I just read OMSH’s post about her daughter’s Turkey Trot, and commented that I was glad the coach didn’t give the “everybody’s a winner” speech. Because really, you can’t win all the time. And you need to learn that early on in life or else you become a whiney spoiled brat and EXPECT to win. And then the disappointment when you DON’T is just unbearable (for those around you, especially!).
In high school I ran on a very competitive cross-country team. There were 50 girls, a lot of talent, and a lot of competition. We had an awesome coach, a man named Tim Cook.
Mr. Cook spent a lot of time with each of the “good” runners–those who could run a 20:00 or less 5k. Those who could keep pace with a competitor and then “kick it in” at the most critical point and come out on top. Those who could scale the portion of our home course that we called “the wall” as if they were running downhill instead of up.
But he always spent a lot of time with the “not-so-good” runners, of which I was a part. We were the ones who were prone to injury, who struggled through the practices. The ones whose “kick it in” was barely discernible from just plain running, and by that point in the race was sometimes SLOWER than usual. The ones who sometimes had to take walk breaks. Or couldn’t finish.
If I had been involved in more of a group sport–basketball, field hockey, etc.–I would have been cut from the team. Or never had the guts to try out. But cross-country took EVERYONE, so I never had to deal with the rejection of being cut. And I was secure in the knowledge that while my performace wasn’t really helping the team, it wasn’t HURTING it, either.
I was not an athlete. I was not a fierce competitor. But I learned so much about myself and what I was capable of during those few years on the cross-country team, and Mr. Cook was the reason. After each meet, he would go over the results and single out people who had improved their times, even if it was the last-place person who had improved their time by 30 seconds. He realized that it only took five girls from a team to win a cross-country meet, and those five KNEW they did well. He would of course recognize their achievements, but he would speak to the remaining 45 of us and tell us how important we were to the team. He never stammered or had to struggle to come up with anything to say. He spoke quietly, succintly, and from the heart.
After a race, if I did the best that I thought I could do, I was happy with my performance. But if I didn’t do what I considered to be my best and talked myself into thinking that my time didn’t matter anyhow, I ended up feeling that I had let Mr. Cook down. That I had let my team down. It took me a long time to realize that I was also letting myself down.
He never led us to believe that we would all be winners, because, well, we just wouldn’t. But as long as each of us walked away from a race knowing that we did the best we possibly could, that’s all that really mattered. At the time, as teenagers, we snickered and whispered to the girl next to us, “Whatever! It’s WINNING that matters!” It took me years to realize what an effect Mr. Cook’s coaching had on me. Sometimes I think back to those days–more than 15 years ago now!–and wish I could remember more. I wish that I had saved all of the booklets of statistics that he pain-stakingly put together for us. For our banquet each year, he would write a paragraph about each girl and her achievements from the year. Each girl. FIFTY of us. Some of us slower than molasses and who couldn’t even call ourselves a “runner” with all the walk breaks we took. But each of us was important to him and each of us had a strength that he was proud to showcase–even if that strength was to be a cheerleader for our teammates.
Mr. Cook and his wife were killed in a car accident five years ago next week. They were both 49. The whole town was in shock We all said that it wasn’t their time to go, but apparently God thought that it was. The service had to be held at the high school because there was no venue in town that could accommodate the masses of people that showed up to grieve. With Mr. Cook’s tragic passing, the town lost a role model, an athlete, a great teacher, and an excellent coach.
After his death, I thought back to all of the times that I DIDN’T do my best during a cross country meet. Of all of the excuses I came up with–it was cold; it was muddy; I’m tired; my Achilles hurts. I started running again and signed up for a half marathon in Virginia Beach the summer of 2003. During my training, I thought a lot about Mr. Cook, and in a way I felt that I was doing it for him. My initial goal was just to finish–13.1 miles after years of not running consistently wouldn’t be easy for me and I knew it. But as time went on, I had it in the back of my head that I could do it in under 3 hours.
That day it was hot and humid, even early in the morning. But I was excited and I was prepared. The half-marathon itself–I don’t remember. I was in a daze the whole time and was just thinking about each foot going in front of the other and getting across the finish line. I did it in 2 hours and 57 minutes. Sure, I’ll never set any kind of record with that time, but I finished. And as much as I did it for Mr. Cook, I did it for me. There may have been thousands of people crossing that line ahead of me, but I was a winner–thanks to Mr. Cook.