Before every race, Rosalie Fish stares at her reflection in the mirror. She pauses a few minutes and thinks of Indigenous women. Women who have gone missing, who have been murdered. Those whose names she knows, those whose names she’ll never know. Aunts, cousins, neighbors, classmates. Women who had families, who had ambitions. Who had children, friends, dreams, desires. She paints a giant red hand across her mouth, stretching across her cheeks. Red is the color that spirits, that ancestors, can see, according to some Native traditions. The hand over her mouth is meant to represent and honor the Indigenous women who have been silenced through violence—sexual violence, physical violence, psychological violence—an epidemic that receives little national attention. “I had always known I was a target,” Fish says.
When she feels as if she is running on shards of glass, when her legs feel like they are about to split open, when she thinks she can’t possibly run one more mile, Courtney Dauwalter starts visualizing the pain cave. It’s a place she constructs in her mind with elaborate detail. She conjures every crevice of the cave’s architecture: a large space with different tunnels inside. The cavernous paths in her mind can be wide or narrow, depending on the length and duration of the race. But with Courtney, they’re usually impossibly long. Dauwalter, 37, is considered the world’s best female ultramarathon runner. She might just be the greatest ultrarunner of all time, period. She races astonishing distances of 100- and 200-plus miles, even once attempting a 486-mile course. She is often on her feet for a mind-bending 24 or 48 straight hours, in the harshest environments imaginable, from steep terrain and high elevation to extreme weather.
Each race, she intends to go into the pain cave. She almost craves it. She warns herself, standing at the start line right before the gun goes off, that she is about to embark on another uncomfortable journey to the cave. “It’s not always going to feel great,” she tells herself. “But that’s going to make us better. We’re going to get better from visiting it.”
Austin Reaves took his customary seat in the back row of the Lakers’ meeting room while the team reviewed film from the previous night’s game against Oklahoma City. Lakers coach Frank Vogel paused the tape on a clip of Reaves defending Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who had the ball on the right wing. “Should we double? What do y’all think?” Vogel asked the group. Essentially, Vogel was asking if Reaves would need help—or if he would be able to handle the assignment by himself. LeBron James was the first to speak up, according to Reaves, asserting that he could take SGA by himself. A chorus of agreement poured in, with multiple players saying: “No, he can guard him.” Then Trevor Ariza chimed in: “This motherfucker can guard him,” Reaves remembers Ariza saying. “We don’t need to [double].”
Dozens of young girl hoopers logged on to their computers, hoping to virtually meet their idol. Usually they’d be lining a tunnel in Seattle, watching Breanna Stewart as she runs onto the court. No matter. The girls were just excited to see her on their screens. Watch her. Maybe even talk to her. The girls were wearing muscle tanks, shorts. They looked ready to compete. They looked like her. Stewart started setting up video calls with young girls’ teams across the country last spring, during the height of quarantine, hoping to inspire the next generation of players while gyms were still closed. She wanted to tell them how to challenge themselves (she has to make 100 3s before she leaves the gym, 10 in a row at each spot). And she wanted to tell them about the voice in her head. The one that pushes her, the one that chases perfection. I have to be the best. I have to be the best.
A couple more drives, a couple more minutes. Rewind, fast-forward. Rewind, fast-forward. There are hours of game film to dissect. It’s late at night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and the young man who shoulders the city’s dreams is not asleep. He’s mesmerized by the movements on the screen. Bryce Young needs to catch one last glimpse of film before he shuts his eyes. Never mind that no one has asked him to. Or that he has already watched plenty throughout the day, with his teammates, with his coaches; he wants more. He is attentive to detail when he watches film, same as when he plays. On the field, Young approaches the line of scrimmage almost knowing what’s about to happen, based on his initial look. He can see the play before the play—his mind moves quicker than his feet.
Evan Mobley’s family had a fish tank, filled mostly with oscar and African cichlids variations. One afternoon, his father Eric returned home and went to feed them. As he was facing the tank and preparing the fish flakes, a loud noise startled him. “WHOOP!”
