Q. What do these people have in common?
A. They are each Olympians, though their names may not be familiar to you unless you’re a hard-core fencing, kayak or archery fan. And each one placed fourth in an event in which they’d competed.
A recent Chicago Trib article profiled another fourth place finisher, rower Sarah Zelenka, who called her fourth-place finish “a nightmare”. Watching Jordyn Wieber’s agony-of-defeat moment in the gymnastics individual all-around competition when she learned that she’d placed fourth got me thinking about all of those men and women who’d trained just as hard as the gold, silver and bronze medalists, but had fallen short of their goal in this competition. In some cases, an infintesimal sliver of time, space or the seemingly-subjective stroke of a judge’s pen in a scored event means that someone comes in fourth.
A word to these fourth-place finishers, especially in sports where there are no Wheaties boxes or Gatorade endorsement deals, where athletes are doing what they do because they can’t imagine doing anything else with their lives and where they’ve sacrificed time, money and comfort for years for their Olympic moment:
You are winners, you fourth-place finishers. It is not your result that inspires me. It is the fact that you were willing to practice in obscurity for years so that you could pursue your goal. When the raw moments of your thisclose finish begin to fade, I hope you can be proud of the fact that there are only three people in the world who performed better than you in this competition. Your Olympic dream carried you to the world stage, and I hope that the sense of “nightmare” fades as you move into whatever is next in your life next week and beyond.
I am a writer. Not a famous, New York Times Bestseller kind of writer, but a person who just keep working at my craft. I think (I hope) I am a better writer than I was five or ten or twenty years ago because I keep showing up at practice every day, just like you did in your run up to the Olympics. I have moments of sorrow, envy or fatigue when I see my peers “medal”, achieving success as it is measured in my vocational world, while I come in fourth or thirteenth or dead last.
Your example reminds me that perseverance is the real prize. Thanks.