A summer of sour looks from his hardworking peers was echoing in the back of Conrad's mind. While they toiled away in the blistering sun earning their winter shares, he spent most of the summer and the spring before that practicing the whirl ball course. To them, it was play, a game he wasted his time with. But they knew, at least as well as he did, that Conrad ran the course better than anyone they'd ever seen. Better than anyone here on Norria, and with a grace that made pros like Mary Rucker or Jose Sandanarro look like rusty machines. So he practiced, and tried to keep his eyes on the target.
All for this, the Whirl Ball Sector Qualifiers. A breakout performance here was the path to professional sponsorship, and eventually even a team invitation if he was lucky. But the Qualifiers were notoriously unforgiving. All the practice in the world doesn't much matter if you can't perform under pressure, and this was by far the biggest crowd he'd ever been in front of. There were more people in public bleachers than there were residents in Conrad's settlement, and almost an equal number of talent scouts, managers, and sports reporters packing in the other half of the stadium. The course, built to the same specifications as the practice course at home, looked larger and more daunting than ever under the flood lights. Crisp and clean and polished, with none of the scuffs and scratches that gave his home course character, Conrad almost felt like he was seeing a new course entirely.
60 seconds, 50 targets, 20 platforms and 3 whirl balls. These were the ingredients that were about to decide his future. He ran the course in his mind reflexively, counting off each target, mapping the platform route, recovering rebounds. He imagined the three and a half steps he needed land the Thompson Gap Transfer, he envisioned the torque required for the Double Dip. He pantomimed the No-Look Sprinter Rebound sequence, including his secret ricochet optimization. He knew the steps, the jumps, the throws, and the angles, all that was left was to execute. He lost himself for a moment in a daydream, daring to dream about sponsorship and recognition, a career, a future.. off the farm. A twinge of guilt washed over him, and reminded him to focus. The potential glory and fame were only the icing, he was here to bring home the cake. The Prize Board.
24 categories to contend in, from Fastest Completion and Fewest Throws, to more subjective metrics like Freshest Approach and Most Significant Optimization. Each category awarded to a single runner at the ending ceremony, based on specialized judge panels, and each worth three harvest tokens. Enough for three shares of winter rations, this was Conrad's real goal. To place on the Prize Board would justify his wasted summer and then some. But Conrad was dreaming bigger, he wanted four prizes. Twelve tokens. To get there, he targeted 9 prize categories. "Fastest 5 Target Streak", "Shortest Contact with Platform", "Most Acrobatic Jump", and a few more that had to do with optimizing scoring sequences to maximize bonus points. These were the areas he'd spent all summer honing and refining. These were why his friends would find him practicing a single leap for days, sunrise to sunset. These were why he was here.
As he walked down the tunnel to the field, his mind was buzzing with so many thoughts, he could barely hear the roaring crowd. Standing at the edge of the field, he felt sunken in, watching his body take position from somewhere far away, and he wondered if the pressure was too much. In all his practice, he'd never even considered that the first step might be the hardest. Was this it? Did he put in all this work just to choke in front of everyone? Was he really going to let his mind get in the way of what he knew his body could achieve? A league official approached, and saw the panic on Conrad's face.
"Kid, you're looking worried, but don't worry. I know what you're thinking."
Startled from his internal meltdown, Conrad only replied with a confused expression.
"You're wondering if you can do it. Everyone does, when they're here at the start line. All that practicing, and they still wonder if they're ready. Well, you're not."
"Excuse me?" As if Conrad wasn't under enough pressure on his own, now this?
"You're not ready. Don't take it personal, I'm sure you're going to do great. But you're missing something."
"Oh yeah? What's that?" Conrad asked, sounding somewhere between offended and morbidly curious.
"These." The official held up a carrying case with three fresh, tournament sanctioned whirly balls. "You can't run the course without your whirlers. So here they are. Now you've got everything you need. You're done preparing, kid, it's show time."
Conrad reached out to grab the whirly balls, and as his fingers felt the familiar grips and seams, instinct took over. All his thoughts, worries, and fears evaporated, his mind filled with nothing but his routine. A singular focus grabbed him so hard that it wasn't until he was on the finish platform that he caught his breath and realized he was done. Looking around the crowd screaming cheers around him, Conrad tried to recall his run. How did he do? He couldn't remember, it was a blur. Seconds crept on like hours as he waited for the scoreboard to update with official metrics. He scanned the crowd desperately, trying to read the reactions off the faces of the spectators as they all stared anxiously at the scoreboard. Except one, the official, who caught Conrad's gaze and with a slight smile and a simple nod set Conrad's heart to rest. The lights on the scoreboard flickered with new data, and the stadium erupted with a ferocity that shook the moons in the sky above. History was made that day, and a future was born.