‘Athletically Challenged’ by Matthew Martino

I am sitting in the backseat of my uncle’s beat-up station wagon on a foggy Sunday morning. My father gazes out the window of the passenger’s seat, remarking how late autumn has arrived this year as I slurp my kale smoothie through a reusable water bottle. After months of experimenting with different combinations of frozen fruits, leafy greens and protein powders, I have come to tolerate the taste of my early morning concoctions, no longer yearning for the sugary bliss of my beloved artificially-sweetened breakfast cereals.

This morning, my smoothie is thicker and more bitter than usual, yet I gulp it down all the same as a single droplet of dark green sludge cascades onto my bright red, polyester Under Armour t-shirt. It’s my father’s hand- me-down, a loose-fit medium, that would have never found its way into my closet eight months ago when the letters “XXL” adorned the collars of all my clothes. “Do you have any bigger sizes in the back?” used to be my catchphrase every time I went shopping. I shift uncomfortably in my seat, regretting the fact that I did not get the chance to properly break in my brand-new Nike running shorts which are equipped with extra padding to prevent chaffing— a runner’s worst enemy. We pull up to the parking lot of a large church, where volunteers under giant tents and behind booths sponsored by local businesses are handing out race bibs. My father looks at me through the rear-view mirror and smiles, “I never thought this day would come.”

The first time I realized I was fat was in the sixth grade. I had always been a big kid, but I never truly considered myself one until I changed schools at the age of eleven. I knew I was different (or just “Italian” as my grandmother liked to call it), yet I never thought anything of it. Some people have blue eyes, some people have freckles, and some people are fat. However, when I moved for my final year of elementary school into a predominately French-Canadian and English-speaking neighborhood, where fellow big-boned Italian kids were few and far between, the difference became crystal clear.

It is ironic that I took up the sport of running since I used to despise the act more than eating peanuts— one of the many nuts I am deathly allergic to. In fact, I have been rushed to the hospital four times due to an allergic reaction, yet this still has not prevented me from happily perusing the dessert menu at every restaurant; meanwhile I failed a running test in my first year of high school and still I have nightmares about it. The only time my name and “sports” would appear in the same sentence was in my report card comments for gym class. Even then, my marks for physical education seemed to be granted to me out of pity.

Just running to catch a train after school even seemed unthinkable. I remember the one morning in sixth grade when I overslept, and my day was made even more unpleasant by the fact that I had to sprint to my bus stop. It was the thick of winter, and my oversized snow pants made running to the corner of my street an unbearable task. Despite all odds, I made it onto the school bus only to be met with the mischievous grins and muffled laughter of my classmates. I sat down and attempted to catch my breath before we arrived at school.

The next morning, I sat on the bus beside my friend Alex. Despite his love for all things hockey, Alex and I bonded over our mutual love for punk music and the fact that we both played the drums. This particular morning, however, I distinctly recall Alex looking uneasy. I could sense that something was bothering him.

Eventually, after a few moments of awkward silence, he spoke up, “Matthew, there’s something I need to tell you.”

“Sure, what is it?” I replied, afraid of what I was about to hear.

“Yesterday, while you were trying to make the bus,” he began, “Brandon was watching you from the window and started yelling, ‘run fat boy, run!’”

My immediate reaction was to laugh. Not because I found it funny, not because I wanted it to seem as though it did not bother me, but because it was the only thing I knew how to do in that moment. Laughter has always been a coping mechanism for me; I have always resorted to humour to make light of a situation. This was the first time someone had ever referred to me as fat. This was the first time I had ever been bullied. I had no idea what to do except to start laughing. I had no control over it. I heard my voice begin to laugh before I even had time to process what Alex had just told me.

Alex was puzzled by my reaction. “Matthew, he was making fun of you,” he explained, eyes filled with pity.

Brandon always sat at the back of the bus. He played soccer, could burp on command, and told us all where babies came from after he learned it from his older brother. I looked back at Brandon, watching him style his Justin-Bieber-inspired hairdo in the reflection of the window, and wondered what other names he called me when Alex wasn’t around to hear them.

It was only years later that I realized how hard it must have been for Alex to reveal this to me, and as I get older I only appreciate his honesty more and more. For years I could not go for a light jog without Brandon’s comments repeating themselves in the back of my mind. For years I could not help wondering what people were saying about me after I left a conversation. I still think about Alex, and wonder how many twelve-year-olds have the integrity and character to tell their best friend that he is being made fun of behind his back.

However, none of these thoughts cross my mind as I stand at the finish line with my father while a volunteer drapes a medal over my sweat-soaked collar. I could not care less that it is a participation medal, nor do I care that my mom and my brother are cheering louder than any of the other spectators at the race. All I care is that I beat my eleven-year-old self to the finish line.

 


Matthew Martino is currently studying journalism at Marianopolis College. He recently completed an internship at the McGill Campus Radio Station, CKUT 90.3 FM, where he ran a weekly series entitled Free Samples, detailing trends in modern hip-hop along with the history behind some of rap’s biggest tracks. He also wrote concert reviews and curated playlists for the station. He was the editor-in-chief of Loyola High School’s newspaper for two years, and he currently runs his own pop culture blog: ginandguice.wordpress.com.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Matthew Martino. All rights reserved.