A high school track rivalry is borne out of the simple desire to be close to a fellow runner

By Cyd Zeigler jr.

If you have a story about a first sports crush you'd like to share, send it to us in a Word document at [email protected].

I didn’t know I was gay until I was 22 and met a guy playing Ultimate Frisbee at UCLA. Looking back, it shouldn’t have been any surprise that it was playing a sport that I found the guy who helped me out of the closet. After all, it was another guy about six years earlier who first made me realize that something was definitely “different” about me.

That’s me in the middle in a 300m hurdles race that Jeremy actually wasn’t in, though his school hosted the meet.

My painting of Jeremy, disguised as an Olympic athlete so no questions got asked.

His name was Jeremy Nichols. He was a year younger than I and went to the “big” high school in the town next to mine on Cape Cod. I was all of 16 the first time I saw him when his high school hosted a track meet with a couple other schools, including mine. I had developed into a long jumper and a hurdler, and my sophomore year was becoming my breakout season. I got schooled that day in the 100-meter hurdles by someone much bigger, older and faster. But it was Jeremy, a freshman hurdler, I remember the most.
He was a skinny kid with some muscle tone to his legs. I remember a couple girls telling me that year that I had nice legs; and I remember admiring Jeremy’s that day. He had light brown hair, cut ever-so-short, just the way I liked it. He seemed relatively quiet and nice. I watched him the entire meet as he warmed up, talked to coaches, and competed. And all the while, there was an overwhelming desire in me to be with him. Just talk with him, shake his hand. That we were both hurdlers was just the coolest thing in the world to this 16-year-old who, no matter how hard he tried, just couldn’t find a real interest in girls.
There were points in the next couple years when I started thinking about him all the time. I would open the Cape Cod Times every day from March to June hoping there would be a picture of a running, shorts-clad Jeremy in the sports page. I got my wish one day the following season with a full-color photo of him running the 300-meter hurdles. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen: Him just crossing the bar of the hurdle when the photographer snapped away. Jeremy wasn’t even aware that the photographer was there, focusing simply on the barrier he was hurdling and the finish line that laid just a few steps away.
Of course, he was also completely unaware that I would, the next morning, take the paper, cut out the photo of him, and stick in my scrapbook for safe keeping. “Inspiration,” I’d say if anyone found it. “I need to know who I’m gunning for if I’m going to be the best.” There was probably some truth to that, but there were several other top high school hurdlers in the area; his was the only photo I kept.
I even painted a picture of him in art class (left). We were working with poor-quality acrylics and plaster; the assignment was to use both on a canvas. I look back at it now and see the detail and care I took painting his legs; you can tell what grabbed me the most. For a year after I painted that picture, with his “shoe” coming off the canvas, I would look at it and try to envision what he might be doing as I gazed at him.
I went to watch him play football once my senior year. Hurdlers can make the best football players, and while I’m not so sure he was the best, he certainly was one of the fastest on the field. I don’t remember much about that Friday night at his high school with a couple friends, sitting in the stands trying to stay warm and watching his every move. He was, after all, wearing those wonderfully form-fitting football pants. I even passed by him after the game, his helmet off and steam rising from his head. He was headed to the showers with his team; what I wouldn’t have given to go along with them.
By the time we raced each other again two years later, we were the two best hurdlers in the county. I had set school records in both hurdles events, and we were both winning every race we entered. This meet was the Dennis-Yarmouth Invitational, a regional event with schools from all over Southeastern Massachusetts. It was my chance to get his attention.
In the days leading up to it, all I could think about was Jeremy. I thought about shaking his hand and saying hello to him. I fantasized about him asking what I was doing after the meet, maybe just go grab a Powerbar and a Gatorade and trade stories. But more than anything, I thought about kicking his ass. I wanted to beat him in the worst way. He had beaten me two years before in that same meet; I had no interest in that happening again.
When I got to the field, I played it coy. No need to track him down; he’d come to me. I don’t remember who got there first, but I remember him walking around in warm-up pants, hoping to get watching him when he shed them. I was competing in two events that day: The triple jump and the 300-meter hurdles. I ended up a disappointed fourth, but it didn’t matter; it was my other event I wanted most.
I psyched myself up so much for that race that, by the time I crossed the finish line, I had blown it, big time. I finished the race with a bad time and I placed a lousy third, two spots behind Jeremy. It was my first real glimpse in the psyche of top athletes and the need for complete focus. For those people who say that scandals and media attention leading up to a big game or meet don’t matter, I remember one hot young hurdler who, simply by putting on his shorts and spikes, killed my chances in one of the biggest races of my high school career.
I congratulated him, and I got a quick handshake in return. No stories to be shared. No congratulations back. Just a quick “thanks” and Jeremy was off to chat with others. It was more stinging than the loss I’d suffered on the track because, in that quick exchange, I realized that Jeremy had no idea I was even alive, and he never would. Sure, he probably opened the paper after my meets and checked my times. Though I was in the much smaller neighboring town of Harwich, his coach may have mentioned me to him at some point. He probably knew I was out there, looking to beat him on his home track like I’d done to every other hurdler that season. But at the end of the day, he didn’t know I was alive. Chances are slim he remembers me know. I realize now what my real motivation for beating him was: That he would know very well who Cyd Zeigler was, and that he might, just might, start spending some of his time thinking about me, too.
For the last few years, I’ve been trying to track down Jeremy. It isn’t so easy to find someone with a moderately common name whom you know nothing about post-1991, years before Yahoo! made searching easy. I found a Jeremy Nichols who did the hurdles at Wheaton College in Massachusetts in the mid-Nineties, but no way to track him down. I wouldn’t even know what to say to Jeremy if I tracked him down. But a curiosity keeps me looking. So if you stumble across someone with great legs named Jeremy, drop me a line. I’ve got the spikes ready for one last race, and I want a rematch.If you have a story about a first sports crush you'd like to share, send it to us in a Word document at [email protected].

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