“And that’s it folks. Katniss Everdeen takes the lead.”
“There’s no way anyone can catch her now.”
“Nope. That girl is a machine. Her rise in this sport has been nothing short of meteoric. Look at the technique! Her shooting is perfection. And her skiing! No energy is wasted. Every motion is aimed towards her goal and her goal is--”
“She’s done it! Katniss Everdeen wins and secures a spot for herself on the 2018 Team USA. The Girl on Fire is on her way to South Korea.”
“And there’s no celebration here, Caesar. Like I said, an absolute machine. I don’t think you can crack this girl.”
“But the real question, Claudius, is...can she do what no one else has done before her? Can she bring home a US medal in the Winter Olympics biathlon?”
“If anyone can, I believe that it’s this girl. Next year is the time. Korea is the place. And Katniss Everdeen is the person poised to make history.”
“Not so fast, Caesar. She’s got steep odds to beat. She’ll be facing many of these same competitors. And they will be out for vengeance.”
“You wanna explain that garbage?” Haymitch snarls and I squint at the target. I don’t say a word, silently huffing in frustration as I set up to take another shot. Haymitch’s colorful swears fill the air when I miss by a fraction.
“Your swearing is not helping,” I tell him.
“Rapid fire. Now.”
“Now!” Haymitch yells. I squeeze off three shots in quick succession. The targets turn over to reveal one hit, in the middle. Two misses. “What the fuck are we doing here?”
“It’s an off day, Haymitch. I don’t have them that often.” I say and stand, slinging the rifle on my back with practiced ease.
“You’ve had two weeks of nothing but off days.”
I want to argue, I want to yell. But I can’t. He’s right. My shoulders stiffen and he orders me to the machine. I climb aboard and start my stroke. Smooth and easy. In sync with my breathing.
“You’re off your pace.”
I ignore his grumbling.
“You’re off your fucking pace... Goddamnit, Katniss!”
“Get up here and do it yourself, you old fuck!” I yell back. The machine beeps, indicating that I’ve hit my target speed and Haymitch’s eyes narrow. I huff the hair out of my face and keep going. It isn’t long before I’m lagging again and Haymitch is cursing me out.
“Get off,” Haymitch growls.
“No!” I say and push until my legs begin to ache.
“Get off before you injure yourself.” Haymitch cuts off the machine and I stand upright, panting as I stare at the back of his head. The gentle way he spoke this time confuses me. He scrubs a hand over his face and sighs.
“Do you want this?”
“Of course I do,” I say, exasperated.
“I don’t believe that. You know what separates the champions from the rest of the field?”
“Precision,” I answer and he shakes his head.
“Passion.” I roll my eyes and Haymitch swears again. “See, there’s your problem. I can train a baboon and get him to hit the target every time. I can’t teach him to get up when someone has kicked him down. I can’t train him to want gold so bad he can taste it. I can’t train him to come back four, eight, twelve years later and do it again.”
“I’m here every day,” I remind him, crossing my arms to hide how heavily I’m breathing right now.
“You’re here,” he says, tapping a finger on my forehead. I resist the urge to shove his hand away from me and wait for his point. Then he drops his hand to point right above my heart. “Not here. Do you even remember why you started skiing? Shooting?”
“I’m not some human interest story.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. The Olympics are a competition, yes. But they’re also a show. They want good stories. People want to watch someone who’s overcome insurmountable odds. Someone whose got no chance or maybe an outside chance of winning. People who steal their hearts and earn their loyalty. They want legacies and medal counts that make their eyes swim. You’ve got a chance at two medals, that’s it.”
“It’s never been done by an American, let alone a --”
“Leave race out of this for now and let the commentators do that, if they dare. You just focus on being ten times better than anyone else in that field.”
“I am,” I insist.
“Not the past two weeks, you haven’t been.” He motions towards the windows, indicating the many hills around Colorado Springs. “I could pluck a rookie off the trails out there and she’d do better than you’ve been doing. Because right now, you’ve got about as much passion in you as a dead slug.”
Ouch. I know they all call me a machine. My smiles are hard to come by, and I’m awful in interviews. But I still have feelings. I’m not a machine. Haymitch must know he’s pushed too far because his voice softens again.
“Go home, sweetheart. Go home and get your head on straight. Let me know when you’re ready for the Olympics.”
I storm out of the training area and down to the lockers. I’m so angry that tears are swimming in my eyes. I hold them back and gather my things, forgoing a shower in favor of returning straight to my apartment. Exactly like he said. Because I always listen to my coach.
Silence greets me as I stomp the snow from my boots and organize my gear. In the laundry room, I strip off my workout clothes and start a load. After a quick shower, I braid my hair and fix a protein packed lunch. I’ve just finished and am washing my dishes when Prim walks in.
“Hey ho, roomie!” She says cheerfully. “You’re home early.”
“Training didn’t go well,” I tell her as I stack my clean dishes up to dry.
“I heard,” she says and I spin around to face her as she shrugs out of her coat.
“Haymitch called me at work. He thinks you need a break--”
“I don’t need a break.”
“--and I agree.”
“I don’t need a break!” I reiterate. Prim tilts her head as she looks at me, a soft wistful smile on her face.
“You know, at one of your first competitions, someone remarked that you skied like you had a horde of demons chasing you. I thought that was a pretty good analogy, but somewhere along the way, it’s like you outran them.”
“And now I’m better,” I say and she shakes her head.
Later in the evening, as I sit watching tapes, searching for weaknesses in my competitors, Prim flops onto the couch next to me.
“I’m not taking a break,” I say before she can argue.
“I know,” Prim admits and I look away from the screen to see what’s gotten into her. She’s as stubborn as both me and our mother. Sometimes more, I think. She turns the screen of her laptop to face me and I stare at the items in her cart. “So how about a change of scenery?”
“I’m not going back there.”
“Yes you are, Katniss Everdeen. You’re going and you’re going to face that horde of demons.”
“This is the dumbest idea ever,” I mutter and put myself to bed.
It’s when I miss yet another shot and Haymitch throws his water bottle across the practice space while I tell him that I need to be outside in the snow and wind, not caged in this sterile training facility with my every move monitored and marked for progress that I realize the truth. My words die and Haymitch gives me his first real smile in weeks.
“I hate you. You and Prim,” I snarl. But I pack my bag anyways. I buy the tickets still languishing in Prim’s online cart. I nod when Haymitch promises to cover for me with the team and join me in a few weeks. I accept the “survival kit” Prim hands me before I leave. I board the damn plane and I squint down at the blinding snow capped mountains as we approach, the trees covered in a quilt of snow.
There’s a car waiting to take me to the familiar lodge. A valet to whisk my luggage away to my cabin, smiling when I cling to my favorite skis and refuse to let him touch them or my rifle in its case.
“Welcome home,” I whisper as though uttering the words will bring the demons out of the ground to consume me. They just might.