When Winning Is Everything

In the wake -- or, I fear, in the eye -- of this week's mind-boggling sports storm, Iván Fernández Anaya's story was exactly what I needed to see (thanks to Dreher and Mills):

As they entered the finishing straight, he saw the Kenyan runner - the certain winner of the race - mistakenly pull up about 10 meters before the finish, thinking he had already crossed the line.

Fernández Anaya quickly caught up with him, but instead of exploiting Mutai's mistake to speed past and claim an unlikely victory, he stayed behind and, using gestures, guided the Kenyan to the line and let him cross first.

"I didn't deserve to win it," says 24-year-old Fernández Anaya. "I did what I had to do. He was the rightful winner. He created a gap that I couldn't have closed if he hadn't made a mistake. As soon as I saw he was stopping, I knew I wasn't going to pass him."

Reading that piece, I flashed back to something that happened two years ago, just after my eldest son (and his teammates) suffered a demoralizing defeat in their Little League championship game.

His Scrappers had blown a sizable lead (in highly improbable fashion) and fallen to their season-long rivals, the Cardinals. Their manager, an excellent coach (and man) who had been Dominic's manager the year before, was moving away at the end of the summer. So this championship was his last "Hurrah!" with our Little League Association, which he'd guided for the past few years.

Dominic was dusty, disheveled, and upset. His late-inning struggles (at the tail-end of an excellent season's worth of pitching) had contributed to the collapse, and he'd been miliseconds late on a play at the plate that could have sent the team on to extra innings rather than defeat.

As we walked away from the field -- my arm over his shoulder -- I wondered how he would react. Athletics and competition have always come easy to him; failure was something new altogether.

He looked up at me, his eyes a bit moist -- it was the dust, no doubt -- and with a slight catch in his voice, and said: "I'm glad Coach got to win his last game."

...and I discovered I had a bit of dust in my eyes, as well.

Man, I loved him at that moment. He cared about winning; desperately. He wasn't interested in a Participation Trophy, or an "Attaboy" for second place. And nothing from me about "love of the game" or "competition as its own reward" would have made a shred of difference. He wanted to be celebrating a hard-fought victory with his teammates, not searching for silver linings.

That silver lining came so quickly and it was so generous, I could only marvel. Had it been me in those dusty, 10-year-old cleats, I'd have been stewing in my own sorrows. If I'd taken a moment to consider my celebrating opponents, it would merely have reminded me that I was not the one doing the celebrating.

But Dominic found a way to celebrate even in defeat, recognizing that his own personal disappointment was simultaneous (and inextricably bound up) with his old coach's victorious send-off. And he took pleasure in that victory, even though it was not his own. Dusting off the old cliché -- Winning Isn't Everything -- would have meant nothing to him at that moment. But he was living it in a way far more comforting than any platitude could ever be.

Winning IS everything. It just doesn't have to be yours.

Attribution(s): "Baseball Loser" courtesy of Getty Images, which allows the use of certain images "as long as the photo is not used for commercial purposes (meaning in an advertisement or in any way intended to sell a product, raise money, or promote or endorse something);" "Finish Line" image courtesy of Shutterstock; "Son in Baseball Cap" image courtesy of me.