How I Treat My Competition*

*Hint: I’m not proud of it.

A few months back, I read a new biography of Eric Liddell. Liddell was a Scottish runner who represented Great Britain in the 1924 Paris Olympics. He refused to run his best event—the 100 meter dash—because the heats were held on his Sabbath. Instead, he ran the 400 meters, an event that wasn’t his specialty. And, against all odds, he won the gold medal.

Perhaps Eric Liddell is remembered best as one of the main characters featured in the Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire. (If you haven’t seen Chariots of Fire, you must. Right now. I'll wait. Go buy it or rent it immediately. You’ll love it—just ignore the New Age soundtrack and you’re golden.)

But as with all of us, there’s so much more to Eric Liddell than a one-paragraph explanation of his athletic derring-do. Before each race, he shook hands with every fellow competitor. After finishing—after he had beaten most (if not all) of them handily—he shook their hands again and congratulated them on a well-run race. He did this before and after every race—even races he ran while imprisoned in a Chinese labor camp.

When I read this about him, I asked myself if I was this kind of competitor—one that recognized and saluted and appreciated my competition. 

The answer made me uncomfortable.

I reasoned at first that logistics had a lot to do with why I fell dismally short. Rowers are segregated in different boats, with water between us. We can’t shake hands, can we? Isn’t it enough to mumble, “Good luck!” and be done with it?

At the end of a race, if it was any sort of a race, we are exhausted. Completely and utterly beat, puffing like locomotives. Nothing left. So I don’t have the energy to seek out my competitors and thank them for a great race. (Do I?)

But after more soul searching, I admitted that water and boats and exhaustion aren't the true reasons I ignore (yes, ignore) my competitors. These aren’t the reasons I avoid their gaze. Why I finish a race, grab my oars, grab my boat, and head off the dock without a word, staring straight ahead.

The fact is, I’m terrified of my competition. I don’t want to appear weak, or conciliatory, or like I’m pandering. I’m afraid to learn through a handshake or well wishes that they are stronger, fitter, or wiser rowers than I. And if I've lost, I don't want to concede that, either.

So I ignore them. I don’t look at them, I don’t talk to them. I try not to even think of them, either before or after racing.

(It pains me to admit this. Because this isn't how I want to be.)

My soul searching continued. What if, instead of seeing them as necessary obstacles to be beaten and overcome, I think of them differently?

What if I think of them as fellow rowers—with all the toil, hopes, courage, and sheer gumption that word packs? After all, they also have to carve out time to practice and keep in shape and eat well and explain to others that they row and don’t "do canoeing or kayaking." Don’t fellow racers make my racing career richer, more fun, and, yes, possible?  Shouldn’t they be acknowledged and thanked for that?

I now think so.

I think adopting the Eric Liddell model would make my racing more unselfish. Less about me. Less about the winning. More about the sport and the thrill and the speed—regardless of the outcome. I think it can even make racing even more fun for me if I acknowledge and thank the other rowers who fight as hard and work with as much determination as I do. Gratitude is a wondrous thing.

I began to rethink what this could have meant for me last season. For example, what if I had walked up to the two 8+ boats of women that I’d raced the entire length of last year’s Head of the Charles—through three miles of twists, turns, bridges, and achingly intense rowing—and said something? What if I’d wished them well? Or, complimented their grit and determination? What if I had looked each woman in the eye and shaken her hand, thanking her enthusiastically and gratefully for a race I’ll remember until the end of my days? What could that have meant to me? Or to them?

Sadly, I’ll never know.

But maybe this season, I’ll find out.




photo credit: Scorpions and Centaurs rowers via photopin (license)