My First UK Walk in Wellies

I was excited as a two-year-old to take my first walk in wellies across the beautiful British countryside (I am easily amused.) Wellies, the symbol of British culture, reflect the lasting legacy of the Duke of Wellington and the term carries a sense of tradition, practicality, and British identity.

Wellies, aka. Wellington boots, date back to the 18th century. Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, enlisted his shoemaker to modify a military Hessian boot. Originally designed for battle, wellies were later used by farmers and outdoorsmen.

In the early 19th century, they became a staple of practical foot wear for the British aristocracy and middle class and a popular choice for various occasions, including evenings out.

“Everyone in England has a pair of wellies, “Larissa explained. “In the UK, the public has the right away to cross the fields. It’s known as Public Bridle Way.”

When our son, Nic, bought me a pair, I thought they looked so chic that I could wear them as dress boots, which many people do these days. Wellies evolved from being purely functional to becoming fashionable accessories with many brands offering trendy designs, colors and styles.

“Don’t you have wellies in the US?” my British daughter- in-law asked surprised at my exuberance.

“In the Midwest, we swap out tennis shoes directly for winter boots,” I said, “Only thing close to your wellies was the clunky, buckle up galoshes we wrestled on over shoes in grade school.”

The British waterproof gumboots are usually made from rubber or PVC. Traditionally Wellies come in black, olive green, tan color or print and hit just below knee level.

Walking in wellies looks simple, but it takes dexterity. Larissa’s family maneuvered the rough terrain far better than me or Gerald. Could advancing in gumboots be skill passed down from one generation to the next?

Fortunately, before we left home, Larissa advised, “Wear heavy socks to prevent blisters.”

“Slip your orthopedics inserts in the boots,” Nic, the chiropractor added. “It may help your back.”

Nothing helped my spine; I winced every step forward. The UK family, even Lari’s sister lugging her ten-month-old child in a baby carrier, glided across the uneven terrain gracefully. I lumbered along behind, as if on two left feet, stumbling every step of the way.

Wellies, designed to protect feet from getting muddy or wet in damp environments, are the quintessential symbol of British footwear. To the non native, they feel awkward and offer little support for someone with like me with crooked toes, poor balance and a bad back.

Today's wellies, with varied color options and patterns, permit people to add personal style to functional footwear. They can be paired to match every outfit and occasion.

But no one wears wellies with greater style and aplomb than five-year-olds. Larissa and Nic’s nephew mastered the skill. In his “dinosaur” wellies, with a jagged flap along the spine of boot, he galloped ahead, circled back and jumped in every puddle along the way.

For me, slipping on a pair of “wellies,” sloshing along the sublime English countryside and singing with our UK side of the family made me feel like a kid again.

Happy New’s Year Eve 40th Wedding Anniversary

Forty years ago on New Year’s Eve 1983, I said, “I do,” in a seventeenth century chapel in France, not far from the famous WWII Landing beaches. What are the odds of a small town girl from the cornfields of Illinois meeting a French boy raised by the sea in Normandy?

 

 

Where else could we have fallen in love at first sight?
At a basketball game in Paris, of course!

We had just lost the finals of the French championship by one point. I met Gerald in the aftermath, so he witnessed my storm after a big game loss. He asked me out anyway.

Our wedding feast, so French, pheasant pate, fish in cream sauce, "trou Normand" sorbet, leg of lamb and pastries, with different wines and alcohols went on for hours. When the clock struck midnight the crazy uncles handed out party hats and pea shooters and turned the event into a New Year Eve party.

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We had no clue what we were getting into.

Challenges await across cultural marriage…endless official legal paperwork, les faux pas, the misunderstandings, the sacrifices, the compromises.

Opposites do attract. Gerald was a steady, pragmatic, realistic businessman with his feet planted firmly on the ground; I was an intuitive, impetuous, irrational dreamer living in the clouds.

But we were so alike in other ways. Both of us are ultra competitive, hyper-intense Type A’s. Our arguments could rock the roof off our old apartments in Paris, but though we do disagree at times, we are also fiercely protective and supportive of one another’s goals.

Together we endured heartbreaking losses — my career ending car accident, my miscarriages, my brain injury.

But our rewards were great; none greater than watching a bright, adventuresome daughter and a clever, witty son grow strong on basketball courts across Switzerland and go onto become doctors.

Gerald is so dependable, loyal, trustworthy, a man of integrity, but equally intimidating with his French sarcasm and quick temper. I am an overly emotional writer type that wears her heart on her sleeve.

