In the infamous words of Ricky Bobby, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
The first time I saw Talladega Nights I interpreted the jokes literally and was so offended that my family took me to the movie theater with them that I almost cried. Granted, I was also 11. At the time I thought I would never see that movie again, but that was before my dad bought a “Ricky Bobby Pit Crew” t-shirt and before I realized I would never really escape that movie. I’ve since seen it about 12 times.
For all that movie’s stupidity, it illuminates an inescapable truth about sports: no one aspires to get second place. It’s the first place to lose, or so say the pessimists. It gets none of the glory. It’s easily forgotten.
In racing sports like track, swimming and NASCAR, the second-place finisher can break just as many records as the winner, but they get no credit for their unprecedented speed. There’s no asterisk in the record books that indicates the second-place finisher also beat the old standard for being the best.
Second place is the least coveted place in sports. Gold medalists, MVP’s and Super Bowl Champions get parades and commemorative trips to the White House. The Atlanta Falcons get the memory of being the best team in the NFL for 45 minutes.
As I write this, I have 13 days left of my collegiate swim career. The highest I have ever placed in an individual event at Penn is second. I have three races left to swim where that fact could change, but I don’t foresee myself becoming an Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference champion in my last race for the Quakers.
Winning, however, was never the goal. The goal was to get better. By Ricky Bobby’s standards my collegiate career is probably a complete failure, but I believe that tying success in sports to placement is an exercise in disappointment. It is much more constructive to set goals based on controllable outcomes because there are far too many factors beyond an individual’s control that determine placement for it to be a valid measure of worth.
When you step up on the blocks, hunched over and waiting for the official to say, “Take your mark,” you can only control what you do in the water. You can’t control whether your top-seeded opponent gets a cramp, or if the girl in the lane next to you twitches before diving in and gets disqualified, or if the girl in the outside lane has a breakthrough swim and drops five seconds out of nowhere.
Plus, it is still possible to become a better athlete without placing first. When you finally dive in, you can swim a personal best time only to be out-touched in the final two yards of the race just hundredths of a second behind the winner. That second place finish doesn’t invalidate an entire season’s worth of effort.
I’m not trying to argue that winning should never be the goal. Being the best is an admirable pursuit, but it should be secondary to being your best.
I’ve only set one goal for my final meet. It doesn’t revolve around results. Yes, I would love to find myself in the championship final of a race or two, and yes, I want to swim best times. But the failure to accomplish either of those ends won’t make or break my experience at ECACs. The only way I’ll be disappointed with how my collegiate swimming career ends is if I fail to get better.
I should be clear that I’m defining “better” in pretty loose terms – it could be through finishing a race with a little more mental toughness, executing technical details with more finesse or being a more supportive teammate.
Athletic success is not drawn from accolades alone and coming in second does not make someone a loser. To be fair, Ricky Bobby’s father was high when he told his son that mantra about racing.
So maybe second place isn’t so bad after all.