A Polish Polecat Polevaulter. God, the media were having a field day with it.
They liked me, though, and that was good for my sponsorships. With my mom’s chinese heritage, Nike had seen a huge marketing opportunity. A ferret with natural markings like a cheetah? That’s marketing gold. Selling that image to the chinese? Money in the bank. I’d inspired a marketing campaign of a dozen images, models and athletes, all of them with their fur painted to blend their natural markings with that of the cheetah. Selling speed, selling Nike.
The fact was, at this point, it didn’t matter what medal I won. And the truth is, to me, personally, it didn’t matter if I pulled a medal at all. My only goal was my own record, and beating it. The first time I’d broken the olympic record had been in practice, a year ago. I’d broken the world record the next day. Unofficially, of course. That’s one thing they don’t tell you until you’re in that line of work. That your best scores, your best performances, your best abilities, they won’t come in that do-or-die moment between bupkiss and a gold medal around your neck.
The olympics are exhausting. The energy grinds you down. The noise and stink and carry-on of the day, jet lag, a dozen coughs and influenza from every country in the world all coming together. And yes, the sex. Athlete’s village isn’t really as bad as you’ve heard. Less bacchanalian orgy, more low-level frat parties. Where the only way to get drunk is on each other. Look. When the captain of the Chinese beach volleyball team gives you that look, you go. Gold medals in life are fine and dandy, but I’ll take one of her groans over a thousand cheering fans in the stands any day.
I step out onto the springy, rubber surface of the track, and bounce gently, sproinging along in a way that delights the people in the stands. But of course, it’s not for them. I’m calibrating. Letting my nervous system figure out how much tension, how much slack, in my legs and knees. I take my pole in hand, bounce a little more, settle. Breathe. My coach is watching, face stern, focused, calm. I look to her, and nod my head. Smile. Thanking her, with that gesture. She brought me here. Got me this far. And the best feeling about that is knowing she doesn’t care about the medals either.
My best is four inches taller than the current world record. I won’t break it today. I won’t even beat the record today. I can tell from the way my muscles feel, from the way the pole feels in my hand. Wind’s in my fur, and I’m hungry. This isn’t my peak. It doesn’t need to be.
But you know what a gold medal would mean for me? It would mean my coach gets a bonus her family needs. It would mean my agent can feed his family for a year on his commission on my endorsement bonuses alone. It means for the next year I can put away enough money to get a real career doing whatever I want. I’ve got eleven other athletes who want it just as bad. Personal reasons, validation, education, money, sex, celebrity… we’ve all got them.
Some will peak today. Some will find a new peak today. I won’t, but that’s okay.
My claws dig into the rubber, my hands heft the pole,