Essay - Kirsten Richardson

Kirsten Richardson, Arete '87, was one of the leading girls who produced 4 straight undefeated dual meet seasons in the MCAL between 1986 and 1989. These girls were fierce and this beautiful blond was the envy of many a county lass. Kirsten is now the head instructor in a public high school challenging her students to realize, arête.

Bill Taylor

Photos -- The undefeated girls track team, at a track meet in Budapest behind the Iron Curtain, Coach Taylor presenting an award to Kirsten.

You may be surprised to hear that I wasn’t an athletic kid. I didn’t play any sports and I never gave thought to exercising. I spent my time climbing trees, chasing cows, catching bees and playing with my dog Martha. I idolized Wonder Woman and frequented our neighborhood, decked out in Wonder Woman underoos, pretending to possess her super human strength and beauty. I was particularly shy and I needed those Wonder Woman underoos to help me find courage, because as a child I walked through life scared to make a mistake.

Growing up, I didn’t have women in my life who were active and physical. The women that I looked up to put great value on their outer beauty. I remember watching my Mom put on her makeup and curl her hair, staring intently into the lighted mirror that magnified every pore. I watched in awe as she “put on her face” as she called it. It was her everyday ritual and she was the most beautiful woman in the world to me. The women in my family did like to dance. So I grew up dancing, especially in my Wonder Woman underoos. I just never realized that girls could play sports, or for that matter would even want to.

In high school my best friend begged me to join the cross county team with her. The what? What do you do? Run! Why? For how long? I did NOT think this would be a sensible way to spend my time and I was terrified by the idea. I thought cheerleading sounded a lot better, but my dad had strong opinions about cheerleading. He was a Marine and he didn’t see the productivity of his daughter being on a cheerleading squad. So in the end, I begrudgingly agreed to lace up my newly purchased running shoes and take my first journey around Mt. Tamalpais, a place that would later become my sanctuary and my escape.

My running coach, Mr. Taylor was a Theologian and Historian. His experience of life was seeped in a deep appreciation for philosophy and human perspective. Before every practice, 5 days a week for 4 years, we spent time in the classroom. He challenged us with puzzling questions about athletic being and existentialism and required us to spend time in self-reflection, before we ever stepped foot on a trail or a track. He knew that we would only reach our potential if we were willing to take risks and to figure out what fears shortened our stride. As individuals and as a team, we had many collective fears. But we bravely shared them and examined them and found our courage to push, to sacrifice and to endure. In the end, our girl’s high school track team went undefeated for 4 straight years, something that had never been done in our county and has yet to be repeated. Our time together as a team taught us how to be accountable to ourselves and to others. It was a defining moment in all of our lives.

Before I found sport, I didn’t understand how much I was capable of. I couldn’t see beyond the day I was in. Sport allowed my dreams to take flight. It allowed me to think about a future bigger than myself. I learned how to handle disappointment. I learned that it was okay to fail. That my friends were still my friends and I wasn’t less of a person because of it. I developed the confidence to push the boundaries of self-limitation. I learned that I am worthy of being a champion. But most importantly, I learned that I only failed when I didn’t have the courage to give my best effort.

And along the way, I had many opportunities to feel the sting and disappointment of not giving my best effort. By far the most memorable occurred when I was 15 years old competing in Europe. My team was invited to Prague, Czechoslovakia and we had a chance to go behind the Iron Curtain and compete in sport against people still ruled by Communism. Mr. Taylor sensed that I was not putting everything I had into the moment. He was right and he withdrew me from the competition. I was scared and didn’t know how to bring my best self to the track. When we returned home, the devastation of sitting on the sidelines and watching my teammates compete at that historic track meet, motivated me more than ever and I learned how to be a ferocious competitor.

Several years later, the summer before my first year in college, I had an identity crisis. UC Santa Cruz did not have a competitive track or cross country team. My identity was wrapped up in being an athlete and being part of a team. It was a place where I had found structure, support and discipline. As the time neared for me to head off to college, I panicked and decided that I would leave 5 weeks early and tryout for the women’s volleyball team. There was one problem. I had never played volleyball before. Tryouts were a fiasco. I remember having to ask one of the players how to put on my kneepads (that is like a grown up asking someone how to put on socks) and not having enough ball control skills to even do the warm-up drills. I was definitely in over my head. But the beauty of it was that I didn’t care. I loved the challenge of learning something completely new. I called upon the traits I developed as a high school athlete: perseverance, determination and commitment and was rewarded for my efforts with the rookie of year award. However, when the season ended I realized that being on a competitive team was only one way of many to find strength and purpose. As Mr. Taylor shared with me, “Athletics are not ultimate, but they can be a means to courage and more importantly to a life that is ultimate.”

I recently read a report that struck a deep chord with me. The American Association of University Women found girls are nearly twice as likely as boys to mention a physical characteristic, like their hair or eyes, as the thing they like most about themselves. Teen girls tend to base their self-worth on their perception of how they look, while teen boys tend to base their self worth on what they can do. I want this to change desperately.

There is a 16 year old girl named Alexa Fourlis and she is doing her part to make this change within herself. When Alexa started high school she didn’t feel confident and wanted to find a way to fit in and feel accepted. Her answer was to focus on how she looked and in particular to focus on getting skinny. Alexa went to the gym and ran on the treadmill. She burned more calories than she had to lose and she got skinny. However, Alexa didn’t feel any better about her skinny self. Fortunately, Alexa’s Dad was paying attention to his daughter’s struggle and he suggested she focus on getting strong, not skinny. And for the past two years, Alexa has done just that. Instead of trying to lose weight, she is focused on how much weight she can lift. The new motto that Alexa lives by is, “Strong is the new skinny”.

What Alexa discovered and what I have learned in sport is that when we feel strong, we act strong. There is an undeniable connection between the health of our mind, our body and our spirit. Athletics gives us a safe battlefield to test ourselves. There are no real consequences to failing in sport, but there are a multitude of life lessons to be learned in trying.

And I want to encourage you all to try: to seek challenges, because without them you don’t know how truly strong you are, to embrace adversity, because without it you can’t fully appreciate how fortunate you are. Stretch yourselves, be brave. When we give all we have to give, whether it’s in sports or on a stage, in the classroom or in our relationships, the rewards are far greater.

As I continue to navigate the ups and downs that life throws my way, when the world is overwhelming or I’m having a grumpy day, sport is my reset button. It allows me to be my best self. Whether I’m competing or training, or just moving for the pure joy of it, I do it because that’s when I feel the most beautiful, the most alive, the most present. Drenched in sweat, out of breath, on the edge. And thankfully, I don’t need my Wonder Woman underoos to find courage anymore.

Kirsten Richardson
November 2006