Gerald, not a big talker, is the strong silent type. I compensate for his lack of verbosity by babbling nonstop.

I stood by his side when we laid his parents (our dear Papie & Mamie) to rest; he cradled my heart the day my dad died. As the years go by, we appreciate even more how much grandparents enriched our children’s lives and our own.

Though getting from one continent to the other has never been easy, we shared the best of both worlds. I learned to savor his French family dinners that went on for hours, he grew to appreciate my Midwest America at its best — corn on the cob and backyard BBQs.

We learned to compromise. He’ll never love burgers, but found a recipe for meatballs with ground beef that he enjoys too. I’ll never appreciate fois gras and raw oysters, but I savor the French art of savoir-faire when it comes to fine dining.

Over the years our love grew stronger strolling the beaches of his homeland Normandy and walking through the woods of our family cabin in Wisconsin, traveling throughout the Old World and sharing the bench on basketball courts, cheering on many kids, our own and others.

Whenever I crawled in despair, ready to give up, he pulled me back up on feet and encouraged me to keep fighting. When my book, represented by 3 agents couldn’t find a home, he made sure my story got published. When the school where I taught and coached wanted me to be a keynote speaker at graduation, he persuaded me to rise to the challenge. After my brain surgery, when I feared my words would jumble, he urged me to speak at Illinois State University’s Title XI celebration as a part of US women’s athletic history.

I supported him through seven different moves from assistant director to CEO, helping our kids readjust and remaking our lives.

He applauded my success as a coach and supported our children by volunteering as a score table official and team chauffeur.

On our wedding night, we united different generations of American, French and Germans, once enemies, to a shared table in Normandy, in the very land where their countries had fought each other. In our marriage, raising two bicultural, international kids as global ambassadors, we always strived to bring people together.

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Gerald made me a better me. After forty years of triumphs and tribulations, I helped bring out the best in him. We became more together, than we could ever be alone.

I raise my glass to us, and to our family and friends around the globe!

Happy New Year!

Hometown Engraved in Heart Forever

 

Many Sterlingites moved away from town, but like me still bleed blue and gold. Like a tattoo, our Sterling High School days remain ingrained in our hearts.

Decades ago, I moved to Europe to pursue my crazy (at that time) dream to play pro basketball, but Sterling has remained my chez moi. Relocating dozens of times between four different countries, my family, my hometown, my community remained my anchor.

Others SHS graduates have moved across the States, but remained tied to places like Coletta, Woodlawn, Jefferson,Washington and good ol’ SHS. For some local families - Dietz, McKinzie, Smith, Yemm, Zion - our parents serving as teachers, coaches, administrators formed bricks in the foundation of SHS. Following generations became pillars of strength in our own professions and communities.

During turbulent times, on the heels of the civil and women’s rights movements, high school sports united gender, race and economic backgrounds in a sense of community on Sterling’s stellar courts, fields and stadium.

I was a pioneer in the infancy of Title IX, before girls state championships existed. That title belonged to my dad, my younger sister, Karen, and her teammates.

Title IX June 23, 1972, a federal civil rights law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in any educational institution that received federal funding made this opportunity possible. It leveled the playing fields for women in sport and education opening doors to careers in law, medicine, and science careers.

SHS implemented Title IX faster than other communities, so Sterling girls gained gender equity sooner than those living in other parts of the country. Consequently, the time was right for our beloved 1977 1st state championship girls basketball team to triumph.

We must never forget the sacrifices of those who came before us.

Could hard fought Title IX’s rights be revoked like some of our other recently overturned civil liberties?

An attack on any one of women’s rights is an attack on all of our rights.

Title IX gave me the opportunity to become the first female athletic scholarship recipient at Illinois State University, a 1st women’s pro league draftee, and one of first American females to play overseas. No one remembers my name. No matter. What matters is that we earned the right to do these things.

“Your role,” my friend Phil reminds me, “was to lead others to the promised land.”

Back in the day, the only glory I had, was beating him one on one. He taught me the sky hook, behind the back dribble and other moves of the NBA, skills that I fine tuned playing pick-up ball with boys in Homer Musgrove Fieldhouse.

In the 70s and early 80s, girls’ basketball was still taboo, which forced me abroad to play the game I loved.

Coaches Phil Smith and Jim McKinzie

Every step of my way, mentors guided me, beginning with my dad and Phil Smith at SHS, Jill Hutchison at ISU, and then Henry Fields, father of French basketball, who took me under his wing when I coached in Europe.

