Black Knight Short Story: “Challenge”

Black Knight Short Stories Notables:

Challenge, by A.J. Kohlhepp

With the match tied 9-9 in the fifth and final game, the small crowd was evenly divided.  The basic consensus among their teammates was that both girls deserved to win this match; more importantly, neither girl deserved to lose.  Knowing that we could not freeze this moment and retain the two competitors in perfect equilibrium, we waited with baited breath and hoped for more squash – overtime points – as much more as we could get and they could give.

Besides the evenness of the score, the girls were mirror images in other ways.  Both had long brown hair, although one chose a simple pony tail and the other a French braid. Both were student leaders at our school; both were seniors who had gotten into their first choice colleges via Early Decision.  In terms of their style of play, both were good athletes who had come late to the sport and who played with an inspiring mixture of grit and fearlessness.  Given their lack of experience and their fatigue at this juncture – the team had completed a demanding cardio session before heading over to the courts – we were just as likely to see a whiff as a brilliant winner on any given swing of the racquet.

By the time we got to the fifth game, it was impossible to predict the winner.  The entire team had pulled up folding chairs at the back of the court and were refereeing the remainder of the match with a single voice.  In addition to their fierce competiveness, both girls demonstrated superb sportsmanship at each step, congratulating each other on good shots, apologizing for mishits and nodding supportively at each decision by the refereeing body – and there were many of these as fatigue and nerves pulled more and more balls into the middle of the court.

What was at stake in this match?  Not so much, really.  There were no New England or United States or international titles on the line.  It wasn’t even an interscholastic match, of which we play more than a dozen over the course of the season.  This was the least important kind of match these two players could take on:  an intra-squad challenge.  But the seventh position, the lowest scoring spot for high school matches, was on the line.  There was also their respect for each other, their drive to succeed, and their love for the sport they had embraced.  So they battled, comporting themselves more like gladiators or prizefighters than racquet-wielding preppies.

A couple of grueling points later and it was all over.  Maggie, who had avenged an earlier loss and reclaimed the seventh position, smiled slightly with relief as she held the door open for her opponent; Callan, who had come just a couple of balls short of a great victory, began to cry a bit as the frustration and the fatigue and the pain in her lower back came crashing down upon her amidst the applause, the encouragement and the consolation of her teammates.  A few minutes later and they were all out the door toward the dining hall, a tired but jubilant mass of racquet bags and ice packs, hoodies and Uggs.  Their departure left only me behind to put away the clipboards and score sheets, to fold up and replace the chairs, to start mulling over the practice schedule for tomorrow.

We joke as a team about getting the Greek word ARETE tattooed on our biceps the week before the New England interscholastic tournament.  This term, shared by ancient Olympians and philosophers alike,  carries with it the sense of “excellence” in a particular discipline, as well as the notion that, although true excellence or mastery can never be achieved in this lifetime, the wholehearted pursuit of that mastery eventually comes to supersede the unreachable destination.  The process, in other words, becomes the product, the goal of one’s pursuit.  We’ll probably never get those tattoos, given the logistical realities of such a decision, not to mention that phone calls that I would receive from irate parents.  For a few glorious minutes tonight, however, we were all fortunate enough to watch these two young women demonstrate ARETE in every fiber of their being.

About The Author

A.J. Kohlhepp first picked up a squash racquet at Trinity College (before the Bantams’ perennial championships commenced).

An English teacher by trade, he has coached boys’ and girls’ squash over the past dozen years in addition to various other duties at Berkshire School (Massachusetts USA), where he resides about 100 meters from the squash courts, with his wife (a real writer) and children (beginning squashers).

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