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It’s the late seventies. I’m thirteen years old. I’m a tank. Gorgeous, but a tank.
I weigh the best part of 90 kilos (200lbs) and it’s school swimming sports day. Yippee. I’d rather hit myself in the head with a hammer, but here I am. I don’t want to swim but I have no option; it’s compulsory. Private school rules. Everyone is put into a swimming section. Everyone races. I am in the remedial section; the home of the geek, the uncoordinated and the fat.
I am unfit. In fact, unfit would be a dramatic improvement. I aspire to ‘unfit’. I am embarrassing. I am embarrassed. I long for the super-power of invisibility. I am addicted to cartoons (and chocolate cake) and I fantasize regularly about having my own special power. Flying and xray vision always rate highly, but right now, invisibility seems kind of attractive. I outweigh most of my teachers. My gut cascades over my bathers like an ice-cream spilling over the side of a cone. I am pioneering the muffin top, only on a slightly larger scale. I am wearing a T-shirt to hide my ample-ness (a word). A teacher approaches me.
“Harper, take off the shirt.”
I feel sick and anxious.
“But Sir, I burn easily and I have sensitive skin.”
“You can’t swim in that, get it off.”
“But I’m not allowed to, the Doctor said.”
“Do you have a note?”
“Get it off, you’re swimming in one minute.”
I turn my back on the multitudes and I remove my shirt. I suck in my stomach. That will help. Twenty seconds later I can’t hold my breath any longer and my gut cascades once again. I walk towards the starting area and wrap my arms around my waist in a futile attempt to hide what everyone can plainly see. I live up to my nickname; Jumbo.
The starter calls the misfits up. The geeks, the uncoordinated and the fat kids mount the starting blocks. Apart from me, there’s one other fat kid. Although, he’s not really in my league, more chubby than fat. Fraud.
A funny thing happens.
As I’m perched there on my starting block, for a second I forget about my magnitude. Momentarily, I forget about how I look or what people might be thinking. Strangely, I analyse my opposition. For the first time in my life, I actually think I am an outside chance of ‘winning’ some kind of sporting competition. A completely unprecedented thought or experience for me. Of course I’m no chance, but I indulge myself nonetheless.
Somewhere deep within my totally un-athletic subconscious, I hear these words, “what if?” I allow myself to dream for a second and, in the context of the moment and the situation, I experience a strange emotion; excitement. The fear, anxiety and embarrassment have been replaced with something much more powerful; hope. A bunch of misfits, swimming in a race that nobody cares about, and there I am, primed. Excited and hopeful. Nice emotions. New emotions for me.
The kid who gets picked last for every sporting team can smell greatness. Great for me anyway; it’s all relative when you’re fat and thirteen. Looking back, I’ve often wondered about the psychology behind letting kids pick their own teams. Standing there on your own as the team ‘captains’ argue because neither of them want you on their team, is not an experience I’d wish on anyone. Some teachers weren’t that smart in the seventies.
The starter’s gun goes and I have the reaction time of a cat. An old arthritic cat perhaps. Incredibly, I am the first to enter the water. I amaze myself. I don’t even know what ‘the zone’ is, but I’m in it. For a moment, I’m an Olympian. The splash from my dive into the water concusses half of the field. I don’t care. I create a tidal wave and cause the other half to surf into each other’s lanes. Okay, I made that bit up but it woulda been funny. My fat little arms pump like pistons and at the halfway mark, I lift my head and take my first breath.
To my astonishment, and everyone else’s, I am winning. I am winning the meaningless race. But for me and the other rejects, this is our moment. To us it’s meaningful. Very. I am not the only one trying. I look across the pool, and if endeavour and attitude mean anything, we are all world champions. What my ‘competition’ and the onlookers haven’t factored in is my secret weapon; ultimate buoyancy. I am like a cork with legs.
While the skinny kids struggle to stay afloat, my body-fat allows me lie on top of the water like a yacht on the ocean. I am a human floatation device. For once in my life, my body is giving me an advantage. As the little, weedy kids struggle to not only reach the end of the pool, but more importantly stop themselves from sinking to the bottom and drowning, all Jumbo has to do is propel his highly buoyant self down the lane.
Another strange thing happens.
I hear cheering. And in the middle of it, my name. Another new thing. This is indeed, history in the making. I slide into the wall and I touch… first. I watch my competitors struggle to the finish and I am as happy as I can remember. A lady with a nice face reaches down pats me on the arm and says “well done young man.” I feel incredible.
As I get out of the pool a man with a clip board approaches me and asks me something I’ve never been asked, “Are you the winner?” It is indeed a day of firsts. I love being asked that question. “Yes”, I say proudly. “Well done”, he replies. He takes my details, tells me my time and sends me to collect my first-place ribbon. All of a sudden, I’m not a fat kid any more, I’m a winner and I’m on my way to get my winner’s ribbon!!
I love this feeling. This moment. I feel different. People pat me on the back. A teacher puts his arm around me and congratulates me. I love the attention, I love the praise and I love the encouragement. For a moment I feel normal. I have never felt normal in a setting like this. This feeling is better than chocolate cake, and that’s saying something. The social outcast feels acceptance. It’s healing. It’s addictive. It feels so good.
Not too long after that day, I began to train properly. I changed my diet, I started to run and I lost thirty kilos (66lbs) over the course of about five months. And I learned many, many lessons along the way. About other people, about me, about potential, about self-belief and about the importance of love, encouragement and support. I learned that often, the people who get the least attention and encouragement are the ones who need it the most. I have always been mindful of that and have tried to live accordingly.
Over the last twenty five years, I’ve done lots of cool stuff. Spoken all over the world, worked on television and radio, met some amazing people, created a great company, written for newspapers and magazines but none of those things have given me the feeling and sense of achievement I experienced on that day thirty years ago. While I forget quite a lot of what I’ve done over the last two decades, I can remember that day and everything about it with absolute clarity. Every detail. Every feeling. Every emotion. It was a defining moment for me.
As an adult, I’ve learned that on some level, we’re all fat, insecure kids craving attention, love, encouragement and support. I’ve also learned that to give those things, blesses me the giver as much as it does the receiver; it’s healing for both. Everyday you and I have the opportunity to notice the un-noticed, love the un-loved, hug the un-hugged and to encourage and support those who are emotionally starving in a sea of humanity. We have the opportunity to make an incredible difference with a few simple words and a few minutes of our time.
Let’s do that.Write by george t shirts