SEARCHING for a SPORT
By Art Bivens
Competition adds spirit and interest to any game or sport. And winning is always more fun! The challenge for me throughout my life has been to find those sports in which I could successfully compete, and thus have more fun.
As a child of the Depression 1930’s and WWII 1940’s I enjoyed the usual child games that didn’t require much equipment. A ball and bat without gloves is how we played pickup softball. Contact sports like football were played without pads or any protection. At age 11, another kid hit me with a vicious tackle in a pickup game when I was running with the ball and broke my left leg (thighbone) like you would break a chicken wishbone. I was hospitalized in traction for three weeks and then swathed in a cast from chest to foot. I celebrated my 12th birthday November 16th. A few weeks later my cast was removed Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. After that, touch football only!
Soon after I had shed my crutches I joined the Boy Scouts and enjoyed all the accompanying outdoor activities including swimming races. Also, because we lived on a lake in the Tampa, Florida area my brother Roger and I were always in the water. This led to swimming competition in High School where I won or placed in free style and backstroke races. Our team won the Tampa championship all three years and the Florida State championship in 1946. After high school I joined the Navy and competed in naval teams in California and the Naval Academy Prep School in Bainbridge, MD with some success. The problem with swimming competition is that workouts are such a boring grind – swimming laps back and forth, back and forth. And as I got older and not much bigger, I became less competitive. A top-level championship swimmer needs to be tall, with long arms, with big hands and big feet (ala Phelps). Although the Naval Academy swim coach asked me to try out for the team I declined. However, later in life I did win the backstroke event in the 1992 Northern Virginia Senior Olympics in the 60-65 age group; and again I won the free style and backstroke in the 80-85 age group. Today, at 86 I still swim those boring laps for exercise.
At the Naval Academy every midshipman must engage in some sporting activity. There were Varsity, JV, and Intramural teams during each season – fall, winter, and spring. During Plebe summer before the Academic Year started in September we were introduced to a variety of sports; sailing, tennis, golf, wrestling, boxing, and of course, shooting to qualify with the M-1 Rifle and 45 Caliber Pistol. I decided to try out for wrestling because there are weight classes and my brother and I had always wrestled a lot growing up. The problem was that I had no prior training. Some of the other plebes had competed in high school and had all the moves. About all the moves I knew were the half and full nelson. I’d never heard of the “guillotine” until another kid used it on me and I was looking at the sign on the overhead of the gym that read, “If you can read this you are pinned.” So much for wrestling! Boxing matches were mandatory as part of our summer agenda. Again, I was paired with another kid who was about my size. I later learned he had been a “Golden Gloves” champ. Early in the match I managed to give him a bloody nose that only outraged him. I took a pretty good beating for that. Forget boxing!
One competition I enjoyed Plebe Summer was the Whaleboat races. We were organized as Whaleboat Crews of about 12 men during the summer as our basic unit. Those of us who came to the Academy as “Fleet Appointments” via the Naval Academy Prep School were the first to arrive in June. The other plebes trickled in during the summer. Because of this our NAPS crews had more time to practice rowing as a crew. My crew won all of our races until the last one in the summer. By that time the late arrivals had time to get organized and practice. We were over confident and were beaten badly. So much for rowing!
When the Academic Year started and the Upper Classes returned from their Summer Cruises and Leaves, the Plebe hazing by the 1st and 2nd Class Midshipmen (Seniors and Juniors) in our Company started in earnest. We were then organized into Companies of about 100 men by the foreign language we chose. My Company took Spanish. All other subjects were the same – no variety in degrees. A few weeks later one of the 2nd Class midshipmen came by our room looking for volunteers to fill out an 8-man crew for a 44-foot yawl he would be skippering for a Saturday race to St Michaels and then back on Sunday. My roommate Fred Alden and I jumped at the chance to get away for a weekend of sailing. We both loved the sport and both of us qualified as Yawl Skippers by the end of Plebe Year. One didn’t have to be a big guy to be good in this sport. I sailed and raced these yawls all four years and ended up winning the Holloway Trophy 1st Class year (1953). This competition was a series of races in the Chesapeake Bay open to all yawl command qualified Midshipmen skippers. Recruiting a qualified crew for both the preliminaries and again for the finals was of key importance. We won by a half point in the final series of three races (one first and three thirds of eight boats in the finals). Years later as a retiree and in my 60’s I became a voluntary coach with the Naval Academy Sailing Squadron Off-shore sailing teams. I enjoyed sailing with the midshipmen in the Chesapeake Bay and ocean races for several years. But I was mostly in a safety and advisory role. Coaching is not the same as playing and the annual qualification requirements and travel to Annapolis got to be too onerous so I gave that up after several years.
