(Excerpted from Heroes’ Day.)
“. . . is it right to place such enormous expectations on our children’s shoulders, to drill them into perhaps expecting too much of themselves?”
Leroy was shorter than Monica expected (five-eight, at the most), but no less animated in real life than on-screen. Pouncing on his cue, he took the stage by storm, basking in the lights, the cameras, the audience whooping and clapping and screaming his name as he shook hands with those standing at the foot of the stage.
After the fanfare had died down: “Good evening, everyone, and welcome to Prime time, with Leroy Chase. I am Leroy Chase, for those of you wondering why Prime Minister Chandler is hosting an American talk show.”
The audience chuckled, for while Leroy did resemble (slightly) the British prime minister, it was only remotely possible that Chandler himself would ever moonlight on Leroy’s show.
“A fascinating front-page statistic for you,” he continued, picking an imaginary piece of lint from the arm of his suit jacket. “What’s lower than the U.S. national rank? Take a guess. Anyone?” He paused briefly, held up his hand after a few uppity audience members shouted out derogatory answers. “Prime Minister Chandler’s sperm count, apparently.”
“I guess the press is giving him a hard time because he and his wife were recently spotted at a sperm bank—I’m sorry, fertility clinic is the politically correct term, right? Whatever. Here we are on the verge of a new Olympic term, the competitive season underway, and what’s making headlines around the world? The British prime minister’s batting average!”
Again, laughter. The applause sign blinked furiously.
“Now, I understand it’s a team thing. If you’re a man living in the U.K., I’m sure you’ll want to know your prime minister can out-lay the competition should conceiving become an Olympic sport—but aren’t there more important things we should be focusing on at the moment? Analysts say the U.S. national rank is at its lowest point since the Global Ranking System was put into place. Coincidentally, the number of felons put to death last year was the highest in two decades. I say this is a missed opportunity. Why not kill two birds with one stone and make electrocution an Olympic sport?”
In the green room, where Monica and her teammates waited for their interview, the large video screen relayed Leroy’s monologue in hi-def.
“I don’t get any of his jokes,” Kristen said, wrinkling her nose.
“It’s what you call potty humor,” Tracie muttered under her breath. She stood slightly apart from Hades, her warm-up suit (she was to serve as assistant coach during the interview) the antithesis to his jeans and partially-unbuttoned silk shirt, which offered a tantalizing glimpse of his well-defined chest muscles.
“Not a fan of Leroy’s work?” asked Hades, playful, keenly aware that he was being watched by the studio intern who would escort them on-stage when the time was right.
Tracie shook her head. “Not my cup of tea.”
More like, “I think he’s a foul-mouthed slob,” Monica thought, reading Tracie’s expression and wondering if now wouldn’t be a good time to practice her social fake-outs.
Linda: “Just remember that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The more your girls are seen and heard, the more the American public will care whether or not they make it to Heroes’ Day.”
Tracie gave her a dirty look.
Meanwhile, Leroy worked his way through the monologue, ending with a jab at a popular actress’ tendency to marry the wrong guy. There was a minute or two of quiet waiting before the intern touched his headset, nodded, and gestured for Team USA to follow him to the stage area, where a balance beam had been set up. On cue, each of the girls took a turn tumbling across the beam in her own unique style as the band played an upbeat tune. Leroy shook hands with the team members, directed them to the sofa, where they sat all lined up in a row, their leotards sparkling under the studio lights, the faux-city skyline glowing in the background.
Motioning for Monica to sit in his lap, Hades took the chair closest to Leroy’s desk, and was the subject of much attention from the female members of the audience.
“Wow!” Leroy exclaimed, motioning for the applause to ebb. “I bet you could grate a block of cheese on those abs—yours are nice too, Darren.”
Monica laughed along with everyone else.
“Amazing stuff! How many hours a day do you have to train to get a body like that?”
Monica felt a nudge from Hades, heard him whisper, “Stand, smile—do a quick turn for the cameras.”
Monica did as she was told, standing, smiling, turning.
Hades narrated: “The girls start their morning practice at eight, have lunch at noon, school for a few hours, and then they hit the gym again until six.”
“Wow,” said Leroy, counting on his fingers. “That’s . . . that’s six, seven hours a day?”
“God, man! You don’t think all that work’s stunting their growth?” Leroy nodded at Monica. “How tall are you?”
“Four-foot-eight,” replied Monica.
“And you’re the biggest of the group!” Leroy chuckled, looked into the nearest camera. “I feel like we’re hosting a Hobbit harem.”
