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In Tragic Times, Practice Was Perfect

Sept. 11, 2002

Matt Calkins
The Los Angeles Loyolan

Looking closely onto Leavey Field at 10:00 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, you would see athletes like Myka Peck and Annie Beltran kicking around the soccer ball, trying somehow to get in touch with reality. They and the entire team had all seen what had happened in New York City that morning and were still in disbelief. Still, the sweeper continued to roam and the keeper continued to command her troops.

"We weren't even really working on soccer," said LMU women's soccer coach Gregg Murphy. "If I could do it all over again, I probably would have been with my son and my wife, but I'm glad we were all together that day."

For an American, describing the morning of Sept. 11 as eerie is sort of like describing the Pacific Ocean as wet. It was one of those moments where everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing. Two towers, both prototypes of majesty, along with the lives of thousands of people, had been completely destroyed. One of the nation's busiest squares had been transformed into a ghost town beneath an overwhelming blanket of dust. Tears were shed. Screams were uttered. Lives were changed forever. Basically, nobody was thinking about sports.

Peck was probably thinking about her sister who was 13 years old at the time and living within blocks of the World Trade Center. Peck made that 10 a.m. practice, though. Coach Murphy told her along with the rest of her team that if they had anywhere else to be or anyone that they needed to talk to, that they could leave and do whatever was necessary. Everyone stayed.

"I think that practicing was probably the best thing for me," said Peck. "It didn't really take my mind off of it but it was better than me just sitting there."

A quarter mile east, LMU women's volleyball coach Steve Stratos also held practice. His best friend's daughter, Janet, who was expecting a child, worked in Tower two.

Stratos had no idea how she was doing. He hadn't heard from anyone. His team was still in shock. He thought maybe playing a little volleyball wasn't a bad idea.

"That's the great thing about sport at a time like that, is that it can be an escape," said Stratos, "we weren't being disrespectful...it's just fun being with them. It's an escape for all of us when we're together like that."

Next door in the Burns Recreation and Aquatics Center, the LMU men's water polo team had also felt their hearts sink to the deep end. After an early weight lifting session, they got back to their rooms, heard the news and returned to practice for their morning workout.

"It was good to have the whole team around to help deal with it because we're a really close team," said senior goalie Kevin Paulsen. "We were all there for each other, and that definitely helped with dealing with it."

Three teams in the midst of one of the most surreal moments in the last 50 years felt that skips shots, let serves and goal kicks were the best way to cope with the distress. They had volleyballs, they had soccer balls, they had water polo balls, they had nets, but really, they had each other. Sports have always kind of had a funny way of bringing people together like that.

"People who have never been on an athletic team, they have missed an experience that is unfortunate," said Stratos. "The athletes become very close, it's more than just friendship, it becomes something very special."

Sports teams generally have two things on their agenda - a lot of practice and a lot more laughter. Spending the last few minutes of each day together trying to get through those final sprints can sometimes make it easier to share a chuckle. It's that sort of camaraderie that puts people like Myka Peck in a good mood, like when she gets to spend time her sister. The same goes for Coach Stratos, who can spend an afternoon with Janet and her baby, both of whom were in the doctor's office that morning.

Sports for so many people have always been synonymous with American culture. The U.S. is the home of the brave, sure, but it's also the home of the Braves. For everyone who didn't get to play, they were still happy to have sports back in their lives a week later, as fans. People wanted to see Oklahoma taking on Nebraska. They wanted to be at the Rose Bowl with 80,000 fans doing the eight-clap saying things like "Man, it sure is nice to be at a football game."

People wanted to see if Tiger Woods could stick it from 265 yards with a two iron. They wanted to see if the Rams could crack triple digits, to see if Pedro would show enough mercy to allow single digits. They actually rooted for the Yankees. It was just something that people in dire need of a distraction could share with each other, somewhere where they could join together and have a good time, but nobody forgot about what happened.

Neither did those teams from LMU who were practicing that day. It wasn't about tightening up the offense. It was an escape. It was about helping each other through tough times in a way that only sports could. "It's so nice to have that other place to go to and see your friends everyday," said senior volleyball player Laura Gustorf. "I couldn't imagine not playing a sport in college."

Gustorf's lucky. Most Americans can only imagine what it would be like to play a sport in college. But then again, they're pretty lucky as well. They can still watch Tiger stick it. Some can't. There are places in the world where people can't join 80,000 friends in a stadium, witness the Rams score 45 in the first half, root for the Yankees or even do the eight-clap.

No sports at all? Imagine that.

-GO LIONS-

Matt Calkins is the play-by-play announcer for the LMU women's basketball team and a junior Communications major at LMU.

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