When I was in middle school, I joined the cross-country and track-and-field teams.
For a long time, I was not good. Very, very not good.
But I did it anyway: I went to practices, I occasionally did some extra running before school and on weekends, and I worked on form and mobility.
And, I have to admit, part of the allure of cross-country and track-and-field was the fact that they provided an area of my life where I did not have to excel. I was an A student, an artist, a musician, and a top-notch cook, and it was a bit of a relief to have something in my life that I could just do for the sake of doing it, something for which just okay was good enough.
But then came race days, with the tracked split times and the clear winners and losers. I was less fond of race days.
Believe it or not, I didn’t much care for losing, let alone for being aware of just how far removed my times were from the winners’ times.
Still, I kept with it. I did my best to not let my jealousy and disappointment get the best of me on race days, and instead to focus on the camaraderie between me and my teammates and the simple rhythmic joys of running.
That continued until one track meet towards the end of my seventh-grade year. I was running in the 800-meter event, and something came over me… I just let go, and I ran!
Not only did I run, I won. It was like it came out of nowhere. I could see the surprise on my coach’s and teammates’ faces: I’m sure my face looked much the same.
But then I noticed something else: the faces of the other girls who had been in the race. The defeat, loss, frustration, and jealousy that I knew all too well was present to different degrees in all of their expressions. And, because I was so familiar with those feelings, I had a quite unexpected response to my first athletic victory:
I felt sad for them, and even felt a little bit like I should apologize.
That weekend, I confided to my dad what I had felt after my win, and he said something to me that I’ve never forgotten:
“You didn’t beat them: you showed them their potential.”
He then continued: “If you have a gift, don’t ever hold it back to make others more comfortable: that’s not only a disservice to you, but to all who meet you.”
Since then, I’ve kept that in mind whenever I’ve been in a competitive situation, athletic or otherwise. If I am not the winner or person selected, I can choose to be inspired by the work and efforts of the person who is, rather than feeling defeated or resentful. If I am the winner or person selected, I can relate to that success in a way that is humble and that keeps my connection to others in the forefront of my attention.
Last week, I was training at a gym that I don’t usually get to train at: while there, I began a conversation with a kick-ass 48-year-old woman who recently participated in her first triathalon. She was looking on in admiration at several of the feats of strength that were being performed by several of the gym’s members, and what came out of my mouth was:
Just earlier today, I competed in the WNPF World Tournament of Champions in Rochester, NY. I did quite well: I set competition PRs in all three lifts and several national records for the federation. Throughout the course of the day, more than one of the people who had come to watch me compete asked me how they could get started with barbell training, and I recognized something in their eyes: the awakening awareness of their potential.
Maybe they’ll take up lifting, maybe they won’t: either way, that newly sparked fire in their eyes is sure to lead them somewhere good.
I also got to witness the performance of Willie Murphy, a 78-year-old woman who regularly competes in powerlifting meets, setting records with a smile. This was the second time I was lucky enough to compete with her, and it really is a pleasure. And in a very important way, she shows me my potential: she is an exemplar of how to train in a way that is sustainable across years and decades, in the interest of maintaining happiness and independence rather than injuring oneself in pursuit of ego.
I saw the bigger men benching as much as I can deadlift, and felt inspired by the potential of the human body for strength in movement.
I saw an 11-year-old boy competing in the same meet as his dad, and felt inspired by the potential of athletics to create bonds between friends and within families.
I saw a coach competing alongside one of her clients, and the ways that she encouraged and sustained him when he was face-to-face with his nerves and insecurities were an illustration of the potential for sincerity and selflessness in the coach-client connection.
Everywhere I looked, I saw people demonstrating in countless ways the beautiful potential of the human body, mind, and heart.
You know that old cliché, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game”?
I’m going to take that just a step further: it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s what you learn and teach along the way.
Victory can be sweet. But what is even sweeter is the sight of human beings living up to their potential… and in doing so, inviting others to do the same.