Monica sat back down, not sure what a Hobbit was. Or a harem. At the far end of the sofa, Tracie was looking murderous.
“Now, I know you and your staff are trained professionals,” Leroy said, addressing Hades, “but do you ever wonder if you might be pushing these girls too hard? I mean, seven hours a day in a gym—that’s time they could be spending with their friends at the movies or the mall. They’re world-class athletes, but how much can they possibly know of the real world?”
Hades took the question in stride. “I think they know a lot more than most kids do. It’s popular to single out Patriot elites because they oftentimes involve boys and girls training from a very young age. But to be honest, nothing in this life comes easily. You have to work for what you want, and children raised with a healthy work ethic will have the advantage when they mature.”
“Well, I can certainly agree with the principle, but when you’re up close and personal with a gaggle of twelve-year-olds . . . I mean, it’s just so stark, isn’t it? What of childhood in these modern times?”
“They’re young,” said Hades, passing a glance at Monica and the others, “but they’re also professionals. And if you do a little comparing amongst Patriot athletes you’ll find gymnasts tend to have higher GPAs than many of their peers, and are often more well-adjusted in adulthood.”
Leroy didn’t look convinced. “Numbers and statistics are all fine and dandy, but is it right to place such enormous expectations on our children’s shoulders, to drill them into perhaps expecting too much of themselves?”
“Look at it this way, Leroy.” Hades coughed, cleared his throat. “If you’re thirteen years old and all you’re allowed to do after school is hang around at the movies or the mall, then you’re just a minor in the adults’ world. You’re being kept out of the way. You can’t drive, you can’t vote, you can’t earn your own money. You spend your childhood and teenage years sheltered, coddled—until suddenly on your 18th birthday you’re flung out into the adult world and expected to adjust overnight. If you’re a Patriot, you’ve acquired the skills you need along the way. You’ve been a contributing member of society all along, so it’s no shock to be out of school or on your own. You wouldn’t send a parachuter out the door without first giving him the proper training, right?”
Leroy chuckled. “If it’s anyone other than my son-in-law, no.”
The audience roared.
Monica heard Lisa say, “That’s terrible!”
“But enough with the philosophical debate.” Leroy addressed Monica now. “Monica, dear. You look lovely tonight.”
Monica blushed. “Thank you, Mr. Chase.”
“Now, you’re the team captain, right?”
“Good. Give me the dirt, then.”
Monica shrugged, looking quickly at Hades for guidance. “Dirt?”
“Gossip. The nitty-gritty. In pro basketball, for example, there’s a lot of trash-talking courtside, or behind the scenes. You run into an opponent at a bar and you’re psyching him out before the big game. Gymnastics seems like such a pristine, disciplined sport, everyone so prim and proper—you don’t even break a sweat when you’re out there doing your thing!”
“Oh, we sweat,” Monica laughed.
“How about trash talk? Do you ever stand on the sidelines and yell out, oh, I don’t know, disparaging gymnastics insults?”
“To be honest, no. I mean, we might talk or joke about a silly move or ugly leo beforehand, but when you’re out there on the competition floor, you’re really only thinking of what you’re going to do when it’s your turn. And you’re always keeping limber, stretching—our coaches keep us busy.”
Leroy nodded at Hades. “It’s true you and Darren don’t get along, isn’t it?”
Monica looked at Hades a moment; he was smiling cautiously. “We manage,” she said, hoping she came off as casual.
“But,” pressed Leroy, “there are probably some days where you just want to tell Darren to shut up and do his own tricks, right?”
Monica shot Hades a nervous smile. “We sometimes knock heads.”
“Well, for example, I have this thing I do on my floor exercises, a sort of back headspring. It’s easy enough to do on a podium surface, but one day I’m putting together a routine on the balance beam, and Coach Hades comes up to me and says, ‘You think you can throw one of your back headsprings in there?’”
Leroy shook his head, smiling wistfully as the studio was filled with laughter. “Darren, my man, are you trying to kill the girl?”
Hades shrugged, put his hands on Monica’s shoulder and massaged a little too vigorously. “She’s thick-headed—I assumed her skull could take a few knocks.”
“All the way to the emergency room, no doubt.”
“Ooooh!” cooed the audience.
“In all fairness,” Hades said, “this is a great example of the kind of relationship a coach has with his athletes. If an athlete simply takes orders without considering her own abilities, then that’s detrimental, both in practice and in competition. Pep-talk aside, her experience should tell her whether or not to do it, whether she can do it at her current level of expertise.”
