A View from the Hill: Live to dink, dink to live

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It may surprise you, but I was once going to be an Olympic alpine skiing champion.

Seriously.

“You can do anything you set out to do,” my parents said, unhelpfully. 

Where are adults when you need them to tell you the truth?

Andrew MarstersSkinny, weak, and uncoordinated, I set out in my early teens to become a ski racing champion.

My hero was France’s Jean-Claude Killy, seven years my elder. After a rough start, he became a triple Olympic Champion in the 1968 Winter Olympics.

We were very much alike. We even dressed alike. In some album, there is a photo of me on skis in the backyard, an exact replica of Killy’s racing hat in French colors perched jauntily, idiotically, on my head. 

Before I skied I would listen to “Born Free,” from the score of the eponymous movie. “Born free to follow your heart …”

I followed my heart onto a farmer’s sloping field to perfect my downhill racing technique, my head protected by an old leather football helmet I had found in the toy box. It sported the colors of the French flag and it gave me a headache but I wore it anyway. Champions must make sacrifices. 

Early on, Jean-Claude and I both had rough starts.

According to his Wikipedia profile, “as a young racer, Killy was fast, but did not usually complete his races, and the early 1960s were not entirely successful for him.”

My profile: As a young racer he was very slow, but did not usually complete his races, and the 1960s, (and 1970s, for that matter) were entirely unsuccessful for him.

Somehow I talked my high school ski racing coach into letting me compete. I think tears were involved. My parents made a special trip to watch their fourth son do whatever he set out to do. They waited at the finish to cheer me on. 

High on the mountain, I pushed out of the start, rounded the first gate, then the second.

Next, for no reason, I simply fell over. Plop. Done. 

At the bottom of the course, my parents were standing near the coach, and overheard the message on his two-way radio: “Racer down on second gate.”

Then they overheard the coach mutter, “Must have been Marsters.” Mom and Dad may have been humiliated, but I doubt they were surprised. Actually, they probably burst into laughter.

It was at that point that Killy and I went off on different vectors.

Fast forward from the growing years to the shrinking years.

Lately, I’ve been playing a lot of pickleball, a hard-court racket game sort of combining ping-pong and tennis, but easier to master than either. Seniors love it, and I don’t mean seniors in high school.

One day recently a friend and I decided to practice “dinking” in the “kitchen.” 

I know, I know. Ha, ha. 

The “kitchen” is a no-man’s land extending five or so feet deep on either side of the pickleball net. A player can only step in there to return a ball that bounces in the kitchen, and then that player must immediately withdraw.

“Dinking” involves hitting the ball ever so lightly such that it barely clears the net and bounces low in the kitchen, leaving the opposing player with no choice but to “dink” it back. 

This dinking can go on for a while – “pockety-pockety, pockety-pockety, pockety-pockety, pockety-pockety” – until a player sees an opportunity and whacks the ball.

So we practiced our dinking and eventually got into a protracted pockety-pockety dinking session. I fell into a pockety-pockety trance. Then it occurred to me, as it must have occurred to me five decades earlier on that racecourse, that someone eventually had to screw up.

And that someone would be me. 

And so it was. One of my dinks hit the net, and the spell was broken.

Here we go again.

A couple days later I joined my friends in a game. After a little pockety-pockety, an opponent hit a shot high and to my left, a difficult shot to return. I lept heroically. Hit the ball backward over my shoulder, and – wonder of wonders – it was a winner.

The accolades came from all sides. “Nice shot!” “That was so professional!” 

I bathed in the praise. A champion at last.

Jean-Claude Killy is 78 now. I wonder if he plays pickleball. I’m pretty sure I could beat him. 

After all, I can do anything I set my mind to do. Bring it on.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning Maine journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.