NCAA Men’s Basketball, or How Much Older than Him Do I Have to Be to Qualify as a Cougar?

I rolled into downtown Pittsburgh to find the streets lined with banners carrying a familiar logo — the minimalist blue orb of the NCAA. On a Cincinnati-bound round trip, I had accidentally made an over-night pit-stop in the city hosting part of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships.

For a single girl in her 20s, arguably, this was a very good accident.

My hotel entrance was adorned with welcome signs — a sure sign that inside I would likely uncover the gold at the end of the rainbow. When I found myself in the lobby surrounded by a heard of college boys in track suits, coaches, trainers and chaperones, I was glad I had opted to put on lipstick before exiting the highway.

The testosterone was palpable and there was only one thought on my mind: how much older than the guy do I have to be to qualify as a cougar?

Coming back downstairs in heels and my little black ensemble was going to be a wasted effort. It was clear these boys were all business.

But then again, that’s what March Madness is all about — the business of being an athlete.

I was an All-American in college. Not in basketball — in fact, I’m terrible at basketball, like, even embarrassingly terrible at H.O.R.S.E. No, I was an All-American in fencing. So even though my March Madness and their March Madness were very different, standing in the lobby, surrounded by the NCAA Championship banners and athletes in warmups, brought back a flood of memories.

March was always a month I dreaded.  There was always pressure, and in my sport, earning a berth at the championships meant out-performing and even beating your own teammates. In the heat of it, qualifying to go to the NCAA Championships felt like something I was not only expected to do, but entitled to do. Qualifying was something to take personally. For a long time, I felt like I’d failed because I only qualified to compete at the tournament 3 out of my 4 competitive years.

Earning one of these trophies is a pretty big deal, and we couldn't wait to get our hands on that piece of wood

That was a silly attitude to have. But as they say, with age comes wisdom.

In my hotel in Pittsburgh, I was excited… and not just because of the smorgasbord of unsuspecting, 6’4 college-age boys at my finger tips. I was excited for them and what they’d accomplished.

Over the next few days, all but one of these teams will get knocked out. On their way home, they’ll feel like they failed — you’re only as high as your last win. But one day, like me, they’ll turn to look at their top-4 trophy and realize that making it this far is pretty awesome.

Very awesome. Go get ’em.

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