I come from an incredibly competitive family. When we play Scategories, we regularly argue that my sister Katie is cheating, largely because she’s more cultured and has more creative answers than the rest of us. My other sister, Betsy, demands Pictionary be played out to second place despite there only being three teams. I enjoy being the toughest in the family, proudly bragging to friends of a broken leg and a six-time broken nose (one of which came at the hands of my sister, or rather, the back of her head). All of my family enjoys competing, and all of us enjoys winning.
Family board games are wonderful competitive activities, but they do not provide the self-discipline and competition with self that I need. In high school, wrestling provided that outlet for determination, grit and challenge. After high school, I shared that grit with others by coaching. Since transitioning to coaching wrestling after high school, I have turned to lifting weights for my competitive outlet. Earlier this summer, I signed up for my first ever USAPL sanctioned powerlifting meet. I spent most of the summer away from my coaches in New York. As such, my lifting form suffered and was noticeably off when I came back to my gym. I stubbornly tried to get back to my former state. I had high expectations for myself. As the meet approached, I felt confident that I had regained both my strength and lifting form. My numbers weren’t exactly where I left off in spring, but I could set new personal records at the meet.
When I signed up, I saw only six others in my weight class, giving me a great boost of confidence. I thought I could place in the top three. The day of the meet, I walked out for my first attempt on squats, a little nervous, but knowing that I could easily make the weight.1 Typically, a lifter’s first attempt is a weight they can accomplish on their worst of days. I gripped the bar, tucked my shoulders underneath, backed out of the rack, and looked up at the head referee for the commands. Focusing intently and drowning out the music, I dropped into the squat and came back up with good speed. After racking the weight, the volume seemed to come back on.
I watched the rest of my weight class complete their first tries before we all moved on to our second attempts. After the first attempts, I knew I was unlikely to win. As we moved into the bench press portion, I realized I probably would not even place in the top three. My confidence began to taper. I approached my first bid on bench press with renewed nerves. Forgetting to listen to the referee’s command, I failed the first attempt for starting early.
I walked toward my dad who held my premade guide of what weights to try.2 Behind him, ten friends and Jesuits cheered and waved signs for “KING KEN” to match my “Quad-zilla” socks. My coach came over to talk with me. He clearly saw the thoughts of failure rapid firing through my head. Looking at me, he calmly said, “You’re going to do a bigger second attempt, right? You forgot the commands, but you crushed that weight. Just calm down a bit, set it up, and you’ve got it.”
Honestly, I considered abandoning the meet. But looking at my supporters, particularly my dad, I knew that simply could not be an option. I remembered the song “My Hero” by The Dropkick Murphys:
“I wouldn’t trade your wisdom, Dad | I thank you for your time. | You said “Son, keep on working | ‘till the stars one day align.” | But maybe luck don’t seem to shine | on stubborn fools like me and you. | Make the most of what they give you, | To yourself you must be true.”
Quitting because I wouldn’t win certainly would not have been true to who I am. So I had to ask myself — Why compete if I know I won’t win?
* * *
Tuesday night after my meet, I watched the ESPN program E:60 on Willie Burton, a wrestler from Fairdale, Kentucky. Born two months prematurely, Willie has cerebral palsy. In middle school, he participated in sports designed for physically handicapped children. But these sports gave Willie no satisfaction. Participation medals felt cheap. Willie wanted to earn his victories.
Entering high school, Willie chose to wrestle. Despite little mobility in his legs and trouble with grip in his right hand, Willie passed the school physical and joined the wrestling team. His freshman year, he wrestled twenty matches. He lost all of them, while his dad painfully watched his adopted son struggle with no wins to his name. In the off-season, Willie trained with the other wrestlers, racing his wheelchair around the track as the others ran. His fierce dedication yielded no wins sophomore or junior year. His father admitted that sometimes he hoped Willie would quit. Even Willie asked himself a similar question to my own: why go on the mat if he couldn’t win?
But he stayed with the sport. In the second to last match of his senior season, Willie entered the final period tied with his opponent. After a scramble, he sealed a cradle, turned his opponent, and secured his first ever victory. He finished high school with over 100 loses and just one win. Wrestling great Dan Gable narrated Willie’s story. Gable only lost one match in college — the championship match his senior year, and subsequently went on to win an Olympic title without ever giving up a point. At the end of the program, Gable points out despite him having only one loss and Willie only one victory, they are both true champions. Willie’s father stated that the determination, will and desire exuded by his son caused him to reevaluate what it means to quit, win and compete.
* * *
Willie’s story returned me to the question of why I compete without the joy of winning. Some cliche adages try to make sense of it — “Look at how much you improved. Winning isn’t everything. You gave it your best. You’re only competing against yourself, so just win against you.” My least favorite is the athletic version of “It’s the journey that counts”: You’re a better person for competing. These statements are true as far as they go, but they don’t go very far. Especially in the moments immediately after a poor performance, they are sorely unsatisfying.
I started searching for deeper meaning in my competitions about two years ago. At some point, I decided to make the sign of the cross before each heavy lift and think quietly, “For the greater glory of God.” When reaching in to get the last bit of strength for a difficult lift, I sometimes imagine screaming out the AMDG (kind of like William Wallace). Being a bit of a long phrase, usually I content myself with “UP!”
But even that favorite phrase of Jesuits began to lose some potency. The athlete’s favorite bible passage, 1 Corinthians 9:24, brought some renewed understanding: “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win.” Again, however, it only staved off self-disappointment a short while.
* * *
At the competition, I finished fifth of nine lifters in my weight class, the top 30% of all lifters, and top third of all male lifters (based on Wilks points). My dad kindly listened through my disappointment as I told him of my finish. Surely Dad would understand. He has been at almost every competitive endeavor since kindergarten. He carried me to the emergency room when I broke my leg in soccer, and mopped my bloody face during wrestling matches. For me, his voice stands above the crowd in many senses. In an email after he returned home from the meet, he said, “Well, now you know where you stand. You finished fifth and you know what you need to do in training to get better.” It was an infuriatingly honest answer. It was also a great one.
Dad had little interest in letting me mope about my perceived failure. Rather, he wanted me to realize what I had accomplished (which was quite a lot) and what I need to do to continue growing. He wanted to love me.
Perhaps here is why I find such great joy in competing, even without the joy of winning. Competition gives many of us the opportunity for a deep sense of love. My family and friends showed up in great numbers at the meet. My sisters brag, “My brother is stronger than yours,” and my good friends joking add, “My Jesuit has the biggest muscles.”
Willie found new challenges, loyalty, friendship and meaning to his life on the wrestling team. Much the same happened in my own wrestling experience. As odd as it may sound, in my competitions, I get the opportunity to love those around me, and allow myself to be loved by them. I must run the race as if to win, lest I betray the love that enfolds me.
Cover image, “beat” by istolethetv via Flickr.