Like most Air Force Academy cadets, my daughter participated in athletics in high school.
As a gymnast, she spent countless hours in the gym honing her skills across the four events, working on flexibility, and doing conditioning work. We crisscrossed New Jersey from meet to meet, sometimes leaving with a handful of medals and wearing a smile, other times, well, not so much.
She loved gymnastics, even the lows that accompanied the highs. I’ll never forget the state championship meet where she face-planted on the balance beam, her third fall, that led to her worst-ever score. As she strode to the floor exercise for the final event of the meet, I leaned over to her brother and said, “this is where we’ll find out if she’s an athlete.” She proceeded to throw down her best-ever floor exercise. My son said, “well, I guess we know the answer.”
Despite the hard work and lessons learned from her time as a gymnast, I believe the athletic experience that most prepared her for her time as a Doolie was her time as a basketball player.
Catie loved gymnastics. She loved everything about the experience – the practices, working on new skills, the competition (even amongst teammates), the anticipation of meets, qualifying for the state championship, pretty much all of it.
When it came to basketball, she loved playing. Practicing, working on skills? Not so much.
We signed her up for intramurals in grade school and she seemed to like it well enough, so she stuck with it. By the time she got to high school, any thoughts that she might evolve into the next Yao Ming were gone. Standing a shade over 5-foot tall with her slight gymnastics build, she looked like an old-school point guard.
I told her that her best bet was to work harder on handling the ball, especially dribbling effectively with both hands, so she could create plays. Since she’d be giving up height to pretty much everyone in the league, I urged her to work on her 3-point shot, which found its mark every so often but was inconsistent at best.
Now, I’d like to tell you she heeded this advice and, like you would expect a future Air Force officer to do, worked diligently on those skills to become the best player she could be.
She didn’t. She chose a different path. In fact, she decided to play a lot like her father. You see, when you stand just a shade over 6-foot and have the vertical leap of a toaster, you find other ways to help your team. You set picks. You scramble for rebounds. You smother your opponent on defense. And, most importantly, you find the limits of the rules and push them as far as you can.
So over the last few years of her playing days, she did so with reckless abandon. She’d set staunch picks against girls twice her weight. She’d use her amazing vertical leap to sky among the trees for rebounds. She’d scramble for loose balls, often using her deceptive strength to rip the ball away or flip her opponent over her shoulder to wrestle the ball away. She would pass willingly and occasionally fire up a three-pointer, but most of her points came from offensive rebounds and her greatest joy came from doing the dirty work. She was a lean, 5′ 1″ enforcer.
Catie stuck out like a sore thumb because most girls in the league were cautious, to put it mildly, treating contact as if it were COVID-19 (this was pre-pandemic, of course) and believing that a personal foul would end up on their permanent record. After one particular game when Catie had relentlessly mauled the opponents, the opposing coach came up to her after the game and said, “Catie, you really can’t foul like that.”
Catie didn’t miss a beat. “My dad said I get five fouls each game and I can’t take them home.”
It’s true. I did say that.
We had a blast during her last few seasons and her teammates embraced Catie’s role. During her senior season, we were getting crushed inside one game. The opposing team was dominating around the basket so if they missed a shot, they’d get grab rebounds and get two or three more attempts.
Frustrated, I called time out, but it was just for one player. I set my jaw, locked eyes with Catie, and said, “no more easy baskets. That girl does not get through the lane again, got it?”
She nodded, “Got it.”
Time out over.
The next time down the court, the same girl – who had a good 5 inches and at least 70 pounds on Catie – began charging toward the lane. Catie made no pretense, she lowered her shoulder and, um, disrupted the play.
Of course, the whistle blew and the opposing coach lost his mind. Catie rolled her eyes and shrugged her shoulders, taking her place along the key, lining up for the free throw.
A highlight reel moment? Maybe not. But when I think about the homestretch to Recognition, it’s moments like that I believe will serve her best.
There are moments during life at a military academy that are very much like walking onto the floor for the floor exercise. In the spotlight, all eyes upon you. But so much of what happens is hard, thankless work that’s never seen. Those long hours of EI, room inspections, knowledge tests, PFTs and AFTs, and through it all, there are times you have to pitch in and do the dirty work, oftentimes doing things your roommates or companymates or simply other cadets can’t do. In short, it’s all about teamwork.
As I see the pages of the calendar counting down to Recognition, I envision Catie setting that unexpected pick, ripping the ball out of a scrum, and her hands soaring above the flat-footed crowd under the rim to grab a rebound. And I know that while it won’t be pretty, she’ll get to Recognition along with her teammates, each of them doing what has to be done to get there.