IS THE JUICE WORTH THE SQUEEZE?
“Do you ever feel that you can’t quite get to where you want? Do you feel like although you’re doing everything in your power, you are still needing to go that one step further?”
I was not sure whether this was a rhetorical question, but I took it that way as it appeared the main function of his language was to persuade. I was not even sure how I had got here to listen to this man speaking. It had all come about so quickly. Not that it mattered. His words had already struck a chord with me, perhaps too deeply: the feeling of failure and the nagging of my determined drive hit me simultaneously. Yet I could see why my coach had recommended this guy. The man understood my thoughts, as much as my body.
He showed me the needle, already loaded with a blue fluid. “The choice is yours. You’ve got to ask yourself whether you want to realise your dreams, or live in the shadow of them forever.”
With that, I was sold. I knew it was dangerous and the potential consequences devastating, but I could not turn down this opportunity. The final rung of the ladder to my dreams could not be climbed by me alone. Life is made by moments. This was one I had to seize.
I am often asked by the media and fans alike if it has always been my dream to win the Olympic one hundred metres final, and I always reply with an emphatic and enthusiastic “yes”. But if truth be told, I had not always wanted to be an athlete. I only started to consider it at the age of fifteen. There were two main factors why I may have never been telling my story to you: one was that I never believed I was good enough to make it as a sprinter or play football in the NFL; the other was that I believed I could be successful in some area other than sport. It seems that in America the only way an African-American can be successful is if they are an athlete (unless you are a Michael Jackson or an Oprah Winfrey). A part of me still wants to go against this ostensibly resistant grain. If anything, my present situation may force me into this...
I used to dream about becoming a lawyer. Even when I was pursuing sporting interests in my teens, it was still the occupation I desired. The place I wanted to be. Maybe it was a result of watching one of my favourite movies of all time A Few Good Men, or for a black example, Will’s uncle in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Maybe it was because I was one of the few black kids who excelled throughout my time at school, especially in English. Maybe, like I said, I wanted to become a lawyer because I wanted to do something which would be considered good for my colour, in spite of the prejudices I faced. Or maybe the real reason I thought of realistically achieving that ambition was none of the above: it was because I never used to think about this thing called race. This invisible tag that stalks me. It may sound strange, particularly to non-blacks, but I never actually thought of myself as African-American per se. At school, it was not like I stepped into the classroom and thought to myself “I’m the black kid” or “that kid’s black, maybe that’s why he keeps doing badly in his tests”. No, I thought of myself as the same, just another kid, mainly because I never used to think about colour. In the cocoon of childhood, the world was colourless.
The strange thing is I am now a famous athlete where ethnicity is talked about in my field. Admittedly, things are better and in the public eye, being black is rarely a talking point. Off the top of my head, it seems to be more of a biological debate behind closed doors as it were. I mean people joke as to when one last saw a white man win the one hundred metres. I smile thinking about the advantage I theoretically have on the track. But the difference between me and the fifteen-year-old me is naivety. I was naive back then, never thinking race mattered, that I could just take to being a lawyer like a white man. So perhaps my maturation from a naive, confident (almost bordering on cocky) teenager is my biggest curse and biggest gift. After all, it is why I am a sprinter.
“You’ve got so much potential”. Those were the words that were often uttered to me throughout my years in college and University. On the track and field, that is. I did get encouragement in the classroom, but words with that much meaning never perforated the air there. The occasional praise and the good marks I got saw me through to the world of academia, attending the University of Tennessee. However, I was already looking for reasons why I could no longer see many of my black peers around me, and how the few who had made a success of themselves were only making money through sport. I do not have anything against this, I love sport, but at that time I was concerned as to why the ones who had fallen by the way side had not made something of themselves. Thankfully, I never gave thought to entering politics. I would only become disillusioned with its slippery ways.
So why did I “give up” on being a lawyer? Well, that’s perhaps how you would phrase it- I have never been a quitter and never will. It was not like I had a sudden change of direction, altering the discourse of my life. In reality, I had been toying between going into law and pursuing my dreams as a sprinter from seventeen to twenty. One of my college coaches had even suggested I try out for trials at one of the big NFL teams after I attracted interest playing for my college football team. The flattery was nice, but in the end I made a conscious decision that if I was to become a professional athlete, it would be beneficial to focus on one sport. That sport was athletics. I poured as much time and sweated as much blood (the latter was only really applicable to sprinting) for my education and my sport, maximising my time in a given day to fit in training and academic work. My life has never been as stressful as it was then and though I’m glad to see the back of that stress, I know it is the quintessence of me. I am a winner. I will do anything to be the best- as has now been proven. And as I thought about approaching twenty-one, I decided I could only be the best at sprinting. I feel there is a glass ceiling separating African-Americans from the white-collar professions: I could see the top, but then I discovered that the transparent barrier could not be shattered by me alone. Every crevice of my heart had become set on being a sprinter.
Those many words of encouragement on the sporting front, as I began to break junior records, cannot be underestimated. It is a sad state of affairs that the teachers and lecturers did not give me as much positive feedback, but that does not matter now. What matters is the actions that have been done, the words that are being said. As I dreamed of glory, I was spurred on by the many people who have helped me to get here. The relentless pushing of my coaches, the praise from my family- it all served a purpose. Yet probably the most invaluable words ever spoken to me were by the legend Michael Johnson. After making my breakthrough on the professional circuit, he unexpectedly approached me afterwards, congratulating me on my victory. “You’ve got great potential kid, you’re gonna go a long way” he said, every syllable from the great man making my soul drum with pride. It was just another sentence for him, but for me it was so much more. It enabled me to take the next step. To put that extra effort in, to push myself that little bit more. For the next race. The next event. The next Olympics. Words are funny things. More than anybody, I know how words that are usually insignificant can, in a certain context at a certain time, have reverberations for the rest of your life.
