RICHARD's desk...: Beaten by a pixie

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Beat by a pixie!

Picture this: an overweight guy of average height, working at dropping weight to no avail. So I joined the badminton club at a local high school. I’d played other racquet sports over the years, tennis, squash, racquet ball, so badminton couldn’t be much different. How difficult could it be hitting a little feathery knobbed thing they call a bird. Badminton should be easy peasy.

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Eye opening time !

My first night was much different than I expected. The Zoomers who play this game have a different attitude; it’s war. Dressed in their battle fatigues manufactured by military suppliers such as Nike, Puma and Converse; racquets at the ready like medieval cudgels. Grunting, huffing and puffing, doing warmup stretches as they prepared for war! And those were the women, the majority of these late middle age combatants.

I had experience; I occasionally exercised; I was reasonably fit, I thought. This wasn’t going to be much of a challenge, in my eyes.

A woman, about five years older than me, seemed to be the coordinator of the matches. She asked my name and designated me as the final member of her players squad of four, three of whom were women. She was playing tonight, otherwise our squad would have been a player short for proper play. With some smugness, I thought, “Three women and me, this was going to be easy pickin’s.”

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The actual game opens my eyes…wider!

I analyzed the three other players on my court more closely: women of varied physiques, ages and skill levels; none of these warrior garbed Amazons looked like a real threat to this experienced racquet sport tempered combatant. I was poised. I was confident. I was ready. In my eyes, this was not going to be a challenge. Visions of victory jigs danced through my mind.

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Player #1, Michelle, a full-bodied woman in her mid 30’s, was designated as my partner. As I introduced myself, I envisaged myself as the backbone of this team. My experience, my semi-regular exercising, my previous racquet sports practise bolstered my confidence. My exercise backed confidence should have given second thoughts. Even seals or penguins look super athletic only while in their own environment, the ocean. I was wading into a new environment against unknown competitors. With bravado, I jumped right in to what I thought was the deep end. To my shock, it was the middle of the Sahara !

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My first game was likely going to be a breeze

Opponent #1, Lisa, a friend of my partner, about 30 and also carrying a few extra pounds, looked like a pushover in my eyes. Her partner, player #4, the aforementioned coordinator, notably older, very slim, a wisp in body size and stature. Oh there’s nothing like the smell of victory on the battle front. I was eager to engage, err, begin play.

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The warm up — opportunity to display my expertise

The warm up started with some routine casual hitting. I was full attention: I hit shots with care, so as not to miss the bird. I returned far more birds than I missed. The penguin navigated these shoals fairly well. Surprisingly though, I did miss a few shots, swishing empty air with some embarrassment. My partner, the somewhat full figured Michelle proved to be faster than I had expected. Even more surprising, she never missed a bird. Well, it was warm-ups, no worries.

I studied our opponents. They seemed quite adept. They seldom missed returns. However, I figured that once the game started, my adrenalin flow would improve my game. To my surprise, my opponents’ games did too.

The gray haired wisp of a coordinator signaled time to play. Service was determined by a bird toss, the direction it pointed indicating which team would serve first. We lost the toss!

Lisa chose to serve while the coordinator stayed in the back court. My partner proved to be more agile and faster than I had anticipated. I was surprised. I noticed she played with confidence and with consistency hitting excellent returns. However, ‘old gray hair’ shocked me. Every time she returned the bird, the return was to my side of the court. What was worse was that each of her returns was always just out of my reach. If I was forecourt, she flipped her shot deep. If I played deep, she plopped the damn bird short, far in front of me and out of reach. Even in the early game, my legs started to fail me. I was slowing noticeably. ‘Old gray hair’ didn’t slow down a notch. She just kept playing with a serene look on her face, always in proper position, making every return seem effortless. Worse, every return was always accurately hit to our side of the net, my side to be more accurate, and always just beyond my reach.

These women were becoming seriously competitive, but ‘old gray hair’ was really the one to watch and respect. No matter where I placed myself in my court, her deft touch placed the shot in the most-difficult-to-reach area for me. My successful returns became increasingly sporadic. She was a ‘sleeper,’ a far better player than her body image suggested. She was getting on my nerves.

Another shot, the slowness of the bird’s flight gave me time to apply my tennis experience, I drew my racquet back, way back, long before the bird arrived. I smashed the bird deep. This was a guaranteed winner. The bird barely cleared the net, gently wafting toward the opponents’ center court. ‘Old gray hair’ flicked another shot my way, again unplayable, another winner. My partner, Michelle, saved us from total annihilation.

In no time, I was huffing and puffing, but I wasn’t going to let two women beat me at this seemingly easy game. I reminded myself of my previous racquet sports experience. Meanwhile, Lisa and ‘old gray hair’ kept scoring winning points. Michelle saved us more than I care to admit, but she couldn’t do it all.

Mr. Experience here, kept mishitting the bird, even occasionally hitting the racquet’s wooden frame, but more often simply swishing empty air to watch the bird plop to the floor. I imagined the grounded bird emitting tiny cheeps of ridiculing laughter as I bent down to pick it up. A couple of times, I just wanted to step on it and grind it into the court floor. Even more irritating, our opponents, not winded at all, smiled back at us very contentedly. That made me feel bad, but I felt even worse with the accuracy and consistency of ‘old gray hair’s’ play with not a hair out of place, her only ruffled feather, that damn bird lying at my feet. Another lost point. Hit, swish, plop, passed me again. Hit, plop, short of me again. This was awful.

Michelle and I lost. At the customary game end handshakes at the net, I took the opportunity to have a few extra words with ‘old gray hair.’ She gently chided me on my excellent tennis stroke, reminding me how badminton was a significantly different game. I asked her how long she had been playing. “Since I was thirteen,” she replied. Grrrrr! She added, “After seeing your tennis swings, I decided not to really smash any returns.” The last of the wind sighed out of my sails. I again congratulated her and her playing partner, not Lisa, but ‘experience.’ I think she was amazingly, tactful in not gloating in her victory against the three on my side of the net, Michelle, me and ‘my ego.’ Michelle still walked tall!

It was the only game I played that night!

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