After my playing career ended in a car accident abroad, I followed in their footsteps becoming a coach. For the next three decades, I passed on their knowledge of the game in France and Switzerland. My career can’t be measured in championships, but in the strength of character of those I coached, who later advocated for social justice in their own homelands.

Nothing was a given. Nothing was taken for granted. Nothing was accomplished without gratitude.

As a kid, I felt lucky to grow up playing safely outdoors in Sterling. During backyard games, we learned to share, negotiate and resolve differences. Later at SHS, we honed our skills in athletic facilities finer than any I’ve ever seen in Europe.

I could lament that I sacrificed my body and soul to basketball without ever receiving accolades, sponsorships, and financial rewards of today’s female basketball stars. Or I could feel blessed to have been there when it all began, to play my humble part in history. I will be forever grateful that I fulfilled my calling passing on my love of the game to hundreds of international athletes including my daughter and son.

As the granddaughter of Coach “Mac” Ralph McKinzie and daughter of Coach Jim McKinzie, I grew up with a legacy of integrity. I was a product of Sterling High School, a Golden Warrior and an Illinois State Redbird, raised in the Land of Lincoln.

Fran Smith clears the lane

I touched the lives of kids from around the globe,

But I never forgot my heritage,

I always honored my roots.

Every challenged faced,

I remained Warrior Strong.

No matter where I live,

My McKinzie heart beats blue and gold.

How Jump Shot Lessons Apply to Life

A few years ago, a coaching buddy, my son’s former club coach, asked me to work with his teenaged son to fix what he calls, “ Ugliest shot ever seen.”

I was humbled that a former pro player thought enough of my coaching ability to seek my input. His kid could dribble a ball left handed as well as right before he could tie his shoes. He became one of the best ball handling and passing point guards in Switzerland.

But somewhere along the way, some well-meaning instructor probably tried to teach him too early the cockamamie, off balance, fall away, game highlight shots of NBA players, who only mastered this move after practicing proper form for a billion hours.

Call me Old School, but fundamentals still matter especially when learning a new skill. I developed my shooting prowess because I learned the basics early on from Coach Dad, who passed down the protocol from his dad, Coach Mac.

Hour after hour, as dad rebounded my shots, he calmly repeated the same mantra, one-two step, load, lift, release, follow through.

I perfected my shooting form during endless practice until “eyes on the rim, elbow in, feet squared, body balanced, right foot forward, knees bent, wrist cocked, follow through” became branded into my muscle memory.

Kids never realize how much time it takes to learn a jump shot nor how much longer it takes to unlearn poor form once muscle memory takes over.

A jump shot is fine art.

Perfection takes practice.

But jump shot advice could apply to learning any new skill.

Keep your eye on the target.

Stay balanced. Feet, hips, shoulders, elbow, knee, ankle aligned.

Legs provide power, arms lift, fingertips guide.

Shoulders back. Chin up. Eyes forward. Soft touch. Stay focused.

When everything goes catawampus, start over.

Hum a song. Get a rhythm.

Snap the wrist.

Follow through.

Always finish.

Shoot. Rebound. Repeat.

Just like in life.

On your journey, step to meet the pass.
Whatever comes your way, don’t duck, rise to the challenge.
Read the defense and recognize obstacles blocking your way.
If you miss the goal, don’t give up, aim higher.

Never neglect to acknowledge the person who gave you the assist.
No one is alone in the game.

Old Friends Forever Family

Girlfriends get us through tough times, celebrate our victories and always got our back.

In our senior year at Illinois State University, I shared a townhouse off campus with five friends. We called ourselves family.

Ever loyal fans, they supported me my final season of college basketball that began badly with a back injury. Frustrated by the setback, I limped in walking crooked. They welcomed me home by tilting the wall pictures sideways too.

When my younger sister needed a place to stay, they squeezed her in. I forfeited my spot in our triple, moved to the basement, slept on a mat on the floor and stored clothes in cardboard boxes. In the dungeon, I never heard my bunkmates’ early alarm clock with the darn dozer button. It never felt like a sacrifice until the basement flooded.

Only one housemate was my biological sibling, but we called each other sisters, except for the most responsible one in the group, who we nicknamed mom.

“The family” was always there for me.

Every happy occasion we played our theme song, “We are Family,” and danced our fool heads off.

They hugged me goodbye at the airport, when I chased my dream to play pro ball in Paris. After my career ending car accident in France, they flew abroad to urge me to keep fighting. They held my hand when I lost my first baby in an harrowing miscarriage at an isolated cabin in the woods. When our children were still young enough to drag around, we gathered for “family reunions” on my stateside visits.

