“Walking His Life Away” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Eleven)

A year ago, a good friend send me a copy of Gary Smith’s book, Going Deep, a collection of his longform articles from Sports Illustrated. Smith is a masterful writer who mostly covers sports.

But that’s misleading: he writes about people.

Some are pro athletes; some never make it to college. He writes about the biggest champions of the game; but also about people whose dreams of glory and fame never arrived. He gets to the core of the people he writes about, brings them to life for the reader. Sports is the underlying string that winds through most of his stories, but ultimately he writes about men and women and the challenges they face in life.

Albert Heppner

Until today, I hadn’t read Smith’s “Walking His Life Away,” published in the July 26, 2004 issue of Sports Illustrated. I wasn’t familiar with Albert Heppner, the athlete profiled in the piece, and wasn’t sure I’d be interested in a man’s dream of Olympic walking glory. But once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down.

One thing Smith does right away is to directly address the fact the Olympic Walking is a sport that most of us laugh at. Smith puts it all down there on the page, then shows us why we should care:

The walkers assembled for the 7:30 a.m. start. They’d all long since made it to the other side of mirth and disdain. They’d all had seven-year-olds follow them and ape their pumping arms and swaying hips. They’d all heard 20-year-olds barrel by in rusting cars and scream Fag! at them on country roads. They’d all shed their need for the world’s approval, attuned their ears and hearts to an inner voice. Except for one.

Al stood out. He was the 5’8″ pied piper of race walking, the 29-year-old with the munchkin’s cackle who was loved by everyone in his fringe fraternity. The one so loud that other walkers would remind him to use his indoor voice. So vulnerable that he’d sob on a stranger’s shoulder after being disqualified from a race. So exuberant that he’d end up on the dance floor at a postrace party, his shirt soaked, juking like no Jew ever juked, encircled by people chanting, “Go, Al! Go, Al! Go, Jiggy!” Rabbi Jiggy. That was just one of his nicknames.

A big reason this story is so powerful is that Smith brings Heppner to life. The story is loaded with stories about the man and his personality. Consider this short paragraph from early on in the piece as Smith talks about Heppner’s competitiveness and fire, and how he could often be a little too zealous:

Al’s competitive lust had cost him before. Once, when he was six and his father’s bike moved ahead of his, he’d pedaled so furiously that he’d pitched over the handlebars and broken his arm. At camp six years later he broke his arm again, astonishing counselors who had never seen a boy dive with such fury in a friendly game of Capture the Flag. Too many times he’d been disqualified from races because he couldn’t restrain his urge to go faster, faster, couldn’t keep both feet on the ground.

And as Smith describes Heppner in the biggest race of his life, he winds back a bit and dots the narrative with small stories about Heppner’s warmth, kindness, and vitality:

“Go, Al!” a fan screamed as the gun sounded and the walkers took off. Who wouldn’t root for him? He was the greeter at the gate, the man who popped up from his moonlighting post behind the customer-service desk at the training center dining hall and showed all the newcomers where to get their mail, their rubdowns, their grub, then helped them haul in all their belongings, thrilled to welcome one and all — Americans and foreigners, swimmers, skiers, shot-putters, shortstops — to the fantasy factory in the Southern California desert. He’d carry his lunch tray to the far table where a new arrival ate alone. He’d take the Honduran cyclist to the airport at 5 a.m., beg the outraged decathlete to make peace with the offending kayaker, concoct nicknames for them all. Hey, V-Dub! Big John Stud, my man! What’s happenin’, Apples? He turned his cramped dorm room into the campus lounge, the gathering place for field trips organized by camp counselor Al to the amusement park, beach, ball games, bars and dance clubs. He turned all these masters of abstruse and exotic athletic skills into the most unexpected thing: a family.

There are at least eight micro-moments in that paragraph, telling details that shape how we see him. It doesn’t take long for the reader to shift from casual interest to active empathy for Heppner.

Smith does a beautiful job intertwining two narratives: the story of the Olympic qualifier race, as Teppner’s fights to hang on to the lead, and the narrative of Teppner’s life and everything he and his family experienced to get to this moment. By the end of the piece, those two narratives merge, and the reader becomes one of those people on the sidelines, rooting for him, urging him on, trying to help him realize his life’s dream.

Read “Walking His Life Away,” →

Great paragraphs: “Mom let her be who she was”

One skill I’ve learned to appreciate is the crafting of really good paragraphs. Sounds simple, but great writers can craft a paragraph with something that lesser writers would use pages to accomplish. So I’m going to start noting and writing about examples of insanely well-written grafs…

First up, I noted this amazing graf in Gary Smith’s fantastic Sports Illustrated article on Bonnie Richardson, a high school athlete who twice won the Texas state track and field championship… by herself. In this paragraph, Smith is talking about how Richardson’s mother worked hard to help her daughter, but also gave her room to be herself. In about 200 words, we get a rich, narrative glimpse of Bonnie’s growth from toddler to high school phenom:

Yep, lucky Bonnie, because OmniMom let her be who she was: the four-year-old girl shooting a Remington at prickly pear cactus with Dad. The five-year-old climbing on a bucket to mount Snip and trot off with Dad to run the ranch. The seven-year-old scaling bluffs and building forts and diving into Onion Creek till the horn from Dad’s pickup called her to dinner. The eight-year-old rising at 4 a.m. to spend all day separating the cattle for weighing and shipping, and swallowing so much dust that she’d spit brown till tomorrow. The 10-year-old sobbing when the family moved from the 12,000-acre ranch where Dad worked to an 85-acre homestead that the Richardsons could call their own. The 12-year-old praying out loud with Lee when monster hailstones drummed their sports banquet and tornado sirens screamed—”Please, Lord, don’t let them find my dead body in a dress!” The 17-year-old in bulky camouflage shorts, pockets bulging with snacks and energy bars, who’d gone to school with the same six boys for so many years that she’d decided to defer romance till college and focus meanwhile on clamping them in headlocks in the hallways and flattening their right arms on the school’s picnic table during lunchtime arm wrestling.

In that one paragraph, Smith packs eight scenes; a narrative slide-show, rich with evocative details (brown spit; five-year-old Bonnie climbing on a bucket; camouflage shorts loaded with energy bars) that show us a lot about Richardson.

Great stuff. Read the rest here.

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Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.