He craned his neck and saw a pair of long legs whiz behind him. Eric realized those legs belonged to his youngest son. Evan, then a sixth grader and already taller than 6 feet, had performed a backflip over the marble floor in their house, shaking the ground upon landing on his feet. It could have been his head. Evan was thrilled. Eric was terrified.“Did you just do a backflip?!” Eric said. “Yeah, Dad!” Evan squealed. “Please don’t ever do that again,” Eric said, trying to maintain composure. “That is not safe.” Eric knew then: His son was different.
Giannis Antetokounmpo leans against a table at the Bucks practice facility in downtown Milwaukee and watches a boy dribble. The boy’s legs turn into scissors as he slices a basketball between them. A white band that says “God is here” dangles from the boy’s wrist, seeming to further lengthen his 7’2″ wingspan. He is 6’7″ and crafty. Energetic. Probably because he knows Giannis is watching. He yearns to impress Giannis, and Giannis in turn sees in him a younger version of himself. A slimmer version of himself. The boy starts toward the hoop from the three-point line and softly lays the ball in. Too softly. Giannis’ eyes narrow. His shoulders stiffen. There’s a sense of urgency. Always is when he watches 17-year-old Alex Antetokounmpo, his youngest brother, the one he nurtures, protects and mentors, almost like a father would. “I get more nervous going to watch Alex play in a high school game than playing in the Eastern Conference Finals,” Giannis says.
Cori Gauff was playing at a smaller pro tournament, with few people in the crowd, in Charleston, South Carolina, last spring. Her parents were there. Some local fans. But hardly anyone knew Gauff’s name that afternoon. She was only 15. Just starting to make her mark. Trying to prove she belonged on a court with women twice her age. She had maybe a few thousand Twitter followers. She wasn’t yet Coco. Right after her match, though, a little Black girl, about five years old, ran up to her and wrapped her arms around her. Barely up to Gauff’s knees, she hugged her for a few seconds and looked like she didn’t want to let go. “I like watching you play!” the little girl screamed, smiling.
Everything Rasul Douglas wanted seemed out of reach. He had just signed on to become a member of the Arizona Cardinals practice squad, and his NFL career to that point had been anything but stable. The cornerback had previously spent three seasons with the Eagles, helping them win Super Bowl LII in 2018, but the team waived him during final roster cuts in September 2020.
He spent the next season with the Panthers, finishing with a career-high 62 tackles (50 solo) and nine pass breakups, but was released after the season. Then the Raiders cut him. Then the Texans—a mere six days after they signed him in late August 2021. His next stop was the Cardinals, and he tried to stay optimistic about his chances to make it to the big team. But early on in his stint there, a security guard at the practice facility stopped him. The guard didn’t recognize him and wouldn’t let him into the building.
“Nah, I play here,” Douglas said, flashing his team-issued iPad. “Oh, well, we have to ask,” the guard said.
Brandon Ingram could hardly breathe. He’d try and try, inhaling deeply as he walked along the beach near his home in Los Angeles, but each attempt fell short. Stuck, somehow; a full breath just out of reach. He’d return home and continue to practice breathing by pacing up and down his four flights of stairs. But he’d still end up gulping for air, frustrated and confused. And more than a little scared. Not being able to do something so fundamental, so simple, was jarring. How am I ever going to get back to being the player I was? he’d think. It was March. He had just had surgery for deep venous thrombosis, also known as a blood clot, in his right arm, prematurely ending his third season for the Lakers. The two-hour procedure included removing part of his rib, which in turn, affected his lungs. His breathing. Doctors had him use a machine that prompted him to suck in air, and a corresponding tube would shoot up and down, telling him how much pressure he could produce. “First week, I’m coming up short. Real short,” Ingram says. “I kept building up, building up.” It took about a month to capture his normal cadence.