Getting back to the Academy days, yawl sailing did not count as one of the required daily sports each weekday after classes from 4-6 pm. Dinghy sailing did count, but that didn’t interest me. I took up intramural soccer and 150 pound touch football. These were Company and Battalion teams. I had never played soccer before but loved it. There’s a lot of running but it’s not boring like Cross Country. Our teams always did well. The touch football was unique – 6 men on each side, no special protection, mostly passing from any where on the field, 5 downs to score or turn the ball over to the opponent. Great fun! I was the team player-manager 1st Class Year and we had a winning record. Andy, a Classmate, was over 6-feet tall, thin at 150 pounds and a good target for the high pass.
Another sport I enjoyed at the Academy was handball (the courts are now used for racquetball, slightly different from squash courts). My other roommate, Dan, and I would often play handball on Saturday. Also, lots of fun! I later converted to racquetball and squash and enjoyed these sports in such venues as a wooden court held down by guy wires above the bridge on the submarine tender, USS Simon Lake in Holy Loch, Scotland; and the Pentagon Officers Athletic Club (POAC), I had to quit when my knees, eyes, and quickness deserted me.
After graduating from the Academy, with sea duty for most of the next 20 years, and a wife and three children, there wasn’t much time for competitive sports. I won’t count the occasional “beer ball” games at ships parties. I had messed around a bit with golf as a kid and a little bit at the Academy’s golf course across the Severn River. But when Marcy’s father gave me his ancient wood shafted golf clubs I started playing when time available on the 9-hole course on the Submarine Base in Groton, CT. I took a few lessons and the pro’s first comment was to get rid of those clubs. But golf is time consuming and with submarine deployments and a growing family my golf was curtailed. However, tennis doesn’t take as much time and is better exercise, so I took that up in earnest during my submarine off-crew periods. While living in Scotland a few years later there was a “Lawn Bowling and Tennis Club” near our home and used mainly by elder locals. They didn’t use the clay tennis court, which was rather rundown, but they didn’t mind if my Navy friends and I used it. We would drag and smooth the surface and put down the lines with lime. After retiring from the Navy I played in the Fairfax County sponsored Golden Racquets for several years until my knees said quit. This is a mixed seniors (men and women) doubles league played both indoors and outdoors. I captained a group for a few years, assigning teams for each segment (4 half-hour segments) and kept a record of wins and losses for each contestant. There was an annual banquet where the winners were recognized. I also enjoyed the organized tennis competition in the Mantua Swimming and Tennis Club for many years. I was a B level player, but loved the sport.
Bowling (Ten Pins) is a fun activity (Sport?) that requires considerable skill to have an average score around 200. I had an average of about 155 while playing in a submarine off-crew league and later in a Holy Loch Scotland Navy league. In our small ashore facility on the Holy Loch our Navy Seabees built a Commissary, a Navy Exchange, a gym with a basketball court, and two bowling alleys. Regarding the gym, I haven’t played basketball since I broke a rib in a collision. Thereafter I limited my competitive sports in Scotland to bowling and tennis and occasional golf on the nearby course. Besides, because Scotland has so much beauty and history my family and I took the opportunity to see and partake of it as much as possible.
Of my non-competitive sports/physical activities that I’ve tried, skiing is lots of fun. However, growing up in Florida I never saw snow until I was out of high school. I was about 30 years old and living in Connecticut when I decided to go skiing. I figured, No problem, I’m a pretty good water skier. So I rented some skis, took the ski lift to the top and started down. After falling most of the way down I took a lesson. There were four of us, me and three little kids. The good skiers always start early in life. I eventually could master the intermediate slopes, but never the expert slopes. But it is lots of fun and exhilarating and in New England one of the few outdoor sports in the winter.
Marcy and I took up square dancing and a few years later round dancing (ball room dancing to a Cuer). We did this for about 30 years. Dancing is both mentally and physically challenging, and an excellent social activity!
What else have I tried?
Diving in my younger days - After one flip I lose my awareness in the air. Could not, or even try to do a gainer. Some people have the innate ability and balance. Others like me finish a one and a half with a belly flop.
Wind Surfing - I took a lesson on the Potomac River about 40 years ago and on a few occasions when at a beach I would rent a wind surfing rig. I was okay with a wide board, a small sail, smooth water, and moderate wind.
At age 86 my sports have been reduced to the following:
Walking, but not too far, and on level ground; Swimming and snorkeling;
Golf with a riding cart – Used to shoot in the 80-90s when playing from the Senior Tees, but I have difficulty breaking 100 now.