Leroy nodded, accepting Hades’ answer and shooting another question to Monica. In fact, the interview continued with nary an acknowledgment of the rest of the team unless they were somehow related to what was being asked of Monica—she’d inadvertently become the media favorite. First at the Incept Cup, and now on her first national talk show appearance. The attention was excruciating, and she soon found her smile wearing thin.
Things only got worse when Zoe Gaines came out. Zoe was an ex-gymnast, and had written a tell-all book, They Took Away My Gold Medal Because I Got Chalk on My Butt, which was currently enjoying a stay on the New York Times best-seller list. Her opinion (and she made it quite clear from the onset) was that elite gymnastics was shit, elite coaches were delusional assholes, and parents of elite gymnasts were utterly irresponsible in allowing their children to be exploited by the Patriot System. All this in the first five minutes of her interview, during which Monica felt Hades grow increasingly tense.
“I mentioned trash-talking earlier,” said Leroy, flipping through his copy of Zoe’s book. “This is pretty much the compendium of gymnastics trash talk. What do you think about ex-athletes signing book deals to slander the sport, Darren?”
“She has her point of view,” Hades responded.
“And so do the thousands of other gymnasts who’ve been broken by the system,” said Zoe with a confrontational look at Hades.
“There are many reasons an athlete might let go of her elite status. Not everyone with NPAA membership is plotting to destroy young boys’ and girls’ lives—”
“With all due respect, Mr. Hades, I’ve competed at the international level. I know the kind of dysfunctional relationship it takes to win a gold medal—”
“Do you, now?”
“—and I know what a coach really means when he tells one of his girls to do the best she can.”
“What would that be?”
Behind his desk, Leroy shot Monica a helpless (but amused) glance as it became obvious he’d lost control of the conversation.
“They can’t help that they’re younger and smaller than you,” said Zoe. “When a coach says, ‘Okay, you don’t have to do this skill if you don’t want to,’ he really means, ‘Fine, be a quitter—give up your medal or certificate or credits or whatever.’ There’s a very subtle but potent message of disgrace if you don’t rise to the occasion. A coach doesn’t outright push anything on his athletes; he convinces his athletes to push themselves. Of course a gymnast is going to say she’s fine with anything and everything that’s expected of her. She doesn’t want the ridicule, the stigma of failure.”
Monica shrank in Hades’ lap. The cameras were hovering close now, making her feel quite naked. She wanted to slip over to the sofa, but didn’t dare budge for fear it would allow Hades to run amok, tearing apart the stage with his bare hands.
Facing Leroy again, Zoe said, “That’s just the behind-the-scenes drama. It’s a whole separate issue when you’re actually performing. Personally, I would never let my twelve-year-old daughter parade her little butt around in front of a stadium full of strangers, whether or not it’s the patriotic thing to do. Aside from the overemphasis on body image, the pressure of performing in front of such a large audience is just ridiculous. You’ve got an army of living, breathing people watching you—to say nothing of the extended audience tuning in via camera and satellite linkup. Every mistake is magnified tenfold.”
“So, what, then?” asked Leroy. “Do we abolish the Patriot System? Keep our children locked safely indoors at all times?”
“I have no problem with the Patriot System,” said Zoe. “Nor do I think it’s necessary to stifle our youngsters’ desires to contribute to the national rank in their own way. There are many ways to gain elite status, ways that don’t require the total abolition of one’s social life, ways that don’t involve the exploitation of a girl’s every curve, every crevice.” She gestured at Monica, who shrank even further in a desperate attempt to make herself disappear altogether.
Somehow Hades held himself together. He fielded a few more pokes and jabs from Zoe before it was time for her to go, time for the musical act to begin its number. Midway through the song, Team USA made its exit, Linda (bending to a plea from Hades) feigning a tight schedule.
Outside, as Tompkins and his entourage guided the girls into their shuttle, Monica overheard Hades growling at Tracie: “Fucking bullshit. All of it.”
“Darren, calm down—”
“Nothing’s changed in sixteen years. A bitch like Zoe wants to be a Hero, but doesn’t want to pay for it. No wonder she got knocked up, dropped out of the sport, and started writing sensationalist books for a living.”
Monica’s jaw dropped. Sure, she knew Hades was a tyrant, a sexy, screaming, ranting, raving lunatic who liked to throw things during practice—but he never swore. Not typically.
“Come on, sweetie,” said Linda, giving Monica a gentle push. “Into the shuttle.”
“What’s with Coach Hades?” Lisa asked as she settled into her seat.
Monica thought, Leroy Chase did to him in half an hour what we couldn’t do in two months.
She said, “I don’t think he likes Mr. Chase.”
(Excerpted from Heroes’ Day.)