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Andy Kirkaldy: At the Independent, all sports are appreciated

Last week I hung out for a while at the Middlebury College track. Middlebury Union High School was hosting Vergennes and three other teams at the only local high school track and field meet of the spring, and the weather was finally cooperating — mostly sunny and around 80 degrees with a pleasant breeze.
About the first thing that happened was Tiger senior Josh Girard popping a long jump. Turned out it was his personal best, and he broke 19 feet for the first time.
The boys’ four-by-800-meter relay came shortly afterward. VUHS sophomore Wade Mullin was too far behind on the anchor leg to win for his team, but made up a lot of ground. From near the jumping pits, I watched him churn along the final curve, alone on the far side, silhouetted against the college playing fields. It was the essence of track, a graceful runner, competing at that point only against himself and giving it all he had.
I wandered over to the other side of the track. Tiger junior Chloe Kane burst out of the blocks and held off several lankier competitors in the 100-meter dash. Tiger freshman Annie Lapiner gamely came in fourth behind three Essex and CVU runners in the 110-meter hurdles. “They’re so fast,” she told Coach Ed Blechner. “You’re tough,” he said. “You’ll learn from watching them.”
Then something odd happened. I ran into an acquaintance and said I was having fun.
“I thought you didn’t like track,” he said.
Well, as they say back in the Old Country, I was gobsmacked. Just in the last couple of weeks I had talked twice — with my editor, John McCright, a Division I collegiate runner, and with Middlebury College women’s soccer coach Peter Kim, also a track assistant — about the fact I enjoy track and field.
As well as being graceful, the sport is beautifully basic: Whoever runs fastest, throws farthest or jumps highest wins. And officials (unless they are fussy about uniforms or jewelry, but that’s another story) do not determine outcomes.
I then asked a dumb question, prompted by the fact it’s not the first time someone has said I don’t care for a particular sport: “Who told you that?”
To his credit, he responded, “I have my sources,” the same answer I, as a journalist, would give. He did add I’m also not supposed to like cross-country.
Because in the past I’ve been accused of not favoring some sports, including at one point boys’ lacrosse and football, I’m sensitive to accusations of being biased in favor of some at the expense of others.
Now, do I prefer playing and even watching some sports over others, sure. For example, from fifth to ninth grade, I played both flag football (yes, it’s true, coaches, I was mostly a running back and defensive end) and soccer at my school. But when I went to prep school I had to choose, and it was soccer. Likewise, I grew up playing baseball, and I didn’t switch to lacrosse when I had the chance.
I have also played basketball, hockey, tennis, golf, baseball and softball, and don’t feel the need to explain why I like those sports.
What’s that leave in these parts to appreciate? Starting in the fall, in football there’s the discipline 11 people need to work together as one unit to accomplish a goal, big plays on offense, and, like in all sports, good defense.
Field hockey, like all full-field sports, offers free-flowing tactics and rewards intelligence and off-ball movement. And, like Leo Messi and Liam Neeson, field hockey players must possess a particular set of skills: They may only use one side of the stick and in many cases may not use body positioning to their advantage, unlike almost every other sport.
Cross-country requires stamina and adaptability to a wide variety of terrain and weather conditions. And as what charitably could be called a short-twitch athlete, at least back in the day, I am constantly amazed by distance runners.
Winter: Gymnastics requires strength, balance, flexibility and grace. Wrestling rewards hard work, pits people of the same size against one another, and is as pure and elemental as it comes. Nordic is cross-country on skis, with the added element that athletes have to master more technique.
As for spring, we’ve covered track. Lacrosse blends the hand-eye coordination of field hockey with the tactics and ball control of basketball — and then adds a goalie. And lacrosse goalie is tied with baseball catcher for the toughest position in sports. What’s not to like?
Look, it took me a number of years to figure out what I should really be doing for a living, and that it should include writing about sports. Sometimes the weather, logistics, quirky schedules or, like last week, my own health might mean a particular team gets shortchanged in coverage despite the sports department’s best efforts to be fair.
But its not because we here don’t like what they’re doing.

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