That time when coming in 3rd place really felt like winning

I smiled to myself this morning on my drive to work. A happy memory popped into my head and it gave me a nice feeling. My memory was the time that I came in 3rd place in a high school swim meet.

I swam competitively from age 10 until age 18. I use that term, competitively, loosely in my mind because I wasn’t particularly fast nor did I have a perfect stroke. But, I liked to swim. I attended practice consistently and I liked being part of a team. So, I swam.

In my 8 years of being on a swim team, I can’t recall ever coming in 1st place in a race. Once, at age 10, I came in 2nd place in a 25-meter butterfly event. It was me against three of the other team’s swimmers. I was the only one who represented my team in that race because nobody else wanted to swim what is arguably the most difficult swim stroke. I wasn’t upset that I didn’t win. I was happy that I made it to the other end of the pool.

It never upset me when I did finish last in a race. I still attended practice. I still liked being on a team. I still liked swimming. I knew that I was doing my best and liked doing it. I didn’t give up and I kept going, marking things like personal best and not comparing my times to the record-setting ones that were displayed on the wall.

My bronze-that-felt-like-a-gold moment happened my senior year of high school. I was assigned to lane 1 for the 100-meter backstroke. If you are unfamiliar with swimming events, lanes 1 and 6 are reserved for the not-so-fast swimmers, leaving a wake-free zone of lanes 3 and 4 for the faster competitors. The race felt like any other to me. I concentrated on my breathing and counting my strokes to the wall. It was when I went into the last turn to begin the final lap did I suspect something was different. I saw my teammates had lined the side of the pool next to my lane to wave and cheer excitedly.

I turned my head slightly to the left and saw that I was tied with a swimmer from the other team. Based on my prior swimming experience, I assumed that she and I were in a race for last place. In an instant, I dug down deep and decided that this time I wasn’t going to come in last. I was going to swim as hard as I could and come in 5th.

Even though my limbs were tired and I didn’t think I had any more strength in me, I was bolstered by all the muffled cheering I could hear through my ear plugs. When I saw the flags overhead, I knew how many strokes I needed to touch the wall and I stretched my fingers forward to ensure that I could just beat out that other swimmer for the finish.

A loud cheer went up when I touched the wall. I vividly recall my confusion when I saw the three swimmers from the other team still finishing the race. It was in that moment that getting 3rd place was everything to me. But, that’s the thing. It felt like winning then and it still feels like winning to me today. It was my personal best and it felt great.

It isn’t that I’m not competitive and don’t like winning. (Have you ever seen me at Trivia Night?)  Rather than get discouraged by all the faster, more skilled swimmers, I concentrated on improving my own skills and maximizing the effort that I could give.

I’m truly proud of the swimming trophies I received over the years for being “most improved” in a season. I improved myself and did my best. That’s winning.