From the minute our darling Sarah was born, Chris and I “ooh-ed” and “ahh-ed” over her like the treasure she is. We cheered her on as she rolled over for the first time and applauded her first teeny tiny wobbly steps. As she grew older, we continued to bathe her with lavish praise for her every accomplishment, no matter how big or small. Like a hothouse flower, Sarah bloomed in an environment where she has been unquestionably “the best” at everything she has done.
Of course, it’s easy to be the “best,” when you live in a world where they don’t even keep track of goals during a soccer game. Every game this season ended in a “tie” despite some rather lopsided performances. Sarah seemed a little suspicious, but also didn’t question the system too much. After all, medals were rewarded to everyone at the end of the season so why rock the boat?
This kind of Non-Competitive /“Everyone’s a Winner”/Let’s All Hold Hands and Sing Kumabya/Utopian Fantasy Land can’t last forever. Our young ones will learn soon enough that it’s a rat race out there and that they will one day become young rodent competitors themselves. For Sarah, that day of reckoning came on June 20, 2012 at her first swim meet.
Let me explain. Sarah is a great swimmer. She started diving off the diving board at age 3 and progressed to doing 25 meter laps (freestyle, backstroke, and breast stroke) at age 5. And with justified parental pride, we cheered her on. We praised her until her chest puffed up with confidence. Until she was convinced that she was absolutely the best swimmer in the whole world. Until she thought of herself as the Michael Phelps of the six and under set. Well, you can guess where this is going.
This summer, rather than taking swim lessons, we signed her up for a swim team. Practices were four times a week with meets once a week for roughly two months. For the first three weeks of June, the kids practiced with their team, perfecting their strokes. The coaches were fantastic, especially with the younger kids and balanced fun with learning. They also gently reminded the kids that at their meets, they may get disqualified but what matters most is that they try their best. I am fairly certain that this last piece of wisdom flew over the heads of most of the children and especially Sarah. Disqualified? What does that even mean? We’re all winners, right?
For the first meet, Sarah signed up to swim the breast stroke and freestyle. In her first race, the breast stroke, she competed against roughly 30-something other 5 and 6 year old girls and in her heat, she came in second speed-wise. So I am sure in her little heart, she believed she would walk away with one of the ribbons awarded to the top 6 finishers overall. As the results were posted, I took a quick look and was crushed for Sarah when she had a little “DQ” by her name. In fact, of the 30-something girls who had raced, only THREE had not been disqualified. Ouch. Hello, Real World. Part of me understood the judge’s reasoning for this: if the kids want to compete, they need to do it right. But another part of me wanted to wail, “They’re only SIX YEARS OLD! Have you no hearts?! You are crushing their spirit!!” They all deserve a ribbon! And a trophy! And a puppy!
In the showers, Sarah chattered on and on about her hopes for a ribbon. I couldn’t let her go on a minute longer. I told her as gently and as lovingly as I could that she would not be getting a ribbon because she had been disqualified. Her eyes welled with tears and she began to sob, “WHY? WHY? WHAT DID I DO WRONG?” and then, with a betrayed look in her eyes, uttered words that were like a knife to my heart, “You told me I was THE BEST!” I had to stand there and tell my six year old that while she is an excellent swimmer and that I was so proud of her no matter what, that she did not do the stroke correctly and that the judges could have disqualified her for a variety of reasons: false start, incorrect stroke technique, illegal finish. I then tried to soften the blow by telling her that breast stroke was one of the hardest ones to do right and that only three girls out of all the ones swimming in the 6 and under race had done it correctly. So really, everyone did pretty badly.
Unfortunately, this did not have the comforting effect I had been hoping for. In fact, Sarah wailed even louder and declared that she didn’t ever want to do swim team again. All night, she told Chris and me that her fledgling swim career was over. And while I wanted to cave to her (she was so heartbroken), Chris remained strong and insisted that she go to practice the next morning. And lo and behold, in her box were two “Personal Best” ribbons! Sarah’s love for the sport returned in a flood of glee over the two rainbow colored ribbons which she pronounced to be even prettier than the solid color ribbons for the top finishers.
The second meet went pretty much the same way. Disqualified for breast stroke and not quite fast enough for free style. And she only earned one “Personal Best” ribbon this time because she did not better her time for breast stroke. It began to dawn on Sarah at this point that these ribbons were really just consolation prizes and not the real deal. She tossed them into the swim bag without a second glance, all the while coveting the solid colored ribbons of the 1st through 6th place winners.
All summer we toiled under the hot sun with no satisfactory results. One time her kick wasn’t in sequence. Another time, her hands came too close to her stomach. In one heartbreaker, she did the entire stroke correctly but finished with one hand on the wall, not two. DQ, DQ, DQ. Tears, tears, and more tears.
Swim season concluded with Championships during the last week of July. There were the Jr. Championships, in which almost all swimmers could compete. And then there were the Championships, in which swimmers were selected by the coaches to compete against swimmers from all five other teams in our league. Sarah’s coach felt that with one solid week of work and focus, she could be legal in the breast stroke and compete in Championships. But she also told Sarah if she wanted, she could do Jr. Champs and would definitely get ribbons in as many events as she wanted since they don’t DQ anyone. Sarah thought about it and with determination, announced she wanted to go to Championships.
All week she worked with her coaches to perfect her breast stroke. The day of Champs, I was a nervous wreck. There would be 18 girls competing in breast stroke and the top 12 finishers would advance to the next day. I prayed and prayed that Sarah would not get disqualified. If she did, what lesson would she learn? That hard work doesn’t pay off? That sometimes, no matter how much you want it and work for it, it just doesn’t go your way? Yes, these are in fact some tough life lessons but I wasn’t prepared for Sarah to learn them quite yet at the tender age of six.
Well, this is one story that does have a happy ending. Sarah swam legally(!) and finished 8th over all the first day. She advanced to finals and placed 10th, securing a long-wished for ribbon. And not just any ribbon- a state fair quality ribbon. She was so happy with herself and I am sure even Missy Franklin’s parents couldn’t have been prouder than we were of Sarah that day. Because even though she didn’t win first, she worked so hard to get it right. She set a goal for herself, worked for it, achieved it, and she ended the season with a legal breast stroke and a ribbon to show for it. A ribbon she earned through true effort, not just for showing up. Here she is in all her aquatic glory in lane 1…mute it if you want to spare your eardrums from my high-pitched screaming. Olympics 2024, here we come!