I’m clinging to a five-story slice of granite outside of Bishop, California, and thinking I may have run out of options. My right leg bounces with fatigue, and blood is trickling down my hand. Whatever advice my climbing guide is calling out dissolves into the wind. Get her down, I imagine my crew below saying. She’s too old.
I just turned 60, which I forget until moments like these when I’m hanging by my fingertips and wondering, Can I do this?
I glance down. The answer better be yes.
“Hey, where’d you come from?” I whisper to a seedling thriving absurdly in the rock. As I lean toward it, my left hand lands on a hold that wasn’t there a minute ago. The next move makes sense inside my muscles. I climb on.
Over the years, I’ve braced for the steady decline of getting old as I hit an invented sell-by date. I thought I’d wake up every morning sad, with a body that barely worked.
But here’s the catch: I've fallen crazy in love with knuckle-bruising adventure. And the surprise: I’m good. Like, really good. With muscles strong enough to kick my younger self’s ass.
As a kid, I loved the idea of sports but had no language to express my desire. It’s hard to imagine the world pre–Title IX, but before it was signed into law, girls were not welcome on a playing field, period. No one even pretended to get girls’ sports organized and funded. The young women who did play field hockey and soccer and who were already good athletes had to fight to play. Other girls with athletic ambition went out for cheer squad.
I wore glasses and was known for getting hit square in the face with a dodgeball. But then came a sports miracle: powder-puff football, a polite high-school affair where girls raised money for local charities by playing the game. Boys “coached,” and no one was supposed to be good.
It was perfect. Suddenly, the thing I hated about myself — my big shoulders and muscular legs — had purpose. We were instructed to grab the plastic flag from our opponent’s waist to signify a tackle. At first, I barreled into other players because I couldn’t grab the flag and also stop in time. But then I kept barreling forward because I could. I suddenly, and unconditionally, loved how my muscles pushed off the line and drove my shoulder into my opponent’s belly.
Even today, I can taste the emotional cocktail of fierceness, shame, and adrenaline I got when I plowed into the girl across from me and made her cry. We were reminded that this was to be a friendly game — fun for all — but I wanted more. I wore my bruises like some gone-wrong Girl Scout merit badge.
I loved that feeling. So I set out to see how I could reignite it in a sport girls were allowed to play.
After powder puff, there was my tennis phase, equipped with my mom’s Jack Kramer racket and a stack of “tennis made easy” library books. My boyfriend would smother me in advice until he got bored and wandered off to roughhouse with his buddies in the next court. Frankly, it was a relief. The boyfriend’s relentless critiquing made the sport more his than mine. I resented performing for him. And I missed the brute force of powder-puff football, where none of the guys cared enough to steal the sport from me.
Next, I took up surfing. A friend gave me her brother’s banged-up surfboard, but I was too shy to ask how you stood up. I spent most of that summer just bobbing beyond the surf break. But that didn’t stop me from putting a surf rack on my beat-up red Opel Kadett sedan. I brandished bravado instead of skill, and my cockiness almost made me drown. Believing my own hype, I said yes to a big-swell surf trip, paddling out into serious waves with my guy friends, only to be mercilessly rag-dolled back to shore.