can see how special it must have been to have this outlet for his lifelong love of photography that merged so perfectly with his love for me. [All of the photos of me in this post where taken by him.]
My father also introduced to me to watching live sports. There were exciting adventures to professional events in New York City, but what I remember more fondly was attending Princeton University soccer, ice hockey, and lacrosse games with him and my brother. Recently, I have gotten excited about being a collegiate women’s sports fan. Last winter after watching a March Madness game at the end of a long flight and starting to cry, I intently watched the rest of the Women’s tournament. Before I moved to Durham, I attended a Princeton women’s lacrosse game, and since moving to Durham I have been to a Duke field hockey game and a Duke Women’s soccer game. The Duke games were really fun, both evenings were gorgeous, and the games were well attended with excited crowds. Both teams are also super strong. I hadn't watched a field hockey game in years, and it is a challenging, fast paced game that when played well is beautiful. The Duke soccer team is ranked in the top 5 of DI! The field hockey games are free, and the stadium is close to my apartment; the soccer games have concessions(!) and the stadium is very convenient to the Duke parking I am already paying for. I am following both teams closely, and 100% plan to attend more games.
My father was also a fan of watching sports on television. When I was young, it was the golf major championships. He also became a fan of the tennis major championships as he got older, and as he got sicker, he watched more and more golf. Labor Day weekend is a big sports weekend. There is the US Open, college football season kicks off, MLB season is approaching the playoffs, and there is PGA tour golf too. Labor Day weekend last year was the weekend before my father died. My nuclear family was all together in Princeton. My father was spending most of his time on the first-floor guest bedroom which is also where the very large TV is located. When my father was feeling up for it, we got in bed with him and watched sports. He expertly flipped between golf, tennis, baseball (Mets of course), and football (Alabama). We all knew he did not have very much time left, and we snuggled closely around him.
I am a scientist, I am an athlete, I am a women’s sports fan (Go Duke!), I am Taysen Van Itallie’s daughter, and I am still figuring it all out.