you can't be an athlete, be an athletic supporter!"
Eve Arden as Principal Lynch in the movie "Grease"
The Olympics are finally over,
and my reactions have been complex; my visual cortex and pleasure
centers are coping with disappointment and withdrawal, while the
rest of me has collapsed in exhausted relief.
I need little excuse to stay up late as it is, and the constant
coverage from Athens proved a more than sufficient pretext for
wish I could give in to visual memory and recount visceral reactions
to the beauty of the swimmers, the power of the gymnasts; however,
if I did, this column would quickly degenerate into the textual
equivalent of drooling, "Wow!" and "Yum!" filling my screen repeatedly
and uncontrollably. What watching the Olympics has triggered instead
is a partially-submerged memory path, one which forces me to confront
my still-evolving notions of masculinity and physical capability.
Let me take you back.
my childhood, my parents wanted me to contend with my disability,
not so much to eradicate it as to subdue it and thereby make my
life much easier. They arranged strenuous physical training for
me, a regimen that would find me churning through the waves and
soaring through the air. Was this some Navy SEAL school for spastics?
No, just swimming lessons and gymnastics lessons. I hated the former
and loved the latter, and only now do I realize why.
parents, neither of whom knew how to swim, had been told by physical
therapists that swimming would be great for my strength, endurance,
flexibility, and long-term health. So on Saturday mornings when
I wanted very much to sleep in, I was instead dragged to a series
of teachers. My interaction with many of them was ridden with conflict
that was in some ways similar to our internal family dynamics, but
the swimming instructors infuriated me far more. I used to say with
no little pride and considerable accuracy that I had driven several
of them from the profession entirely. One of them was a particular
offender. His two main rhetorical strategies with me were: "Come
on, this is easy!" and "What's the matter? Do you think I am trying
to hurt you?" When faced with such words, I would simply grunt and
growl, but all the while I was thinking, "You schmuck! Don't tell
me this is easy; if it was, what the hell would I need you for?"
and "Don't you think I have enough Jewish guilt tossed at me already
without you putting in your two cents?" As this level of antagonism
might indicate, I never finished learning to swim.
was, however, a pommel horse of a different color. I was taken once
or twice a week to a gymnastic studio near the beach, where a former
Danish Olympic gymnast had set up a special program to teach gymnastics
to disabled kids as part of their physical therapy and rehab regimen.
He was tough, a taskmaster, and I fought with him too, but I remember
feeling a special sense of accomplishment when I did my routines.
Perhaps this was because our practices were not just geared to physical
improvement; we were expected to perform in public on a regular
I never got the telethon vibe from any of our exhibitions, but maybe
that's because we were performing at schools and malls just like
other kids, or maybe I just felt more like a part of a troupe and
less like a spazzing performing seal. Since I was already singing
and acting in school, tumbling or being lifted was just another
skill, a new arena of show biz. Our teacher's glamor helped underscore
this identification, and so did the audience one very special afternoon,
when we got to perform for Gene Kelly and some of his assistants.
None of them got all sappy on us; they just watched, and learned,
and showed us respect. That felt good, and unusual.
a result of gymnastics, physical therapy, my abortive attempts at
aquatics, and hours of stair-climbing at school, I entered junior
high school in the best shape of my life. I should have thanked
my parents, but my prowess was expanding at the very time adolescence
was making me feel the most terrified about social, romantic, indeed
physical acceptance. My schoolmates saw me on the stairs and assumed
not that I was buff, but that I was struggling. So I resorted to
subterfuge. I would sucker other guys into tests of strength. Either
Mercy, which involved quasi-sadistic abuses of an opponent's wrist,
or plain old arm-wrestling. I taunted them: "Come on, I can't even
walk! How tough could it be?" I didn't always win, but I won often
enough to have them re-evaluate me, often enough that I should have
played for money. I would do my best to turn victories and draws
into a joke so people wouldn't get ticked at me, and it became a
running gag for me to try my con on new students.
