The first time I ever competed in a sport I was in my late 20s. Encouraged by the local tennis pro, and armed with nine months of weekly tennis lessons, I signed up for the Labor Day Open to compete in singles and doubles.
"I think you are ready," my instructor said confidently.
I, however, wasn't so sure.
I was sure I would lose, but as I said to my husband: "So what? It's not important to win; it's important to participate."
My husband looked at me as though I just arrived from another planet.
"That's what losers say," he said. "If you don't care to win, why bother?"
Clearly we had different attitudes toward competition.
That's no surprise since he - born and raised in Saratoga, Calif. - played football in high school and competed in everything that came his way for as long as he could remember. I - born and raised in Kiev, Ukraine - took piano and dancing lessons and was taught not to think of myself as better than others in any way. In fact, the slogan I just quoted to him came from my childhood: "Better to participate than to win."
Competition was not encouraged in my childhood. "He's such a careerist," my teacher would say, describing someone competitive. To aspire to achieve more than others was frowned upon. In fact, those who achieved more - in sports or academics - were expected to help those who were lagging behind.
By the time we were in seventh grade, we played pioneer ball, a game similar to volleyball. Each team had nine players - three at the net, three in the middle, three in the back. The player in the left corner served the ball across the net, where it could be passed around three times before making its way back to the other side. There, we hoped, the ball would catch one of the players off guard and slam into the floor.
When I was captain of my team in pioneer ball, I often picked Alesha to be on my side because he was a good player. But after the first round, players from the winning team were traded for players on the losing team, and I often had to give him up.
"This way everybody can win," the phys-ed teacher explained.
Pioneer ball wasn't considered a competition. Neither were running, jumping, or gymnastics. Kids that competed in sports did it outside school, at the Olympic stadiums. Carefully selected by state coaches when they were preschool age, those kids were groomed, trained, and conditioned for most of their lives so that eventually they might win important medals for the country.
At school, the grade for physical education was based on effort and compliance with the teacher's rules. At the end of each school year, we had to pass a phys-ed exam - run two kilometers, do 20 push-ups, 20 sit-ups, and a long jump into a sandbox. Since I knew I could never manage 20 sit-ups in good form, I ran extra hard.
Eight and a quarter times around the school stadium's two-kilometer track didn't seem as though it would be too much. But with no training and no proper equipment - some of us ran in street shoes - it was quite a challenge.
I started out slowly, chatting with my girlfriends, who, I knew, were going to slow down to a walk at the end of their first full cycle. When they did, I continued slowly for another few times. Every time I passed the teacher, he would yell, "Shmarova, you can do better that this," and look at his stopwatch.
It wasn't until the last time around the track that I really kicked it in. Passing the gossiping girlfriends, blocking out the whistles of boys who had already completed their run and now were hanging out on the grassy hill, I ran - pushing hard, breathing shallowly, knowing full well that I was going to have to hear about it from my disapproving friends for the next few days.
"Ten minutes, five seconds," the teacher yelled out as I crossed the imaginary finish line. I stopped in my tracks, made a 90-degree turn, and collapsed on the grass.
When I opened my eyes, I saw the teacher's face over mine. "All of this on pure will," he said. "No training, no preparation."
He moved a straw from one corner of his mouth to another and smirked, as if he was surprised that I succeeded despite his lack of effort. After all I wasn't an athlete from one of those sports schools. I was a regular kid. I wasn't sure if he was complimenting me or judging me, but I didn't care. I got an A for effort.
Back to my present American life and tennis game. "You know, I wanted to play tennis all my life," I said to my husband the night before the Labor Day Open.
"Why didn't you?" he asked.
"I tried," I said. "My mother took me to a pro when I was 7. It was a big deal. She had to pull some strings. Tennis in Ukraine was a sport for the privileged. Not everybody could afford a racquet or get access to a court. Come to think of it, Alesha Ivanov played tennis. His father was an ambassador to some African country - a bigwig."
"My classmate. Never mind."
"So, what happened?"
"I never even got to hold a racquet. The pro took one look at me and said to my mother, 'I can take her as a favor to you, but she'll never win. She's too old."
"Too old at 7?" my husband asked incredulously.
"Yes. Too old for the pros. He trained kids who started at 3."
"He said that in front of you?"
"What did your mom say?"
"She asked me if I still wanted to do it. But after what I'd just heard, I shook my head no."
"That's too bad."
"I know. That's how they looked at it in the Soviet days - if you were not playing to bring gold medals to the country, you were just not playing."
But lack of an early start didn't hamper me in the US. I won two tennis trophies that summer: first place in women's doubles and second in women's singles.
"You should've seen me," I boasted to my husband. "I played so much better in competition. I was so focused, so together. It's a whole different game when you play to win."
I made him take numerous photos of me with my trophies, and by the end of the night all of my friends and family received an e-mailed picture of the newborn competitor.
At the end of the day, I placed the trophies atop a bookshelf in my office. As I sank into my reading chair with a satisfied grin on my face, my thoughts drifted back to Alesha Ivanov and I wondered if he was in some faraway African country playing tennis, and if he could figure out how far one had to travel to become a competitor.