When my dad died, they flew in from all over to attend his memorial service. The only one who could not be there sent her husband as a stand in.

Forty-five years after college graduation, during a bitter cold January, they drove six hours to Minneapolis to see me before I flew back home to Switzerland.

My husband, bless his little cotton socks, catered to us. Like a 5 star French chef, he served fine wine, "boeuf bourguignon", and "mousse au chocolat". Over champagne, we toasted to ISU, to friendship, to resiliency. We survived thyroid cancer, breast cancer, brain surgery, a car wreck and other calamities.

None of us followed the traditional script. We navigated divorce, death of a spouse, childbirth, adoption, step-children, cross cultural marriage and grandchildren.

We shared highlights and hardships, disappointments and disasters, triumphs and tragedies.

We attained lofty goals becoming a pro athlete, a physical therapist, teachers, coaches, and administrators. We raised families, nurtured aging parents, dedicated our careers to helping others.

We treasured memories of that special time as college students when we starred in our own life stories savoring lazy weekends, crazy keggers and Florida spring break.

Never again would we be so carefree or live under the same roof, but we knew we could count on each other forevermore. Always. Til death do us part.

Thankfully, we are all still here.

Dancing!

“We are Family. I got all my sisters with me!”

My Bucket List for Midwest

I left the Midwest 43 yrs ago, but I didn’t move to the glamorous coasts - Boston, NYC, LA - nooo I flew across the Big Pond, landed in Paris and picked up a Frenchman.

Reading The Midwest Survival Guide: How We Talk, Love, Work, Drink and Eat…Everything With Ranch by Charlie Berens, a comedian and award winning journalist raised in a family of 12 kids in Wisconsin, brought back memories of my childhood. Though I’ve been back to the states many summers, some Midwestern things I have yet to experience.

Here is my bucket list.

  1. Ice fishing - My brother-in-law or nephew-in-law would let me to tag along and hang out in their ice hut, but I could not survive sitting through a snow storm on a frozen lake in a canvas tent without electrically heated long underwear.

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  2. Tailgating - It sounds about as much fun as partying in a “boot.” American trunks are bigger European homes, but why sit in a parking lot outside a stadium during miserable weather to grill hotdogs and drink beer if you can’t see the football game? I’d rather pull on my favorite team logo t-shirt, park my butt in a comfy recliner in front of 100 inch, high resolution TV screen and watch the game while my Frenchman serves a 5-course meal with a fine wine.
  3. Go to a State Fair - I could plan a visit to coincide with my summer stateside, but any state fair would set off panic attacks from sensory overload. The thought of noisy crowds, clashing colors, weird odors and tastes of inedible concoctions - chocolate covered bacon, cheese on a stick, or fried snicker bars, Oreos, pickles or deep fried anything - makes me nauseous. Even the classic corn dogs, funnel cakes, cotton candy sound dodgy.
  4. I would love to try Minnesota’s Sweet Martha’s Chocolate Chip Cookies, but why bother when my family has our own “Susie Sugar’s to-die-for-chocolate-chip treats”. Beloved Aunt Sue makes batches by the pound full and keeps them “hidden” in freezers. Her nieces and nephews grew up believing Midwestern ice boxes were magic because every time they opened the door, cookies tumbled out.
  5. I love American sports, but some games don’t appeal to me whatsoever such as corn bags, beer pong, or what Charlie Berens calls, testicle toss (ladder toss). Then again I have never taken an interest in the favorite French past time - giant marbles for adults - better known as boules.
  6. A traditional backyard bonfire sounds cool, but only "sans moustiques"!
  7. Seeing a Greenbay Packer’s football game at Lambeau Field tops my wish list. For better or worse, love ‘em or hate ‘em - no matter what you think of this year’s squad - no arena in the world can compare to the ambiance at Lambeau.

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    The Greenbay Packers, America’s third oldest franchise, founded in 1919 have won the most NFL championships, remain the last “small town team” and are the only team in the league owned by the fans. Imagine the thrill of sitting on that sacred frozen tundra with thousands of cheese-headed spectators screaming and catching players doing the Lambeau leap.

What is on your bucket list? With the dollar high as it is these days, never has the time been better to enjoy your dream travel to Europe. So come on over, but don’t put us only your stop over list yet. Our house building project has been put on hold again due to “snow season.” Duh, of course, it snows in the Swiss Mountains in winter.