Splattered

Driving to hockey training on Wednesday, it crossed my mind: is this a good idea?

On Tuesday, I head to one of my favourite places in the world, Lady Elliot Island, a tiny speck off the coast of Queensland at the southern base of the Barrier Reef. Mackquist and I are going to dive for a week with the manta rays, and hopefully a whale or two if one passes while we’re underwater (which can happen at this time of year).

Lady Elliot Island - so small that the strip across the middle is the runway.

Lady Elliot Island – so small that the strip across the middle is the runway.

It’s peak manta season and I can’t wait to get on the plane, to see if you can really leave Victorian winter and be in the warm Queensland waters with up to 30 or more mantas at a time.

So, driving to training, the thought strayed into my brain that this would not be a good night to hurt myself. But just as quickly, I dismissed it, thinking: you can’t live like that. I’ve skated constantly now for more than four years and have mostly been okay. Why should a standard Wednesday Intermediate class be any different?

And so yes, you know what happened. About ten minutes in, Tommy Powell calls for two quick laps and off I go, skating as fast as I can. I actually love those fast laps: they kill your legs and lungs, but in a good way. It’s the best cardio workout I get all week. And so I throw myself at them. If I’m not the fastest skater out there, and invariably I’m not, at least I’m working hard.

Right up until a goalie was stretching near where I had to turn left, to pass behind the goals, and that made my turn a little sharper than I had planned, especially at speed, and before I could process it, I’d lost an edge on my skate and I was down, bouncing off the ice and careering, completely out of control towards the boards, less than two metres away and closing fast.

This is NOT how you want to hit the boards. Somehow, Ranger Brad Richards came out of this okay.  Pic: Getty.

This is NOT how you want to hit the boards. Somehow, New York Ranger Brad Richards came out of this okay. Pic: Getty.

Without trying I can think of five cases where I’ve witnessed a hockey player in this situation end up with a broken leg or collar bone. I can think of other lesser injuries, but still significant ones from uncontrolled slides into the wall.

I’ve had it happen a couple of times and had a badly hurt shoulder/upper neck from one of them.

All of this somehow had time to pass through my mind in the micro-seconds before I hit the boards.

I’m sure I’ve written in this blog before about once doing laps with Bathurst-winning racing car driver Jim Richards. I asked him: what’s it like when you go sideways and you know you’re going to hit the wall? What passes through your mind?

He stopped, squinted, thought about it and said, surprisingly, that he’d never been in that situation.

I said: you’ve never hit a wall?

And, to paraphrase, he said: no, I’ve hit plenty of walls, but here’s the thing … a racing car is an incredible piece of machinery. It can do things that a normal car simply can’t do. And I am a highly trained, expert driver, so I can drive that car in a way people normally can’t. So, if things have gone pear-shaped, I am doing everything I possibly can not to hit the wall … right up until the actual moment that I hit the wall. If I think about it, it’s always a bit of a surprise to hit the wall, because I was concentrating, working so hard not to, and then oh wow, I hit the wall.

Another nasty board collision. You do not want to lose an edge while heading towards the wall.

Another nasty board collision. You do not want to lose an edge while heading towards the wall.

Richards’ answer has become one of my central pieces of life philosophy: until you hit a wall, do everything you possibly can not to hit that wall. (Even if you end up crashing into whatever the wall is – and believe me, in life, I have hit my share of walls – you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that you did everything humanely possible not to, despite the fact you failed.)

But on Wednesday night, this all went out the window. Skates off the ice, 85 kilos of full body momentum sliding across the surface, at velocity, with two metres or less to stop, and no way to brake, I had no hope.

Time did helpfully slow down enough for me to think: Oh shit, Lady Elliot! Oh crap, mantas! Oh fuck, Macklin will kill me …

And I also somehow had time to think: do NOT stick out an arm or a leg to take the hit. I was a relaxed ironing board in armour when I collided – and it was a beauty. I hit the boards hard. Helmet took it. Right shoulder took it. Knee took it.

But a miracle. No joint got bent the wrong way; my helmet did its job. Two days later, I’m completely fine; a vague dull ache in my shoulder but nothing to stop me boarding a plane and diving.

Such a relief.

Later in the session, I went for a puck from one direction as a classmate came fast the other way. Again, the collision was a big one. Again, I skated away, intact.

Double sigh of relief.

Today I got an email from one of my brothers at the Bang, our social footy group. He wanted to know if anybody wanted to play in a real game of Aussie Rules, to help a team he knows make up numbers, this Saturday only.

No, I wrote back, as quickly as I could type. No, I will not be putting my body in line to twang a hammie or do a big knee. Not with Tuesday’s flight looming.

For once, just this once, I am letting myself be grateful I survived Wednesday’s big hits and I’m voluntarily putting myself in cotton wool between now and Tuesday. It’s all about Mackquist, the mantas and me.

My final dive, with a manta on the surface, at Lady Elliot, a few years ago:

 

So, how was your week?

The difficult one-finger hand-stand push-up. What you - well, I - do when no mantas turn up mid-dive.

Me? Finally had a story I’d written about taking up hockey published in the Sunday Age (thanks, fellow rookie Michael Coulter) but had flown north and landed on a remote Barrier Reef piece of sand with some trees and eight-billion noisy birds, Lady Elliot island, so I didn’t have any phone or web access.

Seems like it got a decent response. The headline: “Puck life”. An f for a p and my reputation as a sunny optimist is gone forever. (Even if, in reading back this blog, I spend far too much time in the f life mode, given how 90 per cent of my life rocks.)

On Lady Elliot, I did my second tour of duty as an Earthwatch volunteer. Not as many manta rays as in September, but I had one face-to-face beautiful encounter, which made the week worthwhile all on its own – plus, it was a never-seen-before very large (read: five metre wingspan) female so I got to name it. Introducing Lana Del Ray (see what I did there? Ray and Rey? Working on so many levels … well, two). I cut together a highlights video of her, but Youtube chopped out the music (Lana Del Rey: “Blue Jeans”) because it suspected copyright breach. Those spiders don’t miss a thing.

So I’ve cut together a broader highlights video of the week underwater, if you feel like a break from hockey. It only goes for six minutes. You’ll drool with envy. Lana Del Ray is the manta in the close-ups. The sharks kick in at about 3.49, if you can’t bear to watch six minutes of fish and other critters.

So that’s been my week. Now back in civilization and happily exhausted.

In other news, my footy team, Richmond, apparently looked good in the pre-season competition. The Red Wings’ astonishing home-winning streak is now at 22 wins and has broken all NHL records. Physically spent from the north, I lay on my couch today and watched a replay of the historic 21st straight home win on Gamecenter on my Apple TV. It was brilliant. The crowd at the Joe in the final minute was out-of-control loud and excited. I got emotional listening to the fans, now able to imagine being there. And of course they played “Don’t Stop Believin’“. One day I will hear that song in that stadium. (But no, Detroiters, I’m not coming anywhere near the city or the Joe while the streak remains! You can relax.)

Closer to home, the world junior speed skating championships will retain a hold on my home rink, the Henke, for another week or so, so I plan to go to Sydney for work and then non-work shenanigans before classes start again.

For now, I need to sleep and will hopefully ditch my usual yearnings for happy dreams of manta rays and Stanley Cups. Let’s go Red Wings, let’s go.