Sportsmanship redefined by bushy-haired skaters

There we were, my son and I, at the top of a four-foot quarter-pipe ramp. We are learning "aggressive inline skating." This particular ramp is one that always bothers me, because it starts vertically, and I often fall, skidding across the asphalt below. We watched as a car drove up and parked outside the fence. Out came two young boys, and a man. The man had on a helmet. "Good," I thought. "Another old dude. I won't feel so out of place." I made it down the ramp and skated around.

This new pursuit has taken me back to my days in the schoolyard. I stand out by my height, my age, and my poor skills. When I strap on my skates and glide into the half pipe, I am 15 again: desperate to fit in, worried about being ridiculed by the bigger, better skaters.

This man was maybe five or 10 years older than I. His equipment was fancy and new. He and his boys had stickers from various cool-sounding places on their helmets. The boys were better than I ever hope to be - and the man was, too.

As we passed one another, I grinned and said hello. No response. Later, I tried to strike up a conversation, only to get cold shoulder. Finally, I asked him how he learned to skate, and where else he rode now.

I immediately regretted the maneuver. He announced that he had been on skates since he was 2 and that it really took a long time to get good. He pointed out all the things about the park we were in that he didn't like - the ramps were angled wrong, they were arranged poorly, and the grind rails were the wrong shape. I felt enveloped in a black cloud.

I spent the next bit of time that afternoon moving away to a different ramp, trying to put distance between me and the black cloud. I tripped and fell more often than usual, as I wondered how lame he thought I was.

Then three more tall figures entered the park. They were not my age, however - 18, maybe 20. They looked like today's version of juvenile delinquents, with bushy retro hair, super-baggy corduroy pants showing their boxers, and a squinty look on their faces.

They exploded onto the ramps and it was quickly clear that everyone else was outclassed. Great, I thought. Maybe I should pack it in.

I was again at the top of a quarter pipe. One of the newcomers popped up next to me as though he could fly. He smiled - genuine. "Hey, what's up?" he asked in a laconic drawl.

"Nothing," I mumbled. "Just trying to stay on my feet."

"Right on," he answered, and stuck out his hand to shake. I am certain I did it the wrong way. But he didn't seem to mind.

"Check this out," he said, pointing across the park to where his friend looked about to try some jump that would guarantee me a fall. He missed it and fell.

"Bummer," said my new acquaintance. He skated over to the friend and shook his hand as he got up. From a distance, I learned the right way to shake hands if you are part of this subculture. It's a sort of sideways finger tap.

The rest of the afternoon, I skated better than ever before, and had more fun than ever before. I tried things I hadn't tried. Mastered new skills. I was transported by the sheer fun of trying to get air off the half pipe, and transfixed by the fluid, incredible moves of these three skaters.

My thoughts of the Negative Dad, as I had come to think of him, shrank smaller and smaller until I forgot about him.

I will probably never see my bushy-haired friends again. I doubt they will ever read this. But they taught me a lesson that I just can't shake. It's about sportsmanship. It's not whether you win or lose, and it's not how you play the game, either. What matters is what you leave behind and how you make the other players feel. After all, sports are not a big deal.They're just games. Everyone ought to have fun.

The next weekend, at a different skate park, I tried out the new lesson. I hung out with the skaters who were my speed (mostly 11 years old and younger).

I spent much of my energy trying to make the people around me feel good about their skating. And they returned the favor, showing me tips and congratulating me on my small triumphs. We fed each others' enthusiasm for hours. We all got better. We all had fun.

It was an awesome session for me - and for those kids.

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