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Erasing Stigma One Sport At A Time

June 04, 2022 4 min read

Erasing Stigma One Sport At A Time

By Ray Glier

The people who showed up for The National Senior Games, the ones I talked to, are not easily crippled by calamity. They were not there to pick at scabs from some hurt, like being left off a team when they were 10, or some other worse indignity. It's rare to get this many people together and not find somebody angry about something, anything, left over from when they were a younger athlete.

How do they do it? Is it just the passing of time? How did they stay on an upward trajectory?

Some of them, like San Diego’s Lisa Hamel, are into vision boarding, the art of having forward-looking goals. Vision boarding is being on the lookout for something, anything, new to do, whether you see it in your mind's eye or you write it down, or cut out pictures and paste them into a journal.

Hamel, 62, was one of those 11,938 souls at The National Senior Games who has a juiced-up vision board. She walks out of the house in the morning in Jamul, east of downtown San Diego, and pets her goats, drinks her coffee, and plans “another glorious day" and is always on the lookout for something new.

The conscience of people like Hamel is filled with willpower. 

If you are having trouble letting go of what irks you, Hamel’s attitude could be a guide. But before I tell you part of her story, I’ll tell you about her National Senior Games’ effort/performance. 

It was nothing remarkable, no run of gold medals, nothing like that. Her basketball team, the Zips, won a silver medal. But before she did hoops, Hamel rocked her vision board. She jumped into track & field and got a bronze medal in the high jump. She was 4th in the discus, 4th in the shot, and 7th in the javelin.

Come to think of it, that is somewhat remarkable. High jumping at 62, throwing a shot, discus, and javelin at 62. You don't see that every day.

She was egged on by the stars of the Senior Games, like 100-year old Roy Englert running the 100. Hamel marveled over a woman competing with her in the shot, who had no greater ambition than to “make a legal throw” in the shot put.

**

It figures Hamel entered five events. She was a dynamo as a kid, too.

The front door was a turnstile heading outdoors. She was a goalie, a catcher, a football player, a hunter in the creeks, a dirt clod thrower, and pretty good in basketball. She grew up in Massachusetts and she sprawled herself out on the neighborhood with sports. She didn’t come back in the house until she was hungry.

Hamel had two older brothers who served in Vietnam. She has some Patriotism in her blood. She saw sacrifice up close, tragically, with one brother. Her quasi-big brother was a neighborhood man, who was a teacher, coach, friend, and weightlifter. Ricky Williams let her do stuff on the playing fields the boys usually did.

Hamel was wicked smart, as they say in Massachusetts. She was accepted into Yale, but couldn’t afford the Ivy League, and there were no athletic scholarships to be had. Michigan State offered her a basketball scholarship. So did Army.

Hamel went to West Point. It was good for a while, like a year. The coach was Joe Ciampi. I know Joe Ciampi and he is a character and a fine coach. He retired from college basketball coaching with 607 wins.

Hamel’s was just the third class at the U.S. Military Academy to accept women and you can imagine the extra hazing that accompanied early females in the Long Gray Line.

But the hazing was not the worst calamity to hit Hamel on the Hudson. Ciampi left for Auburn after her freshman year and Hamel’s new coach was a) not a good coach b) no fun c) mean. College coaches can be pillars for 20-year old’s when trouble hits, but not this woman.

Hamel had already decided to leave West Point in spring, 1980 when she was caught kissing the team’s manager, who was also a woman. Hamel was arrested and charged with sodomy. No joke.

“There is a witch hunt going on. They want you out of here,” Hamel’s lawyer said to her.

“You’re a sinner,” her coach told Hamels.

The parochial culture of the place took one last swipe at her. West Point would not give her credit for the second semester of work. 

“They had their own laws,” Hamel said.

Hamel can only shake her head with bewilderment at what life was like 42 years ago. There was an Honor Code and such things were not mentioned, even in private. You know it by Don't Ask Don't Tell.

“It messed me up pretty good,” Hamel said. “I probably should have gone for therapy.”

She refused to be marginalized. She followed Ciampi to Auburn and stayed for a year. Hamel left The Plains and attended UMass where she got a degree in engineering.

The scar? The leftover hurt? I didn’t see it when talking to her for 30 minutes. And that’s the point.

Hamel has two kids, 12 and 17, and a great job as a mechanical engineer and quality control manager with Bemer Group, which makes health devices (PEMF mats) for stimulating muscles by promoting better blood circulation.

She did not respond to the viciousness of being arrested at West Point with cynicism and bitterness that created a shadow over her. It happened. She moved on. Some people don’t.

Hamel unspooled for me what is important to her mental health.

“If you have the negative self-talk, that's bad,” she said. “You gotta be nice to yourself. Encourage yourself.”

Hamel remembers the taunts when she was a kid. She was better than the boys at some sports and that earned the expected stereotype that she was more boy than girl. Her response has been to continue to dive into things, like she was 11 again. 

Hamel plays Padel Tennis, which is a cross between squash and tennis and racquetball. She throws the discus, shot, and javelin in her backyard, which is 1½ acres of rural landscape 20 miles east of San Diego.

These days, if Hamel was on a poster, it would be her with her feet up smoking a cigar, just casual and surrounded by kids, goats, friends, and bats and balls. She didn't allow stigma to leave a scar across her psyche.

We should all strive for that frame of mind.

 

 


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