TWO years ago, self-confessed couch potato Paula McGuire decided to try every sport in the Commonwealth Games and blog about her experiences. Read on for tales of tears and triumphs
A little under two years ago, I had no tale to tell. Then I changed my life, and a tale wasn’t far behind. Three: apparently it’s a magic number. Luck, stooges and dimensions keep its company; even the blind mice bandied together in a mischievous trio to terrorise the farmer’s wife.
And not so long ago, three was also my lucky number. Mine, and pretty much everyone else’s. Not exactly imaginative, right? But, between one and five was just about the extent of my life’s limits at that point. Three is refined, it’s safe, it’s a cultural stalwart; and I clung to three like fat to my arteries. By the time I hit 30, I’d been on the fence so long I was bleeding creosote.
My twenties were misspent dodging conversation, running from opportunity, and ducking out of social situations. It all sounds vaguely energetic but, in fact, I reached my fourth decade having avoided all forms of physical activity, up to and including jumping for joy. Then in August 2012 everything in my battened-down little life somehow just changed, including that overworked lucky number.
I’m not talking a major life event or near-death experience. There was no moment of clarity, yet, by the time the month was out, I was knee-high in exercise, with only exercise and knee-highs for company. In my infinite stupidity, I had decided to overturn my lifelong idleness by trying sport. Not a sport: sport.
Trying all 17 Commonwealth disciplines before Glasgow 2014 is my game; Paula Must Try Harder is my name. When I say I was the least sporty person in the history of sport and people, I’m not being unduly boastful. I’d never accidentally thrown a ball or sneaked a run in before adolescence. During a school PE career in which I was asked to rake the sand for an entire athletics term as my long jump fell spectacularly short, my biggest sporting achievement was managing an inadvertent somersault on a rain-soaked hockey pitch. Health and Safety scuppered my game before I’d hit a ball. So when I decided not just to leave my comfort zone but to contract a lawyer and serve it with divorce papers, knowing where to start was the least, but the most pressing, of my worries.
Cycling, I finally conceded, was to be my first trial. Given that saddles are typically one-man operations, I figured I would only be letting myself down if I failed to stay atop, and I’d long become accustomed to my own shortcomings. Mastering the skills, though, was still a commute away, as it took me almost as long to approach the only local adult cycling instructor as it did to learn to ride. On three consecutive days, I paced around outside the gates, trying desperately to convince myself that those inside wouldn’t laugh me right back out, and picking the softest spot for my landing, in case they did.
Of course, I wasn’t rejected, I was welcomed, and soon – though probably not as soon as you would expect – I had two feet on the pedals and was wobbling off towards cycling proficiency. Practice, so I’m told, makes perfect; but for me it also made for frustration and a fair amount of injury. While nearby kids threw their stabilisers into the long grass, I trundled on for more than a month of unsuccessful lessons, during which my instructor even removed my pedals as they were hindering my progress.
It was demoralising, of course it was, but when it worked – and it finally did work – heavens to Hoy, did it feel good. That glorious moment, as limbs and bike found their rhythm, was enough to convince this reluctant trier that she was on the right path, even if she kept falling off it.
Black and blue of leg but light of heart, I set off for the next sport, and the next. Badminton, lawn bowls, squash – I tried each with the gusto of an encouraged idiot. Then came wrestling and table tennis and even a marathon relay. Every one more buoying than the last. Some were easier than others. Boxing was a definite other. As I threw what I thought was a punch, laughter erupted and I was likened to a puppet whose puny arms were on strings. The gentle ways of judo were more my speed, as Olympian Euan Burton taught me to pin and throw opponents onto the welcoming mats below. I can’t say I was any good, mainly because I wasn’t, but at least I enjoyed a nice rest every time I was defeated.
As the sports bowed to my determination, my home-grown project somehow developed into something bigger than myself. It sprouted arms and legs much more athletic than my own and pointed more confidently than I ever could to its achievements – to my achievements. Clubs and athletes suddenly hopped on board, and soon I was lifting weights (OK, I was lifting the bar that would normally hold weights) with Olympic and Commonwealth weightlifters, bowling with Team Scotland members, and powering around the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome with, well, completely on my own because no-one had the nerve to share the track with such a clumsy beginner.
Overwhelmed by the support of people who actually know a thing or three about sport, I finally felt confident enough to take on some scary team events. Suddenly I was throwing balls at nets and knocking hockey sticks with opponents. And while I was the runt of the litter at every match, no-one ever made me feel as such, and somehow it really didn’t matter a jot anyway.
Sure, there were setbacks – like the day my badminton lesson was interrupted by a troupe of boisterous youngsters and teenage Paula resurfaced in a terrified panic, to send me crying off the court. But when the tears dried and my embarrassment subsided, I realised something that has kept me motivated until this very day. When things go well, it’s great; when things go badly, it’s a great story. And who wants a life without great stories?
One of the more terrifying elements of my challenge came in the form of a triathlon. To exercise-fearing me, it felt like the Games had sneaked three sports into one. And while I could at least point a bike in the right direction by then, and knew that I could crawl the running section if necessary, I was yet to tackle my biggest hurdle – lifelong aquaphobia – to learn to swim.
It’s not a mystery why I’m panicked by bodies of water deeper than a sparrow’s sample. I still carry the scars of being badly scalded as a toddler, after which water, boiling or otherwise, became my enemy. So it was never going to be easy to jump into a pool alongside proper athletes and attempt 16 lengths of front crawl. Phobia sessions, a glut of swimming lessons and several tear-stained costumes later, though, and I was flailing through the water, determined only to do my best and have the most fun possible. I’m probably the only triathlete ever to have competed using a bright pink float, but the reaction I received for my efforts was spectacular. It proved that sometimes being the worst is just as important as being the best – and it’s a lot more entertaining!
Crossing that final timing mat to the cheers – and tears – of my loved ones was like nothing I had ever experienced. Pride, relief and a hint of mania flooded my body, masking the fatigue using, I imagine, the same chemical mechanism that helps women forget the pain of labour. Afterwards, my attitude had changed; I had changed. If I could complete a triathlon with a fear of water, underdeveloped cycling skills and the running gait of a walrus, I could do anything. And somehow life doesn’t seem so difficult now.
I’ve broken bones instead of records, developed bruises not muscles, but I’ve also shot clays with comedians, trained in an Olympian’s judo gi, and inspired a presentation by the Prince of Malaysia on the power of sport. More than that, though, I’ve left behind 30 years in the shadows to finally become my own light source. And things look so much brighter.
With only one sport left – rugby sevens! – I’m as happy as a pig in a blanket. But that doesn’t mean I’m leaving behind my challenge when Glasgow 2014 arrives, and that’s as much through necessity as choice. Life and challenge aren’t exactly distinguishable one from the other these days, and trying new things on behalf of those who aren’t quite ready to is everything I never imagined it would be: liberating, interesting, me!
Nowadays, my life is no longer limits and safety and three. My life is bold, it’s adventurous, it’s... 17. Not only my new lucky number or my upcoming sports tally, 17 has become my philosophy, my inspiration and my mindset. And I’m determined to share its benefits, to show fellow violets they need shrink no longer. So if, like me, you’ve always thought of yourself as not the kind of person who does, prove yourself wrong, go out and just do. Ditch the three, hang up the hang-ups, and join the 17 revolution.
Keep up to date with all Paula’s sporting endeavours at paulamusttryharder.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @pmusttryharder