An Old Story, This Time With A Moral At The End

It was years ago and some of us were more athletic then, and some of us could run quite fast and jump quite long and we actually looked quite good in a singlet and reasonably short shorts. Up to a point: some of us were as pale skinned then as we are now and the look wasn’t all that godlike, but still, there were muscles where muscles are supposed to be and we walked on our toes and we didn’t admire ourselves in the mirror because we were young and fit and confident that nothing could touch us.

What could touch us were the athletes from the other schools we competed against. Our school was perennially terrible, at pretty much everything, except the stars had aligned and a generation of wonder boys had swept the whole school athletics team along with them as they progressed through the years and they were in Year 12 and it would be the school’s big chance to do something at the big carnival. A chance which might not come again, not for many years anyway, or, possibly, ever – which was a real consideration but simultaneously a thought too painful to really think about properly. The idea was to get it right now, to make the most of it.

Perhaps the serious planners – the older boys and senior coaches – never really thought we might come first in the carnival, but they never said that. They talked about winning. Incessantly. What it would take to win. How to be winners. Not in a ruthless and unpleasant way but as a wholistic approach which instructed us how to be the best we could be.

I was a sprinter and I was pretty good. Not the best in my age group – I’m rarely the best at anything – but I was in the relay team and I was one of the two long jumpers and I would have been one of the 400m runners but for some reason they only chose one competitor at that distance. By the time of the big end of season carnival I was in quite a lot of pain for most of the time. My left leg hurt when it was at rest and it hurt an awful lot more when I was using it to exercise. It was a pulled muscle in the quadriceps and the sort of explosive movements required to sprint and, especially, to compete in the long jump were hampered to crippling degree by such an injury, impairing performance, and at the same time these activities were almost calculated to make such an injury worse. My left leg was sore for months after the season was finished and arguably the effects of this injury can be felt still.

On the day of the big carnival the long jump was no good. Fouls and jumps of distances I had easily cleared at training just weeks before. And the Under-13 relay team didn’t perform as had been predicted. We all thought we would do well – we knew we would, we knew we should win – but sometimes you don’t and you just have to cop that.

Earlier in the day I had been forced to enter the high jump competition. This was not one of my events and, apart from mucking around on the huge, soft, thick mat they jump onto, I hadn’t had any practice at this discipline for years. Because I was not very good at it. At all.

But this was the one area that hadn’t been accounted for by the head coach. Somebody was absent or injured or something and they needed someone to enter and I was there so it had to be me. I didn’t want to do it. A kid I knew who was much better at the high jump than I was, refused to go in it, so it had to be me. It was raining and all the other competitors had wet weather gear and covers for their tracksuits and so on, and I had nothing. I put my track pants down in a wet pile on the tartan track near where I commenced the run-up for the three fouls I produced. Yes, not a single bar was cleared, but you got a point for competing and I told the marshall running the competition that I was only there for the points, but it was one point. A single point. He asked the competitors if they wanted to skip the next height and jump something higher and he asked me too, and I said that I hadn’t cleared it yet and he realised that was correct when he looked at his clipboard. People usually clear the first height. High jumpers do anyway, and I wasn’t a high jumper.

When all the points were calculated my school ended up coming third. This was a fine result and something to be proud of, which we were. Very much so. And much of the congratulation was directed at relay team of Year 12 boys who had narrowly come fourth and so earned us the point we needed to come third outright. But I knew. I knew that just as important was my point for coming last in the Under-13 high jump. That in a way I was a winner.

Sort of. If you stretch the definition of winner about as far as it will go. It was a joke, in a way, but true, too, in a way. That point was needed. All the points were needed. And I’ve never really forgotten that. Without wishing to manufacture a false moral to the story there was a lesson in how a group works and how people contribute to a group effort.

And, I think, a more important lesson about details. Maybe the vast majority of your effort is the same as someone else’s but one little, apparently insignificant thing can make the difference, and it can be the reason why you succeed or don’t succeed.

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Published in: on December 3, 2013 at 7:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

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