What I learned from 4 years of losing…
The sounds still bring butterflies to my stomach: a loud voice yells, “Runners take your mark….Get set...” and then the the bang of the gun.
I ran cross-country all four years of high school. You would think since I was on the team each year, I must have enjoyed it and must have been good at it. Unfortunately though, neither one of these things were true. The reality is, while I enjoy running, I learned pretty quickly that I relate much more to the tortoise than the hare–not exactly the best quality when speed is the name of the game.
So why did I sign up to run long distance? I wanted to participate in some kind of “sport”. Most sports, however, have try outs…cross-country does not. Bingo. As someone who is not so athletically inclined, it became clear that cross-country was pretty much going to be my only option.
Running cross-country was actually a very humbling experience for me–I was by far the worst one on the team. In fact I actually crossed the finish line dead last more times than I’d like to admit. However, this regular humiliation did teach me one very important lesson: perseverance.
Here’s the thing, while it may have taken what felt like an eternity for me to finish the 3.1 mile course, I finished every race. Every. single. one. Many of my competitors would actually give up–quit half way through the race once they realized their time wasn’t going to be as good as they wanted. But no matter how long it was going to take me, I was determined to cross the finish line. Never give up, finish what you start, work hard to get what you want…these are the life lessons that have stuck with me still today. (And it’s ironic to me that decades later, this girl who came in last in these races, would actually go on to finish a marathon…one of my proudest achievements. Slow and steady wins the race, right? Well, at least in my case, slow and steady at least finishes the race. Perseverance.)
Inspired by some truly remarkable athletes…
So as someone who struggled with athletics, I find myself in complete awe for those who excel. And last weekend I had the true honor of being surrounded by hundreds of absolutely inspiring athletes. After months of training, they came to compete. They were focused; they pushed themselves to do their best.
It was the Special Olympics Track & Field event.
I was signed up to be an escort, responsible for taking athletes to the start line at the right time and walking with them afterwards to get their awards. I loved it–it gave me the chance to talk with them before and after their events. One of my favorite athletes was a 59 year old man, Rocky. I was escorting Rocky and his competitor, a 16 year old girl named Destiny; they were going to compete in a 2K walk. As we approached the start line, I enjoyed listening to the two of them talk with each other. “I’ve been practicing a lot, but it’s ok if you beat me.” Rocky explained to Destiny. She smiled back at him, “Thanks–I’m really nervous.”
They stood at the start line, waited for the whistle and then took off. Rocky kept up with her for the first few laps, but eventually it was clear that Destiny would in fact beat Rocky. We clapped and cheered as she crossed the finish line–she was beaming with pride. Soon after, there was Rocky–walking as fast as he could to the finish. Once he crossed the line, his friends were close by and ran up to give him high-fives, but before he slapped any hands, I watched him walk directly over to Destiny. “You did great! Can I give you a hug?” It was an awesome moment: the sight of true sportsmanship. If only all athletes could be as gracious.
I know that these athletes are called “special” because of their disability, but honestly I think that word applies for a different reason. Each one were great examples of determination and perseverance. While they may have a disability, they weren’t going to let that stand in the way of their dreams. And what’s even more remarkable is how much they supported each other. Cheers, high-fives, clapping, hugging–they wanted to not only reach their dreams, but you could see the pure happiness in their eyes as they watched others reach theirs as well. Yes, I agree…these are some truly “special” people.
My personal connection…
But there’s another reason why volunteering for Special Olympics was so important to me. Nearly two decades ago, another special athlete competed in this event–my little sister, Kim. With her rare disability, Kim never got to go to prom. She never learned to drive a car. She never went on a date. Her life has been extremely limited–missing out on most of the “normal” things we all take for granted.
But this is why I love the Special Olympics. Because for just a few minutes, my sister felt normal. She was on the track–she was going to race, even if it was from her wheelchair. She got to wait at the start line and feel butterflies in her stomach. I remember the smile plastered on her face as she looked up in the stands and heard all the cheers for her. In that moment, I’m pretty sure my sister felt like a rock star.
Never give up. This is a lesson I learned in high school. It’s something that I saw with each of the Special Olympics athletes. And as her disease progresses, it’s a lesson that my little sister lives every single day. Perseverance: yes, I learned this from cross-country, but it’s the “special” people like my sister who have truly set this example.