Illustration: Rob White
When you lived in a small town in the middle of the Canadian prairie, your senior year in high school was pretty much the best year of your life. Behind you lay the ruins of your bullied adolescence; ahead, seductive visions of escape. You’d yet to know any of life’s real pain, so you stupidly looked to the future with optimism and hope. It wouldn’t be long until all your dreams were crushed and you settled into a life of chopping hay or having your fingers lopped off in an oil rig’s anchor chain, but for that one year, life was good.
Being a high school senior in Brooks, Alberta came with certain privileges. Your curfews became a thing of the past, you had a 50/50 shot at getting served at the Newell Hotel and you could legally buy hollow point bullets from Canadian Tire. And if you were a farm kid, the years of getting your ears flicked from behind on the county school bus were over because at long last, the coveted back seat belonged to you.
So imagine my surprise when I walked onto the bus on my first day of my senior year to see the back seat taken up by a kid one year my junior, whilst my fellow Grade 12 bus riding pal, Chris, occupied the seat second from back. What was this all about? I asked myself. Don’t these people know the rules? The back seat was my prerogative - nay, my God-given right! Who was this interloper to deny me the back seat?
I searched Chris’s face for an answer as to why he hadn’t exerted his authority and received a deflated shrug in reply. The bus started moving and the driver barked at me to take my seat. I was at a crossroads; in one direction lie shame and humiliation, in the other, confrontation. Being a four-foot dork, confrontation was easily my least favourite thing (followed closely by talking to girls) but if I didn’t say something, I would be treated like a sucker for the whole year - maybe for the rest of my life. I couldn’t stand for that insult. I wouldn’t stand for that insult. I was going to march right up to this pony-tailed trespasser and put her straight.
I twisted my face into a scowl and charged the back of the bus, like Eric Pickles after a pork pie. That day, I would not be the pimply dwarf who buckled under a feather’s weight. That day, I was fierce, I was mighty; that day, I was to be a man. A real man, like ones in deodorant adverts. In my mind, I had the grit of a wounded wolverine and the law on my side.
Oddly, she didn’t seem scared at all. Just the opposite in fact. She sat defiantly, with her chin up and a face as cold and unmoving as an Easter Island statue. I opened my mouth to speak, met her hard stare full-on and promptly bottled it.
Defeated, I sat down beside Chris, leaned over and whispered; “Why didn’t you kick her out of the back seat?” Chris said nothing, but that didn’t mean my question went unanswered. The riposte was firm and direct and it came from the girl behind: “Rob, if you’ve got something to say, say it to my face.” As it turned out, I had nothing to say to her face. Nothing at all. Suddenly, the underside of the bus seemed like a perfectly welcoming place to be.
That snippy disposition and hardened glare didn’t do much for her secondary school bus decorum, but it did help her to win the World Cup fencing title in 2006 and secure a place at this summer’s Olympics. Her fourth. So when I decided to try for Olympics tickets this year, women’s fencing was high on my list. Twenty years had passed since my run-in with Sherraine Schalm, so I supposed it was time to put that terrible day on the bus behind me. I would do whatever it took to see that spiky girl from my tiny hometown of 12,000 compete on the world’s biggest stage.
Now, I know where you think this is going. This column was initially going to be about the idiotic way the organisers doled out tickets. I had this whole big whinge prepared lamenting the fact that some lazy, Johnny-come-lately got a ticket for the 100m final at the 11th hour while a dedicated person (like me) who got up early on Day One and spent three hours clicking refresh got the shaft. After coming away ticketless in the first round, my column was half-written, bursting with vitriol and seething hatred. I had at least three jokes comparing David Beckham to a gardening implement but then, boom, I got tickets in the second round and lost interest.
From what I’ve gathered on the ground, you people didn’t really give a toss about the Olympics anyway. If Big Ben was a giant limey Moan-O-Meter instead of a clock, it would be currently bonging its head off. It’s so corporate, mate! The IOC are crooks! It’s too expensive! The logo looks like Lisa Simpson giving head! Seb Coe looks like Face from the A-Team! Believe me, I’ve heard them all and I was right there with you. Until I got tickets. Now all I can say is: nyah nyah nyah-nyah nyah.
Now that I am actually going to be there, I really want to enjoy these Olympics. I want to lose myself in the joyous atmosphere of the world’s middle class getting together to cheer on its fastest and best at throwing heavy objects. I want to hug that weird mascot until its eye pops out. I want to help load a surface-to-air missile launcher in Notting Hill. I even want to be around other Canadians. Every time I hear a story about an Adidas exec pilfering a coveted torch-bearer slot or of another juiced-up sprinter being allowed to compete or, most infuriatingly, “London 2012 is proud to only accept VISA” I just cover my ears and eyes and hum the Super Mario 3 theme song in my head until an advert of Jessica Ennis’s midriff comes on TV and I can again allow myself to get pumped about the whole ridiculous neon abomination.
I will be hoping Sherraine has a better outing this time around; the Beijing Olympics was one to forget. She went into the Games as a hot medal favourite and was knocked out in the first round by her former Hungarian training partner. She then removed her mask and launched into a sweary tirade at her opponent’s coaching team and apologised to the “Canadian taxpayer” for her failure. To say she lost it a bit would be an understatement. As a result of her so-called “un-Canadian” outburst (we’re all supposed to be uber-polite little darlings, dontcha know) there will be less press fanfare and public support for her this time, but if there is one thing I know about that girl from the bus, it’s that I will be happy to be watching the match from the stands and not directly opposite her, staring down the business end of her rapier.