from the archives – March 20, 2007
The first time I watched one of Alison McNeil’s basketball teams play was the summer of my 15th year, which was the summer I spent completely immersed in the gym at week after week of basketball camps. Alison was coaching the Under 17 BC Provincial team and they were playing an exhibition game to showcase how girl’s basketball was supposed to be played. I was mesmerized just watching those girls warm up. Every pass was perfect, sharp and precise. It seemed to me that every shot swished effortlessly through the net and the rare miss was rebounded immediately by someone leaping into the air like she had wings. Once near the end of the warm up, a loose ball headed out of bounds and no less than 4 girls dove for it to try to save it. Every single one of them was giving everything they had at every moment. It was like art, but more intense and more focused.
I watched Alison as much as I watched the game and her intensity thrilled me. She paced back and forth like a tiny, red-faced lion in a cage. She screamed at the girls and threw her hands in the air in frustration. She jumped up and down and yelled out plays and names of players. She was like a little ball of fire. And this was basically nothing more than a scrimmage. Her players never flinched at her ferocity. They listened and nodded and went on to do exactly what she told them to do. And it worked every time. They completely annihilated the other team.
I was nobody in the basketball community back then. I started playing late and was just coming into my tall, skinny, awkward body. I was lucky enough to have a coach in high school who invested hours and hours of his personal time on making me into a player and some of this effort was starting to pay off, but I was still an unknown. I didn’t even get invited to the Provincial Team try-out camp that year. But as I watched Alison and her team play, a single thought took root in my mind– someday I would play for her. Someday I would be that good. Next summer, not only was I going to be invited to the try-outs, I was going to make the team and play for Alison McNeil.
I spent the entire next year (grade eleven), working my ass off to reach that goal and sure enough the next summer I was invited to the try outs and I made the team. But, in typical Gillian fashion, I injured myself during the try-out camp and couldn’t play in the upcoming tournament. Stress fracture, lower left fibula. I was devastated and at the team celebratory dinner, I cried and made everyone feel uncomfortable. But I had impressed Alison enough that she followed my high school career and at the end of my senior season she offered me a scholarship to Simon Fraser University where she was heading into her 2nd year as head coach. Naturally, I accepted with alacrity.
Alison McNeil was the first person I ever knew who was a master of what she did. She was far and away the best coach I had ever had and her practices were gut-wrenchingly intense and difficult. We looked forward to games just to have a break from the stress, from the pressure of being perfect lest you subject yourself and your teammates to running series after series of vomit-inducing “suicides”. I was big and slow and I always lumbered in last, trailing behind the other big girls. Too often the team had to run again because I didn’t make time. My teammates started to hate me with a silent, seething contempt that I accepted and internalized. I didn’t believe in myself and it showed.
Everything Alison McNeil did had a reason behind it and everything made sense. We subscribed to her system 100% and we were one of the most dominant, successful teams in the history of Canadian Women’s basketball. I got nervous and felt sick to my stomach before every practice because I knew I would be expected to push myself as hard as I could for every single second and because I knew that I would never quite measure up. Alison McNeil gave everything of herself to the team and she expected no less of us. I understood the idea but never believed myself capable of living up to her expectations. I kept mine low.
I spent the majority of my time on the SFU team sitting on the bench. Riding the pine. I wasn’t nearly talented enough to compete with the National Team players ahead of me. I was the wrong kind of player for that fast, run and gun style of basketball. I was slow and I couldn’t jump and my skills were rebounding, blocking out and posting up, none of which were valuable on that team. I wasn’t a good fit and mid-way through my second season of riding the pine, I quit. Rather, Alison called me into her office, told me she thought I was an exceptional person and she liked me so much that she refused to cut me and was giving me the opportunity to quit and save a bit of my pride. So, I quit. And then I cried for about 5 months.
Is it strange that I am writing about this now from a small internet cafe in India? Not really. Those basketball days are never far from my mind lately as I bend and twist and push myself into doing things with my body that a year ago I never would have thought possible. I remember the days in the gym, the sweat and the frustration. I remember digging inside myself to find that last ounce of mental toughness to make myself do something I really didn’t want to do. And I do the same thing every single day, three times a day in Venkatesh’s yoga classes here in India. I see similarities between Venkatesh and Alison McNeil. Both are masters of their craft. Alison is now the coach of the Canadian National Women’s Basketball team. Venkatesh is a champion backbending specialist in India. Both suffer no bullshit. Both require complete commitment to their system and both inspire you to give everything you have every single time. Like I did before Alison’s practices, I get intensely nervous before Venkatesh’s classes, particularly his backbending classes, because I know how hard I will have to work and push myself to my edges and beyond.
The difference now is that I am a stronger person inside and I know that I am doing this for my health and for my sanity and for my life– so that I can have the kind of life that I want to have without my body or my mind holding me back. I may have Multiple Sclerosis, but I swear I will be stronger than the disease and I will not allow it to burden me in any way. This is all the motivation I need.
Just about every day I lay on the mat between poses and fight back tears because I am pushing myself as hard as I can. I cry for 2 reasons– I either feel frustrated with myself for my limitations and weaknesses or I am so goddamn grateful and proud of myself for how much I have been able to accomplish. Both reasons have equal value.
Last night I did something that I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to do. I lay on my back and with Venkatesh coaching me, I placed my hands near my shoulders and my feet near my hips. I turned my toes in, tightened my core muscles and took a deep breath. I lifted my hips off the ground, pushed through my shoulders and turned my head back and after a second resting on the top of my head, I pushed harder– all the way up into a full backbend.
If you had told me a year ago that I would be able to do that I wouldn’t have believed you. I would have laughed at the thought of being strong enough and flexible enough. Three and a half years ago while waiting for surgery to repair my back, I couldn’t even walk.
I did the backbend 4 times in all, holding it for about 10 breaths each time and when I relaxed between, the tears slipped out of my eyes and I smiled at how amazing it was that I can do this with my body. I am so grateful and so proud and so determined to keep getting stronger in my body and in my mind. This is the most amazing opportunity, working with Venkatesh, and I am going to take everything I can from it, every single day.