After winning a few more one hundred metres races, my name had become well known. I also felt a pro in my own right and it made the inevitable process of leaving university quicker and easier. Sprinting became my life at that point. The dedication was paying off as I climbed up the world rankings, but it still was not enough. I wanted more. My coach at the time knew how I felt and shared my goals, but ultimately that was not enough either. Sometimes one needs new eyes to give new insight and ideas, and acknowledging this, I amicably parted company with him. Naturally, I decided to employ whom I deemed the best coach in the business- Trevor Gray.
In the world of athletics, Trevor and I were going places. Or rather, his coaching took me places. I equalled the then world record of 9.77 seconds in my first season with him and soon established myself as the world no.1. Admittedly, I am disappointed that I do not have the record outright, but at least I had the immense pride of having my picture taken with the time and jogging around the track with the American flag. Another dream was realised. But as I was in the best shape of my life, and my confidence entering a similar state, I lost a couple of races. I kept telling myself that I could have won both races, but deep down, I knew I had been outclassed. Denial is never a good thing and I knew failure to address an issue could be costly. The losses had been a foul-tasting pill to swallow, but in hindsight, it was for the best. Nine months prior to the Olympics, I knew I had to raise my game. But that knowledge was the crux of my problems right now. I increasingly became frustrated as I pushed myself to the very outer limits, wanting to get faster, but I was not getting there. I must have been a burden to Trevor as I vented my exasperation; we desperately tried everything to go the next step. Yet Trevor was the one that changed everything.
He was the one that hooked me up with a recommended nutritionist, having been impressed by his work with many a successful NFL star. After a week, the nutritionist Dr. Andrews presented me with a dilemma. I could stay totally clean and chance the Olympics. Or I could be injected with the blue fluid he brandished at that moment, in the knowledge that I would become faster and satisfy my biggest desire. I had never felt a greater tension between two people, the air standing still. But the tug of war in my mind raged on. The head supported the risk-free part of me, the part that believed good things came to those who did not gamble. Conflicting, my heart yearned for my dreams, whatever the cost. The battle continued, before there was one winner left standing. Finally, I told the man my choice.
I rang Trevor later on, informing him of my decision. “It should all work out- those NFL stars have never been caught with the substance in their system,” Trevor said. “Anyway, is the juice worth the squeeze?”
“I hope so.”
The atmosphere was buzzing, an electric current running through the air. I felt the temperature soaring, both internally and externally, and as the temperature went up, the decibels did, too. Before I got into my zone of concentration, I afforded myself a look around the magnificent stadium. The crowd were on their feet, singing and waving flags. Colossal television screens projected our images and it was almost as if the whole universe was watching, not just planet Earth. I could almost taste the excitement. As the anticipation reached a crescendo, I became more nervous. My palms glistened with sweat. My heart began to thump in and out of its place. I told myself to focus. I was on a mission. The one hundred metres that lay before me was all that separated me from my dreams.
I had hardly paid attention to my competitors, but then I felt their presence as we waited for the gunshot. My world was silent. Yet my eyes had not averted the track in front of me. I braced myself. The seconds felt like an eternity. 1... 2... 3... Then we heard the blast. I roared out of the blocks: I knew how crucial a good start was. I was side-by-side with one of my rivals at this point and I could feel two or three hot on our heels. As my head rose and I assumed my full stance, it was as if I found an extra burst of pace and putting my foot on the pedal, I took the lead. The gold medal was mine for the taking. There was no letting up. I sustained my pace, out on my own, and shot past the finishing line.
My world was still a blur. Catching my breath back and allowing my body to recover, the realisation of my achievement had not sunk in. I could not properly make out my noisy surroundings yet- everything was a mashed collage of senses. But then my other senses rejoined my vision and I felt euphoria wash over me. I briefly looked over at the time I was victorious with- 9.84. I had not broken the world record, but that did not matter. All that mattered was what was to come. Receiving and wearing the gold medal was the greatest feeling in the world. As the medal was placed around my neck and the Star Spangled Banner boomed out across the stadium, I felt on top of the world. It was all so surreal. I had worked so hard and took an incredible risk for this dream and here it was, a dream that even when it seemed possible, felt far into the future. Yet there I was- experiencing the most magnificent emotions, shooting over the stadium like wondrous fireworks.
That was then. This is now. I am just leaving the courtroom and I shed a tear. The verdict could not have been worse: my career, and life to a certain extent, is in tatters. I have been banned from athletics for eight years. I cannot even bring myself to speak to the press, capturing my every move outside- never has so much negativity and uncertainty hit me at once. What do I do now? Can I wait eight years? For a split second, the latter thought enters my head. No chance. I will be thirty-two. I won’t be able to compete at the highest level by then. There are thousands of questions streaming through my head, but right now the answers will have to wait. I can only stare into a black hole that is before me.
So was the juice worth the squeeze? It is tempting to say no and let regret chew into me, not knowing what to do with my life. I could have won the Olympics being clean I think momentarily. But it does not matter now. I had my time and that is all that matters. How can I have regrets? Life is made by moments. We live for them and I can always say that I lived in the one I had always dreamed of. I have had my greatest moment.
© Copyright 2016 Ben James. All rights reserved.