the ones who don’t win

August 5th, 2012

Last week a friend told me the story of how her daughter learned to swim. She refused at first, terrified that she would sink to the bottom and drown.

The fear of drowning is such an intelligent fear.

The instructor asked her how old she was.

“Five,” the girl answered.

“Five-year-olds don’t drown,” the instructor told her. And thus she learned to swim.

The story struck me for the brute genius with which it obliterated fear. But, of course, it was a lie.

Sometimes we lie a little. Sometimes we lie a lot.

We tell our children little lies for most of their young lives, because the lies are in service of a greater good. We tell our children lies because we tell ourselves lies. They make us feel safe and capable. Confident in the face of staggering uncertainty. We tell lies about effort, desire and glory, about time, dreams and possibilities, success and achievement. Then we come together and celebrate rituals of competition and prowess, pageants of pride and invincibility. You can do it! You can do anything! You can win! You deserve it! The excitement over, spectators leave the stands, plumped on inspiration and daring. Maybe they’ll jog the block in the morning.

But what about the ones who don’t win?

I’ve been watching the Olympics, and I can hardly bear it.

I’m no longer interested in the winners. Certainly not the ones who’ve won four or 12 or 22 times. I’m interested in the ones who don’t win. The ones who lose by a tragic fraction or a humiliating mile. The unknowns in Lane 8, the also-rans beyond the camera range, the nobodies three-tenths of a second back, the forgottens who finish on the far side of oblivion. The ones who cry. Granted, their failure is nearly certain, but it is no less spectacular. All failure is spectacular failure, a mortal blow, a horrific shock. Gone the chance, the hope, the dream!

Where is the song for the ones who don’t win? They are the ones I’m looking for.

When the world champion gymnast didn’t qualify for the finals this year, I reeled. But a half-second later I selfishly thought, “This will be such comfort for all the ones who don’t win.”  Give the Wheaties box to another. Give consolation to everyone else.

Years ago when my daughter didn’t get a part in the kindergarten play her teacher told her, “Now that you’re five, you’re going to have to learn not to cry.” That wasn’t quite true, either. She did cry, she still cries, and I do too. A mother cries her child’s tears.

I’ve cried a million, billion times since then. At gym meets, tryouts and auditions. After science fairs and history festivals. In corridors and parking lots. On long rides home. The mother to the girl who didn’t quit and didn’t win, who won’t stop hoping, and can’t stop trying. Defeated and overlooked, she sobs out-of-sight in empty rooms.

We’re all in that room one day or another, eventually, always. The roar far beyond us. The celebration without us.

We know in our hearts we’ve swallowed a lie, but we learn to swim anyway. We keep ourselves afloat in an ocean of tears.

This is your anthem. For you, my champions, my darlings, the ones who don’t win. The Patron Saint of Last Place is watching over you.

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  1. This one made me cry…the Patron Saint of Last Place, I like that:)

    Comment by Davin — August 5, 2012 @ 10:37 am

  2. Beautiful.

    Comment by Ally Bean — August 5, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

  3. Crying in a coffee shop. Thank you.

    Comment by Mani — August 5, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

  4. Hurrah, dear Karen. You have put words to my own response watching these Olympics.
    Last night as I watched the humility and courage of my own community’s favourite to place in the women’s triathalon, who finished heart achingly, heart breakingly last, and then only with the encouragement of her coach – who reminded her that to finish she could live with, to quit, would be her real defeat – I wept my tears along with those of her mother, and said aloud: This is the story of the Olympics that I want to hear. This is the story.

    Comment by Katharine — August 5, 2012 @ 3:15 pm

  5. Thank you. Beautiful, sad, hopeful, lovely, and real.

    Comment by Amy — August 5, 2012 @ 7:15 pm

  6. The patron saint of last place. I am glad I am not alone in seeing these beautiful individuals that work, sweat tears blood and life, and wait for someone to see them. Someone like you. Like me.

