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  • Writer's pictureNeal Hagberg

Why Are We Even Here?


Last weekend, our daughter swam in her college conference swim championships. She was seeded anywhere from 7th to 10th in her individual events, and had one of the slower relay times on her relay teams going in. She swam the meet of her life. She ended up with five firsts and a fourth, and was named conference newcomer of the year. No one saw this coming. Including us. Including her team. Including her. Her coaches said she had it in her, but I doubt they thought she had it in her this year. We were so overwhelmed and taken by surprise we literally didn’t know where to turn after each swim, each swim confounding and delighting us more than the last. She had never been individually first in anything before in her swim career, or even the fastest on her relay teams. Ever.

Winning is intoxicating. It’s fun. It’s even addictive. Once you’ve tasted it, you want more. And you can start to lose perspective. Madeline didn’t lose perspective, but I did. With each successive win, I began wanting another one. We told her the Three Crowns™ of Positive Attitude, Full Effort, and Good Sportsmanship were all that mattered. We believe it. But, as a parent, with each unexpected victory, I was seduced. I wanted more. Expected another. I began getting nervous before each swim in a way I don’t normally. Because now the expectation of winning (which is completely outside any of our control) became a pressure. Inside me. Who was not even swimming! I lost sight of the Three Crowns.

And then, two minutes after her fourth victory, as I was giddy in my own misplaced parental pride, I got news that a dear friend’s wife had unexpectedly died. From complete elation and dancing in the stands to gut punching devastation.

Why are we even here?

I had to remove myself from the stands and go walk. In the hallway, I felt numb. I walked past a mother consoling her son, who was sobbing on her shoulder because he missed the cut for finals in his event, and it was his senior year. She was soothing him, listening to him, giving no advice. Just loving him.

I walked more. There was one of Madeline’s teammates, who had just missed medalling in the event Madeline had won. Profoundly sad. Mother sitting with her, listening. Giving no advice. Just loving her.

And then, “Julia”. A former club teammate and rival of Madeline’s, now with a rival college. She has always been faster than Madeline. She missed last season completely as doctors tried to diagnose a chronic illness. She came back this year, but could only attend half the practices. She stood on the blocks next to Madeline, then right before the race, walked over and smiled wide and high fived her. When she finished far behind, she climbed out of the pool and hugged Madeline, truly happy for her. She will probably not swim competitively again.

And I was reminded she could be my daughter. All of these kids could be my children. And, in a way, aren’t they? Aren’t we all really related?

All of this was swirling in the devastation of my friend’s wife’s death. That night, Leandra said as she hugged me in my sadness for my friend, “All I can think of is that nothing matters but this. Right here. This.”

My friend’s wife could have just as easily been mine. Or me. Someday it will.

If I am honest, winning is almost always more fun than losing. I play to win. But when winning becomes the addictive end goal, it has a way of dulling our ability to feel the pain and joy others inevitably have. It has a way of making us forget those around us, in sports and in life. My daughter will be the one who did not make the cut again someday (it happened this fall in a different situation in life, it will happen again). And someday, we will all come to an end.

Do we not celebrate our victories, then? No, that is not what I am saying at all. All I am saying is, I need to be constantly reminded that the only thing that matters, through winning and losing, is our commitment to love. To refuse to define our success by the number of victories we obtain.

To be like the mom who held her son. The mom who held her daughter. The rival who hugged my daughter. My friend who held his wife. My wife who held me.

We cannot ever lose sight of this. Or we truly lose. Even if we win.


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