Two-Ball Sports

The “Season of Sports” concludes with this post…

By Dale J. Dean

There’s nothing like the fear of imminent death to encourage a person to go beyond their normal abilities. I need that encouragement, because, as a bit of a turtle, I am normally slow and steady. Life, at times, demands that I move faster, make the absolutely correct move, or even kick in with some adrenaline to survive.

And that’s where two-ball sports come into play.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have some fond memories of one-ball sports: little league baseball, sandlot & freshman high school football, golf, and intra-mural high school basketball. I even tried some no-ball sports back then, but I really didn’t like running more than 50 yards. I did put a lot of miles on a 10-speed bike, but never in a competitive fashion. In my later teens, I enjoyed hanging out and throwing some awesome long-distance plastic discs. My hair grew bigger. I was cool. I was mellow. I was way too laid back for most active sports.

Except for canoeing. Ever since I bought my first canoe at age 15, I have always loved canoeing. It started as a way to get out on the lake fishing, moved on to include river trips and camping, and by early mid-life, “sport canoeing” (the better name for freestyle canoeing, which involved precision moves on quiet water in tiny solo boats). A little later, I decided to try whitewater canoeing. Well, I took to that like a catfish to stink bait, swallowing hook, line, and stinker…I mean, sinker.

Which brings us to my whitewater canoeist friend Fill (his name has been slightly changed to reduce future acrimony over my stealing his creative thought). Fill talks to everybody. He has a talent for successfully communicating with people that many of us would avoid: drunks shooting off fireworks at the campground late at night, ultra-conservatives, religious fanatics, pesky salespeople, and even kayakers. He’ll start out easy, let them relax, and then–either blatantly or subtly–express an opposing line of thought that sometimes actually forces these stubborn people think.

So one day Fill is canoeing, and he pulls up beside some athletic-looking-types along the shore, hoping to get them interested in the sport. But they express the opinion that whitewater canoeing looks easy, that they are tougher because they play rugby & football & basketball &tc.

“Yeah,” Fill says agreeably, “but those are all one-ball sports.”

One of them takes the bait. “What do you mean, one-ball sports?”

“Well,” says Fill, “In all those sports, you are playing with only one ball. It takes two balls to do whitewater canoeing.

And if the sexist card just popped up in your mind, believe me, there are plenty of female whitewater paddlers who have an awesome set… oh geez, I’m making it worse! Suffice it to say that we are writing figuratively here… Anyway, Fill may have been speaking literally to those guys along the shore, but I am writing about all types of people involved in adventure sports that require “balls.” I don’t care if a paddler identifies as male or female or L or G or B or T, it takes balls to shoot down swift water into a thundering conflagration of spraying haystacks, sucking holes, seven-foot drops, side-curlers, and huge standing waves all packed in between a rock wall and a hard place.

And that brings us back to the fear of imminent death, which provides a heaping load of motivation to do what needs to be done. And some of it is counter-intuitive, so you need to keep your wits about you. If you cannot avoid hitting a rock, you lean into the rock; leaning away is a natural reaction, but it flips your boat. Approaching the situation described in the previous paragraph, you paddle hard right into the mess. Forward momentum will get you through. The natural, deer-in-the-headlights-type reaction to stop paddling and stare at what’s in front of you will result in a scary swim.

Dale avoidingHouse Rock on the Mad Mile of the Gallatin River in Montana. Photo by Carol Olson

Dale avoidingHouse Rock on the Mad Mile of the Gallatin River in Montana. Photo by Carol Olson

Whitewater paddlers talk about picking a line; it’s a plan, a proposed path through the mayhem. Sometimes it works. On a trip to the southeast years ago, one member of our group was an excellent paddler who was familiar with the river. He led us to the quiet water above zig zag rapids, and we looked downstream. He said there was a “cheat route” to the left where people could avoid most of the rapid, but he told us all to watch his line and decide for ourselves. He skillfully zig-zagged between rocks down the run-in to the final zag, a right turn where you had to catch a line between a huge pour-over hole (think sucking, recirculating whirlpool) on the right, and the other half of the river’s current piling up on a cliff wall of rock on the left. Logically, the problem with this run was that last zag; if you had any trouble on the upper zigs and zags, you would probably end up in that hole or up against that wall.

Everybody decided to take the sneak route. Well, everybody except for me. I thought that zig zag looked like a lot of fun. And it was! But compared to our leader’s precise, slalom-racer run, I looked like a boat in a pinball machine, bouncing off rocks and hydraulic obstacles all the way down. But I maintained control. I had to, because I didn’t want to end up dead, and I made that last right turn, smoothly sneaking between the frightful hole and the beckoning wall.

Yes, it took two balls to play that sport.

© 2015 Dale J. Dean.

Dale below House Rock, balls still intact. Photo by Carol Olson.

Dale below House Rock, balls still intact. Photo by Carol Olson.

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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