It started when the sponsors started referring to us as Twinsies. It was a joke, really. Tina Chen was from China; I was from sunny California. But we were a matched set, it seemed. Tina with her porcelain, delicate skin and long hair tied up in a high ponytail. I was tan from running in the sun, hair bleached blond. But we had the same dimensions, both five feet, four inches, and both small, barely topping a hundred pounds. We’d traded first and second in each race, bringing drama to the sport of marathon, an event so lacking in excitement that the word “marathon” had become synonymous with the boring and endless.
I knew that the shoes would be the first item to be addressed. No carbon fiber. They enhanced performance, and the Olympic games are about celebrating human potential, not speed. Besides, the marathon was rarely about breaking a record. There were simply too many variables in a 26.2-mile course for times to compare fairly. For a sport that is known for being uninteresting, our rivalry had brought suspense, in addition to marketing power. The summer of the Olympics, we appeared on every billboard and teaser for the games. “Twinsies: Talent So Nice God Gave It Twice,” was the article that had started the rivalry. Chen and I had taken a test run in the same carbon fiber shoes that Nike was debuting at the time, and we had both been sent the same gratis running outfit, which we’d each worn. The press had caught both of us wearing the goods, exactly the same color and model, and that one photograph, combined with a few sprint finishes in which we’d each beaten out the other, had started a rivalry and a nickname that couldn’t be shed.
I had enjoyed the comparison initially when we were both successful collegiate athletes. Chen had one of the most brutal training regimens I had heard of, with mileage that topped 150 miles per week. I had worried that I wouldn’t keep up, until my coach upped my strength training and cross-training to match Chen’s load. I had suffered greatly then, falling asleep in the middle of the day, barely able to focus on my collegiate studies. Eventually, I realized that something had to give, and I withdrew from school. Chen had done the same.
Coach had to back me off the comparisons, initially. It was hard to focus on my own training when the press kept putting us side-by-side and asking who was favored. The Chinese government had invested into Chen’s training. She was flown to the mountains. Her diet was carefully regulated. Her sleep was tracked. This was all true with me, as well, but only as a result of my own volition. I had scraped together enough money waitressing to pay for the top nutritionist. I had gathered barely enough attention from sponsors to get some good training gear and enough money to spend a year focused on training, and I had begged and pleaded with Coach to give me a chance.
In fact, Coach had turned me down initially. He said that my natural stride was too hackneyed to develop into the stride of a competitive athlete. I had cried that evening, by myself, momentarily thinking that my dreams and hard work in college would have been for naught. But I pulled myself back up by my own bootstraps. After a long, hard run around Glimmerglade Lake, I regained my own steely resolve. “Whatever it takes,” I had promised myself. And with that, I had turned over a new leaf. I simply showed up for practice with all of Coach’s other athletes. I worked so hard, and with such heart, that I began to convince Coach that I had what it took after all.
Now, as I laid out my supplies for the race the next morning, I couldn’t help but reminisce. I had relocated to the tiny town of Shelocta, in the mountains, by myself, at age twenty. My mother had cried when I told her I was withdrawing from school. Her side of the family had emigrated before coming to the U.S., and I would have been the first on her side to graduate from college. My father had been pleased. He always told me that the choice to turn pro was mine, but from the way he spoke about my successes, too restrained, too modestly, I knew that he was bursting with pride for my performance. My entire hometown, my sleepy little high school, filled with kids who would get good, middle-class jobs, who would never amount to anything special, had come alive with the news that I would be an Olympic athlete.
My sports psychologist had told me to choose a mantra early on, and mine had been “stop at nothing,” which had worked well, especially for the marathon. During evenings, when my college friends were eating pizza and drinking beer at parties, I knew that if I wanted to go to the Olympics, I would stop at nothing to get there, and I ate my oysters and quinoa, that, if tasteless, at least would give me what I needed to repair from my ever-burgeoning training load. And then there had been the time that we had done repeats around Lake Glimmerglade. Coach never told us how many would complete the set, so I had gone on, and on, and on, until the straps of my jogbra had brushed bloody rashes in my shoulder, and, against my will, I had begun to cry. I cried silently while the other runners, all men, had dropped out of the workout. I was on my seventy-ninth lap around the lake when I’d lost touch with reality. I woke up at the hospital hours later, with an IV deep in my arm, and a note from Coach, to call him when I got released.
Things were easy after that. Not easy physically, but easy in terms of making choices. If something advanced my running, I did it. If it wouldn’t, I didn’t do it. This meant no television, unless what I was viewing was likely to make me better, no reading unless the book would further my development as a runner. I began to devote hours of my day to simply concentrating for two hours on my running, so that when the time came for the marathon, my mind would have the discipline necessary to complete what I had set out to do: get Olympic gold.
Now it was the evening before the Olympics, and I was in the best shape of my life. My muscles were taut, my heart rate so low, that even the team doctor told me that it was remarkably low. I had hydrated, and I had done all the hard work. Now the only thing left was to achieve and change my life from a might have been to Olympic gold. And, with the most remarkable luck, I was doing it in a year when running was front and center, as one of the top Olympic rivalries, the race between the twinsies. I crawled into bed that night knowing that I wouldn’t sleep, but also knowing that my life would never be the same.