During my teenage years, hard work and sheer stubbornness turned
me into a widely-feared competitor and a regionally-high-ranking
decathlete. True, the competitions were spelling bees, and the decathlons
were academic ones, but still.
have written before about my high-school electrification process
and its impact on my life. Zooming around in a noisy machine rather
than on crutches made me less of a physical presence for others
and more of a mechanical one. This bothered me on some level, but
since I was already hanging out with people who generally neglected
their bodies and cared mostly about the massive computers inside
their heads, I did not do anything to challenge or change this evolution.
I think I only knew two or three people in high school who played
sports, and I was actively discouraged from taking many of them
seriously. College, however, constituted a far different competitive
was part of a seriously geeky crowd throughout most of college,
but just as with theatrical talent, I realized that the bar had
been raised without my ever knowing it. Suddenly, many of the smart
kids around me manifested physical strength, athletic skill, physical
beauty; conversely, I had classes with intimidating godlike athletes
who were genuinely interested in stimulating conversation and the
world of the mind.
True, even in this Nirvana, there were intellectuals who had no
sense of themselves as physical beings, and athletes who conformed
to the worst monosyllabic grunting stereotypes; as I identified
with the former and feared the latter, I began to realize a special
and evolving kinship with some of my friends who competed for our
think we all realized this common ground existed when we would talk
about workouts and exercise. For them, conditioning was neither
ordinary fitness nor vanity, but something serious and structural,
something professional. Bluntly, their bodies were their jobs, and
contending with those bodies, compelling them into often unwilling
action, coaxing them back from injury or forward into greater mobility,
was the current focus of their lives.
someone who had been trying to dominate my body my whole life, who
had been schooled not to let it hinder or defeat me, I felt I understood
their view of the world, and some of them sensed that I understood,
and bonded with me. The nature of our connection was not the stereotype
of old; I wasn't some helpless bedridden creature they would bring
souvenirs or win games for. I was instead a fellow striver in the
lifelong contest of the body, my goal neither domination nor record
times, nor Olympic glory, but instead a collaboration, one that
would not only help me manage my disability but also define and
maintain both my nature as a physical being and the extent of my
I have gay friends without disabilities who play on special sports
teams, just as I know people with disabilities who are now getting
ready to compete at the Paralympics in Athens. Sometimes, I regret
the disappearance of my buff self, especially when I notice flab
or feel tired after exerting myself, but I don't know if I have
the motivation or the energy to get any of that physical ease back.
I don't think I could be in the Paralympics or on a gay sports team,
except as a cheerleader/psychologist/masseur.
they haven't died out, my competitive instincts have definitely
shifted, mostly into the realms of work and advocacy. Sometimes,
when I'm lucky I feel them revive when I write or speak, or even
when I am pursuing a particularly marvelous guy. I no longer value
the drive that tells me I need to win, but I still care about doing
well. Whether this embodies maturity or middle-aged fatigue is open
to question. I don't think life has been a disappointment because
I couldn't be Michael Phelps, but I do wonder what might have changed
if I had stowed away in Gene Kelly's car on that one particular
©2004 Danny Kodmur
Let us know what
you think of this BENT feature.
Kodmur lives, writes, and tries to figure his life out in the
Bay Area. Should you or your sports team require his wisdom and
talents, write to him at at
His work is featured in
"Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories" (Haworth
Press), a 2004 Lambda Literary Award winner.
by Danny Kodmur
Soul Clothed in Shining Armor~5/00
Much Does it Matter? Wrestling with the Metaphysics of Disability
On Being (Un)Representative
Testing My Faith in Romance
No Need to Kick My Tires
Balcony Scenes with a
The Music and the Mirror
The Music and the
Under the Spotlight: Disability and Depression ~1/03
On Getting Stuck ~3/03
Of Cities and Closets ~5/03
So How Old Are You, Anyway? ~7/03
Socializing and Sobriety ~9/03
Walking in L.A. ~11/03
Wedding Bell Blues ~3/04
of Solitude ~7/04