Floating above the Floor as Honorary Coach

WWUVIKINGSDOTCOM Catherine McDonald and head coach Carmen Dolfo
WWUVIKINGSDOTCOM
Catherine McDonald and head coach Carmen Dolfo
WWUVIKINGSDOTCOM

Feb. 8, 2014

BELLINGHAM, Wash. - Look closely at my feet in the picture. Yes, they are three inches off the floor. That is how I felt at the first moment in fall quarter when I was asked to be honorary coach for the Western Washington University women's basketball team.

On January 23, I thrilled to complete the task and jumped to high-ten Carmen Dolfo, the head coach, as the team beat Alaska Anchorage. The experience of being behind the scenes for one game was so heady, I am still collecting my wits to express how meaningful it was to me.

Being 4' 11" tall, I have never been a player nor an ardent follower of basketball--and if I dare confess it--most organized sports. I guess I had a shorter viewpoint.

Nevertheless, winter quarter of 2013 I had the pleasure of teaching an English class with two students on the basketball team, Kayla Bernsen and Sydney Donaldson. I was struck then, not by their outstanding drive on the court--even though it was a championship year for the team--but by their unflagging work in my class. Even when they had been on the road, they came back prepared with missed coursework and minds on the academics at hand.

To support them, I attended one of their games last season, and I was astonished to experience the adrenalin-electric jazz in the stands of Sam Carver Gymnasium. What a new world to me, this realm of competitive sports.

When I was asked to be honorary coach for a game this season, I was over the moon--but scared spitless. What could I say or do that would be correct or meaningful? I asked two colleagues for help, both basketball players themselves, the teacher with whom I had co-taught the English class, Justin Ericksen, and Kelly Helms, a long-time friend and mentor. Kelly agreed to coach me, so we attended games this season to watch honorary coaches in action. Knowing my vivacity, and worrying that I'd be the first honorary coach to be expelled from the game, Kelly gave me three Don'ts for my night courtside: 1) Don't call your own time-outs (whatever). 2) Don't go stomping on the court to challenge a player you think meant harm to one of the girls (well...I'll take that into consideration). 3) Do not take the whistles away from the referees, no matter how much they annoy you (but they do annoy me--but okay, good to know it's a rule).

Informed but still frightened, I arrived at the gym on my appointed night and had the honor of joining the team in the locker room for the generic "inspirational speech." I had had their team picture on my fridge for months, looking at their faces and trying to perceive the appropriate message to give them encouragement. As a non-athlete, what word could I give them? In the end, I came clean. I told them I had nothing. I told them they were inspirational to me. Kayla, for instance, who is recovering from knee surgery and in rehab, yet for the whole year she attends practices and participates faithfully as a team member. And each one of the women, who faces the non-glamorous work of everything expected of them. I told them they had the stuff of heroes, that their everyday courage speaks to my heart. (Or that's what I meant to say). Then we went out onto the court.

And a strange thing happened...instead of the ra-ra-ness (yes, I do teach English and cheerfully form new words) that I expected, I felt something surprisingly calming. I was privy to an honorary view of the inside workings of the bond between dedicated athletes and their trusted coach. I saw the look in the women's eyes when they cheered each other, when they responded to Carmen and the other coaches' instruction, when they took the floor and when they took the bench. They all seemed to be--oh, what word captures it?--fluid somehow. Together. A team.

I cheered and cheered at that game. (Although I did not get kicked out of the game, I was asked at one point to sit down--who knew that it was important for the head coach to see the team when they were at the other end of the court? Kelly, you didn't tell me that one.) The Vikings won and I came up off the floor! The humbling experience of being honorary coach pushed me to a buzz of athletic exhilaration beyond my fears of coaching incompetence. The joy and enjoyment abide with me now. Still, the next day I awoke with a feeling of unexpected stillness, of contentedness. I had been witness to a unity at the heart of the organism that I never would have guessed existed when sitting on the noisy fan-side of the gym.

Dear Kayla and Sydney, dear Sarah, Katie, Tia, and all the other students I met that night, dear Carmen and all the coaches and assistants, dear faithful supporters who sat behind me on the team-side of the gymnasium. dear fans on the cheering side of the gym: Go Vikings. Winning is thrilling. A team that works as hard as our women basketball players do and that plays as well deserves to succeed on the scoreboard.

To me, though, the take-away wasn't about the score. It was about solidarity. If I hadn't been on the inside, I wouldn't have felt the team experience. I was honored to be the honorary, if for only one night. But if you have any further questions, please ask Kelly and Justin.