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Not to Win

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not to win

 

 BITTY

"There's nothing to worry about, sweetie," said Suzanne Bittle to her son Eric, who sat in the dressing room of the Garden in Boston, pigeon toed and biting his fingernails. Eric glanced up at the blank television and then back down at the floor before he gripped the lip of the chair underneath him. The gold medal around his neck swung back and forth, in and out of his vision as he stared at the point of his tennis shoes. A hand on his back, this time from his left, caused him to look up and he shifted his gaze over to his coach. Her warm smile creased at the corner of her eyes.

"If you don't make the Olympic team, I will file an official protest and renounce my US citizenship," she said.

"That would make it worse, Katya," said Eric. Katya leaned forward and touched her forehead to his. Eric closed his eyes and just breathed with her, but a knock at the door caused Eric to sit upright in his chair and put both of his hands over his mouth. Suzanne gripped Eric's right knee tightly when Katya leapt out of her chair and opened the door.

It was Matthew, the stage manager who had directed Eric to and from the ice over the past week of competition. Eric could feel his heart beating wildly in his chest and refused to look at his mother, who he could hear holding back tears. "Eric," Matthew said with a smile and Eric nodded. "I need you to come with me."

"Is it official, then? Did he make it?" Suzanne asked for Eric.

Matthew turned to her and the expression on his face was unmistakable. Suzanne clapped her hands together and embraced around her son, who grasped one of her arms with both of his hands and tried not to cry himself. "Come on, Eric, the conference starts in a few minutes. You'll be announced first."

"Oh my God," said Eric. "Oh my God, I'm going to the Olympics."

"You're going to the Olympics," said Katya. Eric kissed his mother and then clambered out of his seat and hugged Katya, one of the few people in his life he could definitively say was shorter than him. Katya stood on her toes to kiss him on both cheeks before she held his face in his hands, looked directly into his brown eyes, and said, "This is just the beginning, my Itty Bitty. This is what we have worked toward all these years. And this is just the beginning."

"Thank you, Katya," Eric replied. He kissed her as well before he followed Matthew out of the room with one final look back at his coach and his mother. They were facing the television, arms around each other, tears in their eyes. Eric closed the door quickly before their emotion caught up to him and followed Matthew down the hallway.

"I'll hold onto your medal," said Matthew. "They'll want you to have it for the photoshoot after, but don't wear it during the announcement." Eric removed his medal and handed it to Matthew. Matthew gestured toward the door in front of them. Eric took a deep breath before he opened it and let it out just as quickly; nothing was surprising here as the other members of the US Olympic Figure Skating Team looked back at him and broke into silent applause. Eric relaxed as he hugged person after person, ending at the front of the line with Jeremy Abbott, the other contender for the men's individual competition. Jeremy held him tightly before he ruffled Eric's blond hair. Eric let go and tried to repair some of the damage. Katya preferred it longer, saying it made him "look younger," but Eric never had a problem looking young for his age. It was the side effect from years of hard training to keep as small and speedy as possible; even Jeremy, now nearing thirty, looked like he could pass for a teenager.

"Had no doubt it'd be you, Golden Boy," Jeremy whispered.

"Hush," replied Eric, and just as he said it, Matthew entered with the final team member and began to line them up according to the upcoming announcement. Matthew ushered Eric to the front of the line, where Eric felt his nerves return. He stood just behind a black curtain that would lead to the head table housing the US Figure Skating Committee and several rows of press. It was just ceremony at this point, no reason to really be nervous as they wouldn't be asking questions until well after the announcement, but Eric stared at the curtain with his knees knocking.

Eric pushed his heels into the floor in attempt to alleviate the shakiness; Katya had given him the tip at the age of eight and now, eleven years later, Eric was grateful for her advice. It didn't matter where Eric competed – here in Boston at the US National Championship, in Ontario at the World Championship last year, or even at local exhibitions back in Georgia when he and Katya lived there, his nerves would catch him when he was alone, usually in the tunnel while he stared at the Jumbotron and waited for his name to be called. The feeling never went away, not entirely, not until –

"Our first selection to the United States Olympic Figure Skating Team is Eric Bittle."

Eric let out a deep breath and parted the curtain. He could hear the shutter of cameras immediately and he plastered a toothy smile as he walked across the room to the end of the table. He stood there awkwardly, not sure what to do with his hands, but at that point the attention was back to the head table where they had moved on:

"Our second selection to the United States Olympic Figure Skating Team is Jeremy Abbott."

Jeremy emerged from the holding room. He waved to the five rows of media and press before he reached Eric, then held out a fist for a bump. Eric smiled and bumped it, temporarily blinded by camera flashes to capture the moment, and then they stood next to each other, grinning naturally, and waiting for the rest of the team.

It wasn't until an hour later that Eric finished answering questions from the press, just a few interviews from several different outlets, all starting the same way: "Eric, was there any doubt in your selection after your win here in Boston?"

"Of course," said Eric, "it's not just the results tonight that go into the decision."

