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The Jailbird's New Wings: How prodding my daughter led to new possibilities

Updated: Mar 29, 2022

“Aww! Do I have to?”

The thin whine and scowling face made it seem like I’d handed down a prison sentence.

“Yes. And that’s final,” I replied, sending my ward off to her cell.

The sentence? Accompanying me to run at our local gym twice a week. The length of her incarceration? All summer.

The new inmate was a 13-year-old soccer enthusiast who despised running. “If there’s not a ball in front of you, what’s the point?” she was fond of saying.

Her internment wasn’t a random act of cruelty; indeed it was for Autumn’s own benefit. Over the past couple soccer seasons, my husband and I had noticed Autumn had a hard time keeping up with her teammates on the field. She’d mastered the foot skills, but when it came to running, she huffed and puffed in the back of the pack, often missing the action at the front and a chance to score. We thought running regularly during the off-season would build our daughter’s stamina.

Boy, were we ever right.

Parole in sight?

The following fall Autumn was on a new team, and the first game of the season was against her former team. Autumn was eager to win. She zipped down the field with ease, the other players straggling behind. To her amazement, no one could catch her. She snatched the ball, raced ahead, and scored. The crowd erupted in cheers.

“Come back, Autumn! We want you back!” the dad of a former teammate moaned, loud enough for everyone to hear.

Even an off-duty referee got swept into the excitement. “Go, Autumn, go!” he yelled as she ran by grinning from ear to ear. “She’s really good,” he told us.

At half-time Autumn said she didn’t know what was wrong with the other girls. “Why are they so slow?” she asked.

“What have you been doing for the past three months?” we queried.

“Ohhh!” she said as she made the connection.

Autumn had so much success that we postponed her parole, i.e. continued our trips to the gym. Having experienced the results of her extra efforts, she was less begrudging about jail/gym time. Sometimes she even ran as far as two miles on the treadmill without any prompting.

“We need some motivation to keep this going,” I told her one day in December. “So starting this new year, you and I are going to run a 5K every month.” I knew the 3.1 miles would stretch her, and I knew she was fully capable.

The plan worked. With our new goal looming, we endured the cold, dark, and snow of many early morning treks to the gym, now three times a week. And we had a blast! So many fun memories, like the first annual Celebrate Community 5K, where Autumn determined to beat another teenage girl she saw on the route and did, earning 2nd place in her age group (her first podium stand), along with a medal and prize money. And the Frigid February 5K, postponed by a snowstorm to a 19-degree day in March, when Autumn won 1st place in her age group.

And a high school race to raise money for its sports teams, in which the school’s entire cross country team participated. More than 30 girls were in Autumn’s age group alone—girls who liked running and did it on purpose. We focused on our own pace rather than the obviously faster competition. When Autumn wanted to walk, we slowed to a jog instead. Success! She completed her first race without walking AND scored her fastest time ever. And I won third place in my age group.

Each month brought new fun encounters and happy memories. We still laugh about many, like the time we both wore the same race T-shirt to the gym, but didn’t realize it until we peeled off our winter outer layers in the locker room. Autumn was mortified, especially when an employee commented, “Matching shirts. How cute!” She wouldn’t workout anywhere near me that day!

To her credit, Autumn stuck with our plan without (much) complaining. We completed eight races that year; then Autumn earned a spot on a travel soccer team (Score!), which took over our weekends.

Sometimes as parents it’s easier to give in to our children’s resistance than to stay the course we’ve laid out. While giving up may abate the whining, in the long run it can cut short our kids’ opportunities. By maintaining my “warden” role, I introduced Autumn to an arena she wouldn’t have ventured into on her own. And she discovered her deeper potential.

Autumn’s prison sentence turned out to be freedom in disguise. It exposed her to new experiences and showed her she could achieve more than she’d ever imagined. It also broadened her personal identity, adding “runner” to her internal résumé.

She drew on this experience when other areas of life got tough. “I’ve done all that hard running; I can do this, too.”

Sometimes kids decide on their own to try new stuff. Sometimes they follow their parents’ lead. Either way, they often need a continued push in the right direction. Expose them to opportunities where they can blossom. Stay consistent. You never know when your child will find her passion and soar.

The rest of the story

That same year, Autumn overheard me mention a mini-sprint triathlon to a friend. “How long is the swim?” Autumn asked. “How long is that bike ride?” The girl who’d sworn for years that she’d never do a triathlon decided to try one!

That was a race to remember. The formidable winter weather concerned even seasoned triathletes like myself. The organizers switched the usual order of swim-bike-run to run-bike-swim so we wouldn’t have to run with icicles in our hair.

Participants were grouped according to age for the staggered start, so I didn’t see Autumn during the 1.5-mile run. It was rough. The wind was so strong I had to cover my face with my gloved hands just to breathe. I hoped Autumn was managing well.

I caught up with her on the 4-mile bike course, which was full of steep hills and stinging rain. “Come on, you can do it!” I hollered. “Only a little farther.”

Somehow we made it to the indoor swimming pool and sloshed through 250 yards. “You did it! You’re a triathlete now!” we congratulated her at the end. We laughed about how we’d retell this adventure for years to come.

Autumn didn’t win a medal that day—in fact, she came in 4th out of the four girls in her age group. But she scored an even bigger treasure: the door prize, awarded via a random drawing. A chorus of envious Oooos surrounded her as she collected a large, golden loaf of sourdough bread. Her peers clearly valued that tasty treat as much as the medals.

Fast forward to today

My now-college student still enjoys regular runs and staying fit. She recently surprised us by deciding to train for a half-marathon. Mom’s done a few, so why not? Her target race was canceled due to coronavirus concerns, but Autumn is still going. After all, she’s a runner now. And she can do anything she sets her mind to.


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