One of my weird little happinesses in life is watching TV coverage of certain sports, including swimming, diving, gymnastics and athletics. I’ve been in luck lately, then, as up until the weekend, when they came to a close, The Swimming World Championships were televised on BBC. I tuned in and very much enjoyed the coverage provided, marvelling at the skill and dedication of the athletes, and the sheer beauty and power of their performances in the water. This is not because I am a swimmer (I’m about as streamlined as a potato, though I float very well) or because I’m particularly interested in sport, but – for whatever reason – I really enjoy watching elite athletes, at the peak of their powers, compete against one another for records and medals and glory. Occasionally I wonder why it’s these particular sports which interest me; normally, I conclude it’s because these are the sports which I have the least possible chance of ever attempting.
I’ve never been a sporty type; like all Irish kids, I’ve had my hands on a hurl at some point in my life, though I never played the game of hurling (or ‘camogie’, the version of hurling kept ‘for girls’) properly. I’ve also tried hockey, soccer, and basketball, all very briefly. The only thing these sports have in common, from my point of view, is how useless I’ve been at all of them. There are some sports that I wouldn’t watch on TV if I can possibly help it – football (which in Ireland means Gaelic football), soccer, snooker, golf, rugby (unless pressed to, out of national pride if Ireland are playing, and even then I normally only care whether we win or lose), because I either find them boring or brutal, or a strange combination of the two; there’s something about swimming, though, that I love. It’s graceful, it’s noble and it’s all about the individual; it’s one person against the water.
As I watched the coverage, I was struck by the commentary, and the commentators’ opinion that the only important thing is to keep improving, keep getting better, keep shaving seconds off your finishing time, keep striving for those medals. However, at least seven, if not eight, people competed in each race, and – of course – there were only ever three medals on offer. Three of those competitors were going to be the best from the second they dived into the pool, and – perhaps – the remaining swimmers knew which three they were. Nearly every time, the commentators could predict who would place first, second and third – and if the commentators could guess, so too could the athletes. I kept thinking about the other five swimmers in that pool, all of whom work hard, all of whom train and toil and sweat and travel to endless competitions and meets and qualifiers, possibly living apart from their families for months on end in order to pursue their goals, and for what? To end up eighth out of eight in a race that they knew they were never going to win?
What happens if you do as well as you can, if you work as hard as you can, if you train as long as you can, and you still come in eighth out of eight?
There will always be people better than you, at everything you try. Always. This is a hard thing to learn. Even if you pour out every shred of your soul into a piece of work, and even if you practice and practice until you can’t even think straight any more, and even if you shed actual literal blood over something you love and want to excel at, someone will always be able to do it better. Even if you do win a gold medal or break a world record, there will always be someone who’ll break that record, or win more medals, or get higher marks, or win more competitions, or earn more money, than you do. It was ever thus.
Not everyone can come in first, second or third. Not everyone can stand on the winners’ podium and weep as their flag is raised. Not everyone can sing along to their national anthem and listen to the cheers of their supporters as they nibble on their gold medal. Everyone who competes in any sport, or in anything in life, knows this. There are athletes who know they’ll never manage to come first, who’ll never hang a gold medal around their neck, yet they still compete. They still work hard. They still strive, and try, and get up and do it all again, despite loss after loss. They do it to be the best they can be, not to be the best in the world. They do it to test themselves, to sound out their own depths, to live their life as fully as they can, to know themselves and their limits. It takes a strong person to get into a pool with a champion, knowing that they will not win the race; sometimes, though, knowing you’ll swim the best race you’re capable of swimming has got to be a good enough reason to pull on your suit and goggles, and give it a try.
If a person loves to swim, but they can’t bear the thought of losing race after race, and they end up never getting in the water, that’s a recipe for a sad and wasted life. I’d rather be a perennial loser who tries her absolute best than a person who’s too afraid of losing to even give her passion a try. It takes a lot more courage to give something a go when you know winning is a long shot than it takes to compete when you know you’re the best.
And no, of course, we’re not talking about swimming any more.