Jenny’s athletic career came down to 48.6 seconds Friday.
It was the longest 48.6 seconds of my life. Jenny started running the 300m low hurdle race as a freshman. I remember her first race clearly. It was at Harrisburg. In this race, you run nearly all the way around the track, all the while jumping hurdles. It’s a gutsy race. It’s a grueling race. She had never run it before that day. She finished nearly at school-record pace, then turned to Coach St. Ledger and exclaimed, “I love this race.”
It became her race. You know the rest. She fought back from injury her junior year; fought back through her senior basketball season after a knee scope; fought back after reinjuring the knee the first track meet of her senior year. After rarely losing a race her first three years, she hadn’t won a hurdle race all year….and still hasn’t.
To get a chance at state, she had to finish number one or two at sectionals last Friday, or run a qualifying time of 48.6 seconds. She hadn’t run that pace all season, and she would be running against girls who had beaten her all year. I tried to approach the topic of losing with her, but she cut me off. It wasn’t an option she could allow herself to consider, not if she hoped to have a chance. So I remained quiet.
Meet day was cold. I sat on the bleachers across the field and watched her prepare for her race. It was a lonely, mental warm up. She stretched. She ran strides. She stretched again. She sat and stared at nothing. I sat and stared at her.
I thought about the 2005 race when she “ate” the second hurdle as her knee slipped out from under her and remembered the grueling mental recovery. I thought about the race she stopped dead at the second hurdle, backed up and jumped the hurdle to continue the race and still take second place. I thought about the race two weeks earlier where she rounded the curve in first place only to find her hurdle inches higher than everyone else’s hurdle. She finished in third.
Mostly, I thought about what I would say when the race was over.
I picked up my phone and sent a text message to her phone. I knew she wouldn’t see the message until after the race. “I believe in you” is all it said. You see, it didn’t matter to me if she won or lost. It never has. I just love to watch her run. But, I knew it mattered to her. And anything that matters to her, matters to me.
That’s why I’ve followed that school bus all these years. It was never about going to watch them win; it was just about going to watch.
It was always about supporting her. I don’t understand parents who don’t attend their child’s events, be it sports or music or academics. I know I’m lucky to have a job which allows that freedom, but given the choice of riches or watching my kids play ball, I’ll pick ball every time.
Over the years, I’ve sat through hundreds of games and meets and matches … hundreds. I think it qualifies me to say a few things about what I’ve seen.
It’s never about winning; it’s about being part of something more than yourself.
It’s never about being perfect; it’s about being your personal best.
It’s never about beating someone else; it’s about beating your last effort.
It’s never about losing; it’s about learning what you can to keep from losing the next time.
It’s never quitting, never giving in or giving up, never selling out or selling yourself short.
It’s learning to lose gracefully and win graciously on the track or in life.
It’s learning that sometimes the break goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t and there’s nothing you can do about it but play the game you are there to play.
It’s about respecting your competitor and respecting the rules of the game and knowing the minute you stop either one, you’ve lost.
While I’m at it, there are a few things I’d like to say to coaches. I can never repay you for the time you’ve spent helping me raise my children. Together, we have an awesome responsibility. In reality, you’ve spent more time with my children than I have. And while they’ve been with you, they’ve been watching.
They’ve watched to see if you’ve followed the rules you tell them to follow. They’ve watched to see if you’ve been fair and equal in your treatment of all athletes. They’ve watched to see how you handled disappointment. They’ve watched your work ethic. They’ve watched and listened, and they’ve lived by your example.
If parents had a chance to tell you anything, it would be this: We really don’t care if they win, we just want a chance to see them play. If you’re going to let them play, please don’t embarrass them by sticking them out there without having spent time teaching them the game. The worst athlete deserves the same time and attention as the best if they’re willing to put in the same hours of practice and intensity.
And to the parents I say, stop yelling at coaches. Your child is watching you, too. Remember, instead of spending time with their own children, coaches are spending it with yours. Instead of teaching their children, they’re teaching yours. They miss holiday meals, birthday parties, funerals, and their own children’s games to be at your child’s games.
Anyway, that’s what I’ve learned. Though it’s been Jenny’s story I’ve told today, each athlete has their own story. Their praise is deserved. It takes a commitment few of us would be willing to maintain to keep up with such intense practice schedules while maintaining solid grades and extra-curricular activities.
Back at the race, Jenny settled in to her starting blocks and began her ritual routine, tucking her hair behind her ears and straightening her uniform. Then, she waited for the gun.
As she crossed each hurdle, I jumped along with her. Hurdle, run, hurdle, run. My heart raced; I can’t imagine what she was feeling. And in the end, she finished third.
Third, not second; not first. Third. But third in a time of 48.6, exactly what she needed to qualify one last time for state.
So tomorrow, I’ll go to Charleston to watch her run one more time. And you couldn’t pay me enough to miss those 48.6 seconds.