    Comment by amiee — August 5, 2012 @ 8:29 pm

  7. I never thought of the Olympics that way. I am from Holland, we have one gymnast who became 12th in the individual competition, we are all immensely proud of her because nobody in our country has ever come that far. The day befrore yesterday I saw Ranomi Kromodijojo (I probably misspelled that) win gold but she was eclipsed by the pure joy and elation her trainingbuddy and friend who had become third expressed, as if she had won gold. She was so happy.
    When you become eighth you know, you’re eighth of all the people in the world. Also, I think these people love what they do, because the fleeting moment of getting a medal can never be the real motivation for working so very very hard for all those years. The reward lies in a different aspect of the achievement in my mind. Also, did you see the opening ceremony? Being there, part of that they are all so lucky.

    Comment by Simone — August 5, 2012 @ 11:36 pm

  8. so so SO beautiful.

    Comment by aarathi — August 6, 2012 @ 1:13 am

  9. I needed to read this today, thank you.
    I’m struggling with a situation where I just can’t do something I long for. It’s not a new situation, but the grief is new again… and I just wish I knew how to get past it.

    Comment by kazari — August 6, 2012 @ 1:20 am

  10. I watched the Olympics last week from my home country, Canada, and I was pleased that Karen Findlay, the triathlete who came in last place, got as much press as Canada’s first gold medal (which was on the same day). Two sides of the same coin. Brava to both women, and to those in between, for always trying your best.

    Comment by Aparna — August 6, 2012 @ 3:41 am

  11. I won an award in highschool and when it was presented the principal announced I was getting it because I didn’t win any of the other prizes…ironically it was the “grace award.” Yes, it was a long time ago, grace award, who would give out such a thing today? Over all these decades, I’ve never been able to figure out my feelings about that moment in my life. (especially since I really have no grace at all, but for a plaque somewhere that claims I do) Maybe there really is a patron saint of last place 🙂

    Comment by mj — August 6, 2012 @ 9:08 am

  12. This needs to be posted where the Olympians who didn’t get a medal can read it, where coaches and parents can read it. Very valuable and also LOVELY!

    Comment by Bill — August 7, 2012 @ 4:30 am

  13. I so agree with you. I often feel so bad watching the Olympics, especially women’s gymnastics. They are just a little girls being told “this is your only shot.” But did you see the runner from South Africa with no legs? He lost in the semi-finals of the 400. He came in last and I thought, “Oh no! Last!” But the winner came over and traded bibs with him like he was the winner. When interviewed, the runner was talking about the wonderful athletes, and how just being in the Olympics was a dream. He was happy with his race. I wish it could be more like that.

    Comment by Maggie — August 7, 2012 @ 4:46 am

  14. I shared with my son.

    Comment by Suzanne — August 7, 2012 @ 5:38 pm

  15. You know, I have long, forever felt this. I’ve never really liked competative sports; I seem to always feel for the loser–you may be very talented and nearly equally as good but, for one minor error, earns the title of “loser.” I’ve always hated that. For every winner there is a loser. That’s life, I guess. I’ve been on both ends of the equation. But I’ve just never liked that lable “loser.” Still don’t, probably never will.

    Comment by Cindy — August 7, 2012 @ 6:17 pm

  16. I thought this was simply beautiful. Thank you so much.

    Comment by Christy — August 8, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

  17. Thanks.
    With over 10,000 athletes, there’s a lot of people who don’t ‘win’. However, looking at the fun they all had at the closing ceremony, I don’t think that tells the whole story. There is more than one way of winning.
    During the olympics, my 5 year old said “it’s not the winning that counts”. While my mind knows she’s right, winning is nice too.
    I love the Olympics. I love that crazy ‘sports’ get their moment in the sun and that people from places you don’t normally think about end up on your screen. I love the coming together.
    Your piece, reminds me about the phase “one mistake after another” and I am tempted to paraphrase for myself: “one losing move after another”.
    Time to go home now and do some food preparation and cleaning 🙂
    Thanks again.

    Comment by Paul Brennan — August 16, 2012 @ 9:17 am

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