The next morning was sunny and cool, seventy degrees. This would be warm for the marathon, but I had prepared. Each detail was something that I had seen before, and when I shook the hand of Tina Chen, light and delicate, I felt as though I were taking my own hand, that I was leading myself to an inevitable gold medal finish, and that the ending, my victory, had already occurred.
The gun went off. The first mile was easy. The pack was going out hard. This was to my benefit. In fact, I had planned on going out hard, dropping Tina late in the race, as her style was to sprint out at the end. If I could slowly bleed her energy throughout the race, I knew it would be my best chance for gold. As I tried to surge ahead, however, I suddenly realized that I was closed in. There were runners surrounding me on all sides. No matter, I thought, “whatever it takes.” I threw my elbow and it struck the side of a Chinese runner who had been boxing me in on the left. She remained immovable. I was stunned as realization set in. The Chinese team had put me in a moving box. There were runners packed around me so tightly that I couldn’t break away. They were setting the pace, and it was too slow for me to run a competitive race.
I threw my right arm. It struck the girl to my left in the side, and I saw her reach down at her side in pain, falling back, but another runner quickly assumed her place, and I was boxed in again. I was beginning to panic. The miles were flying by, and there was no way to escape the wall that closing in around me. We were at mile twenty, the last time I would be able to make a move, and Tina Chen was just outside the box, running easy. I knew if I couldn’t get out of the box, I would never have a chance.
And then, suddenly, it happened. I remember each detail, as though it had occurred in slow motion. The girl to my right reached into her long calf sleeve and pulled it out. It was a shiv. She turned and hacked at my knee, where it hit the intended location. My tendon screamed and I involuntarily went down, the pack of runners, the moving box, suddenly gone while I writhed in pain.
Time stopped then. In one moment, I had pulled myself up. My mantra pounded through my head, and without thinking, I willed myself forward. My knee was shaking, and I thought I could feel a trickle of blood down the side. But I would do this. I would finish. For one ungodly moment I thought about the pain, and then I simply shut it out, as I had a million times during my training. And then, a miracle happened. As I stared at the runners ahead, I began to pick them off. Slowly, but doggedly, they were coming back to me. I could see the back of the singlet of the girl who had struck me with the shiv, and I extended my stride and drove my arms until I reached her, then I dug deep.
There was only a mile left and I was driving and pushing my legs as fast and as hard as I could. Ahead of me, I could see the arch of the finish line and Chen’s long dark ponytail taunting me as it swung back and forth. With every last ounce, I sprinted to the finish, I could hear the roar of the crowd, and then my world went dark.
When I think about the other events of the day now, I feel distant from them. There had been an outcry from the United States. It wasn’t fair, they cried. A camera had caught the moment that the shiv was used. It was undeniable that the Chinese had made efforts to sabotage my race. Chen was stripped of the gold. For a moment, a few hours, my heart soared. I had finished just behind Chen, but now that Chen was stripped, gold was mine.
But it didn’t remain mine. The Swedes had received a tip. I was doping. They were insisting on a blood test. I knew then that I was done. My blood was drawn, irrefutable evidence against my athlete’s passport that Coach had enhanced my performance, and I was stripped as well.
I cried that night, full, fat, self-indulgent tears that rolled down the hollows of my eyes. I cried for the commitment that I had made, for the time that I had blacked out from pure exhaustion, for the unfairness of being shanked during the race, and for my own regret, my all-consuming drive that had ultimately driven me to my downfall, doing whatever it would take for gold.
I never returned to running after that. Years later, I learned that the Swedish gold medal winner had also cheated. She apparently was taking a performance enhancing drug for a condition that she didn’t have. I returned to my hometown, but there was no ticker-tape parade. I went to community college to finish my degree. I got married and had children. One day, I went to the mailbox and found a letter in a thin blue envelope with red and blue striping of international mail. It was a letter from Tina Chen. It was an apology of sorts. She told me that she was sorry for what had happened. She said that only those who are blinded by their own ideology fall into the trap of believing their own infallibility. I shed a few tears at this. The world is filled with those who judge, but of those who do, how many have had the courage to try to fly so close to the sun?
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This was really good, and I loved the Icarus idea that you had woven in. I love mythology, so it made perfect sense. Again, I love this one!
Thanks for the read and for your comment, Mira!
This is one of the best stories I've read. I really like it. I am a reader and I like story over editing so forgive me if I don't have any hints or suggestions. This was just that good of a story. Well done! Robert
Obviously, this is a caricature of what competitive track is like (I'm very familiar). The boxing and elbowing are believable, but a shiv? Come on, that has never, and would never happen, especially in the era of the video camera??? It pulled me out of the story, personally. You could accomplish the same thing with an elbow to the temple or a tripping. If you insist on having a shiv in a race at THE OLYMPIC GAMES then I'm not entirely sure it's possible to sprint for miles on a severed tendon. Your knee would do more than just shake, it ...
Haha! In my writing, suspension of disbelief reigns—or perhaps has wrested my pen! In this case I should have let my idea simmer a bit. . . Thanks for the technical advice on past perfect. That honest, concrete feedback is why I love Reedsy so much. I will keep at it. Thanks for the read!!