"But you took fourth place in Worlds last year, the highest placement by far by any American."

"It's just an honor to be selected."

Eric's face hurt as he walked back to the dressing room. He paused at the door, knowing his mother and Katya were on the other side, bursting to begin the celebration. It'd been hours since he looked at his phone and when pulled it out of his pocket, he could already see several notifications that would have to wait just a bit longer.

Eric Bittle @omgcheckplease
So blessed. Bring it on Sochi! #Sochi2014 #Olympics #TeamUSA

 

JACK

Jack was just putting on his skates in his stall when George entered the locker room. She usually waited until after practice for announcements if there were any to make, or relayed them to Jack early in the morning, so an appearance this close to ice time usually meant urgent news. Jack pulled his skate off again and placed it back in his stall.

"What's up, George?" he asked before she could even approach him.

"Good, you're not laced up yet. Can you take a minute and chat? I don't want to hold up the team."

"Yeah, sure."

It was a slow, awkward walk to George's office; Jack hadn't put on any shoes and had all of his padding on, but George gestured to the larger chair before she shut the door behind her. Jack sat down, his hands in the collar of his practice jersey, and waited for George to sit behind her sparsely decorated desk. Despite two seasons as the team's captain, Jack still felt like he barely knew his Assistant Manager. She was an excellent running partner but that was the extent of their relationship.

"I just got a call from Hockey Canada. They want you for the Olympic Team."

"Yeah?" Jack asked, a small grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Who else?"

"On the Falconers?" George asked. Jack nodded. "Just you."

"Really?" Jack asked, crinkling his thick eyebrows as he mentally ticked through no less than four other team members who also deserved to go – Dex and Nursey for sure, maybe even Wicks. "Am I going to miss any games for this? We've got a good team this year – we could go all the way. I don't want to let anyone down because I'm off playing for a different team."

"You won’t have to miss any games – nothing is scheduled during the Olympics to accommodate those who have to go. I asked around for the rest of the roster. Nothing's confirmed yet but it looks like a few people you know. Oluransi and Birkholtz more than likely will be D-men on your line."

"Yeah?" Jack asked. "Awesome, I haven't played with them since Juniors."

"And Kent Parson."

Jack's smile cracked. George sat back in her chair and quickly moved on, "There's a good chance you'll get the C if you go. I'd recommend it."

"I don't know. How long do I have to decide?" Jack asked.

"Just until the end of the week. It's a good opportunity for you, Jack. It'll be a great opportunity for the team too. You should go. Play for Canada."

"You going to cheer me on?" Jack asked, his smile returning. George shook her head.

"Absolutely not. Team USA all the way."

"Thanks, George," said Jack. "I'll let you know by Friday." George nodded and watched as Jack left the office and headed back to the locker room. Before he turned the corner that led back inside, where his team was waiting for his direction out to the ice, he grabbed the collar of his jersey again, holding onto the chest pad, and let his mind drift. It was quiet in the hallway, but summer conditioning was normally quiet. The fan base in Providence was still growing since the NHL expanded there in 2005. New England had several professional teams to choose from and Providence took several years to turn a winning season. It was getting better, though, after three consecutive playoff showings and the most solid team Jack had seen since joining the franchise in 2008.

George was right, though, that this could be good for the Falconers, especially if Jack became captain. Canada usually did well in the Olympics and Jack at the forefront of an all-star roster could really drive home the attendance goals the Falconers had been trying to achieve for years. It would be good to see some of the guys again in a more familiar setting – Ransom and Holster made a great defensive pair even though they hadn't played on the same line since Juniors – but having to play with Parse again…

Jack shook his head and entered the locker room. All eyes were on him as soon as he entered and he put on a straight face for them. "On the ice everyone. I'll be out as soon as I lace up. Dex, Nursey – start the drills."

"Yes, Cap," said Dex, saluting with his gloves on, the bright blue clashing terribly with his red hair. "C'mon, nerds."

Jack sat down in his stall and pulled on his skates. The entire team filed out before he finished lacing up. As Jack pulled his laces tighter against the top of his foot, his gaze shifted past them to the blue carpet. Jack looked forward at the edge of the Falconers logo in the center of the room, the blue abruptly ending with the white outline of their triangular logo.

Jack? Jack! Jack, wake up!

Jack closed his eyes.

Come on, Jack, stay with me. Please, please, please…

Jack looked up to see the gray concern in Kent Parson's eyes. It was just a glance, just brief, before the gray expanded, dimmed the colors in the room, and Jack couldn't see anymore.

"Jack?" Jack opened his eyes. Nursey stood at the door. "You coming, man?"

"Yeah. Yeah, sorry."

Jack tied the lace on his skate and then headed toward the ice. Nursey waited for him and held open the door. Jack trudged through on his skates and then looked down the hall where George was just leaving her office. She looked at Jack and Nursey and saluted before she headed in the opposite direction.

"Wait, George," called Jack. George turned around, looking at Jack expectantly. "I'll do it. Let them know." George smiled.

"Will do, Cap."