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More posts by Kelly Hostetler
And then I saw it plastered across his face; The sheer childish joy of victory. I have seen this gleeful purity before in the boys I used to babysit. Whether it was football, soccer or basketball, beating me, the babysitter, was always an expected but glorified accomplishment. Pride twinkled in their eyes, just as it did in Mladen’s.
He is no ordinary opponent. Just like the boys I babysat were sneaky to bend the rules, Mladen is sly to break your focus and pin teammates against one another – sometimes before the match has even started. He allows you to have first choice of the paddles so there will be no excuses when you lose. He then tells you it’s good to play with a partner because you can blame him or the waves for every mistake.
And then there is that same look of glory. Victory was his and we both knew it. With only two brown wood tables separating us, I stared across the dry lab and couldn’t help but chuckle to myself. Mladen had promised he’d teach me how to be happy despite defeat, but I don’t think we realized how quickly I would learn.
That was the first night he challenged me to a ping-pong match. I took one look at the makeshift table and I knew I would have to adjust my game. Gracefully, Mladen allowed me some warm-up time to get used to the short table and that darn “edge” down the middle where the two tables meet – the sweet spot, as Mladen calls it. It’s a secret weapon if you can hit it just right so that the ball’s bounce suddenly changes course. But as our first match commenced, I realized that no warm-up period would be enough. Mladen drilled and spun and blasted ping-pong balls my direction with that gleeful giggle, one trademark of a child confident of his imminent victory.
After five games and four losses against Mladen, my single victory stood tall as my only remaining ray of hope. With four years of collegiate soccer so recently at an end, I am no stranger to competition. I hate to lose. All I require is more practice and better focus, and I will need a mirror to see the expression of my own joyous triumph against Mladen. Perhaps tonight!
So it is quite a miracle that I can say, despite my pathetic, single game claim to fame, I learned something valuable that day: With the help of my (limited) babysitting experiences and Mladen’s jovial triumphs, I learned how to lose and still be happy, and I witnessed first-hand the true meaning of “young at heart”.