I was riveted to the TV screen on Sunday evening. The Augusta Masters golf tournament was coming to a momentous close. I had just got back home. My legs ached, after standing on a pool deck most of Saturday and Sunday afternoons, watching my fish-like third grader have a great set of swimming events. I knew what efforts she’d made in weeks of practice and I was pleased for her that it was paying off, as it should, with improved times and rankings. She won three of her four heats, and after each one stretched across the lane ropes to hug or shake hands with her nearest competitors–part of the etiquette of swimming. She, too, was tired, but had good reason to be so, and to feel happy.
On my TV screen, I could see the sun was getting lower in the sky at Augusta, as two professionals matched each other with stunning shots. Golf is strange in that you are often not playing head-to-head against your main rival, as different groups play the course. So it was that the men swinging for the lead were separated. But it was a little more dramatic because the one trailing could see the leader play. The earlier to play, Australian Adam Scott (25), thought he’d taken the lead for good with his last shot and went to sign his card. He then sat in the scoring tent and watched the TV screen there, seeing his nearest rival, the Argentine Angel Cabrera (43), match his score.
The two were then headed for a play-off, the final 18th hole again, then another hard hole, if needed, then back to the 18th, and so on till a winner emerged. The light was now fading, as sunset loomed. The two men continued to match each other, shot for shot, from the tee to the green, Cabrera nearly winning with a putt at the 18th. But, they remained tied. Again, matching shots from the tee. Again, Cabrera nearly took the lead with a long birdie putt, missing by what looked like a finger nail’s distance. Finally, Scott lined up his birdie putt that would seal the victory. The ball rolled truly, then fell into the hole. Match done! The winner did his victory dance, then quickly turned to hug his playing partner. That embrace was a strange sight at the end of a competition that is often tense and singular.
I know that keen competitors understand what it is to lose a close contest, but most athletes are encouraged to show graciousness and humility in victory. Defeat is the more common outcome. Winning is to be savoured for its rarity but also for what it makes you to remember, albeit fleetingly: that winning is a hair’s breath away from losing. You are also made keenly aware of how few chances you may have to get the success that everyone seems to be chasing. I was thrilled for Scott, who had lost what had seemed like a sure win at last year’s British Open (at Royal Lytham & St Annes) in gut-wrenching fashion, by giving away his four shot lead on the last four holes. Drip, drip, drip…drop to your knees. He had been made memorable by that literal collapse near the finish. Now, he had the more comforting memorable moment that comes with victory.
Those images of joy with humility, mixed with those displays of grief, from two golf tournaments, came to me this morning as I thought about the horrific events last Monday, when bombs exploded near the finish line at the Boston Marathon. No one at Augusta or Lytham could have imagined the end of their sporting events as they eventually turned out. Their sense of tragedy was confined to those they saw coming to the last hole at the close of the event. Similarly, in Boston, those running or watching could not have imagined the end of the race becoming anything more than the place where the sense of elation or grief or relief or humility would all combine. Instead, those sensations swelled up for reasons other than a sporting event. Callous, wanton attempts to destroy life. Inhuman efforts to discard the simple, hard work, and attempts to do something that takes courage, dedication, selflessness. Hugs of joy and humility, just because someone was alive; that they had finished their run, but had not had their lives violently finished. People collapsed on their knees, in grief, not because they had to suffer defeat, but because they could see alongside themselves some dead or dying or maimed. All the wrong reasons!
Athletes (often defined for their physical abilities), are also incredibly strong mentally. In the same way that we learn how to give our all, so we also learn to show grace and humility to our fellow competitors. We also learn to dig deep into our minds to find the strength to go on, to do it again, to try to get it right, to try to do it better, especially when it seems that ‘all hope in gone’ or ‘when we cannot take it anymore’. Now, is a good time to find the inner athlete in ourselves. Stay strong physically. Stand tall mentally. Hug those who seem to have lost, while we have won.