Life lessons on the running track


The pity clap was something to be avoided.

But that was not her nightmare. Her nightmare was a hurdle that was set too high by mistake, or her tripping and falling over one.

The sound of sympathetic applause should those things come to pass - the pity clap, as she dubbed it? That would mean she was last in her race.

As fate would have it, that nightmare of my daughter's came true at her last track meet some weeks ago.

This was her third year running track, and the hardest, now that she has moved up from middle to high school. In middle school, she could hold her own. But as a freshman in high school, she was up against upperclassmen who were faster, stronger, and better athletes.

She found herself at the bottom, struggling to shine. I felt stressed for her but also proud when she would not give up, even though the coach persisted in putting her in events she disliked, like the 300m hurdle race.

"He figures you can do it," I ventured.

She was under no such illusion.

"Mum, he's saving the fast kids for the 100 and 200 and putting me in races he doesn't care about," she scoffed.

I could only think that if I were her, I would have quit by now.

I had no words of experience to share. I was not sporty at school, and it wouldn't have mattered if I had been.

My parents would have said no to any sports. Nothing was as important as studies, and having a sport meant less time for studying.

But I always regretted not being athletic, or even getting the encouragement to try.

When my daughters got to seventh grade, however, they did like most of their friends and signed up for sports, namely cross country for one and track for both.

I was thrilled that if nothing else, they were getting exercise two hours a day, five days a week.

But, of course, there was much more. I would see the life lessons at work sometimes, when small 12-year-old girls would be crying as they were running our hilly cross country home course and yet did not stop.

And yes, there was usually the loudest applause reserved for the last child to come in; not out of pity, but empathy for the pain of the exertion and admiration for the bravery in finishing even though you are last and you know everyone knows it.

This season, however, we were under strict injunction by our freshman not to attend any of her meets, as having us there would just stress her out more, she claimed.

We defied her on occasion, so we were right there, that day, when she came to grief. One of her hurdles was indeed set wrongly to the men's race height, and she was so flustered after that setback (she had stopped to try and adjust the hurdle herself), that she tripped and fell over the next one.

She was last coming in, and of course, everyone on the bleachers was clapping.

Oh boy, I thought. Are we ever going to get it from her.

You know, that didn't happen, though she did come over and ask ironically if we had heard the pity clap. I'm hopeful that something else was crystallising in her mind. Her coach had given her kudos for finishing the race despite the adversity, and, beyond that, she had discovered the worst can happen and it's not that big a deal.

On the contrary, she had achieved something worthwhile. Not everyone can finish a hurdle race, even badly.

When I told this story to a colleague on the sports desk, he said, google Eric the Eel.

Eric Moussambani, from Equatorial Guinea, has the distinction of swimming the slowest 100m freestyle heat in Olympic history. He qualified for the Sydney Games as a wildcard entry and couldn't even swim 12 months before the games.

The stunned crowd did not know any of this when he dived off the blocks - alone as the other two swimmers in the heat had been disqualified. After the turn, it became apparent that he was struggling but he somehow finished, in 1 min and 53 sec, while the crowd roared encouragement.

Eric became famous for a while after that and sparked debate about whether someone so woefully unqualified should be entered in elite competitions.

I'm not sure I would want to go down in history as the winningest loser ever, but clearly, one can suck and still embody the ideals of sporting competition, such as determination and bravery. Surely that's not anything that deserves pity.