It’s been about thirty-five years since I watched the Olympics for the first time. It was awe inspiring. I remember marveling at the tremendous strength and skill of the athletes and thinking that they were basically superheroes. The gymnasts bounced and twirled through the air as though they were made of magic. Every one of them seemed perfect to me.
Then, I remember seeing them cry.
I’m not talking about happy tears. I’m talking about bitter tears of disappointment. I remember feeling sad for them, but also confused. They were amazing and could do things that the other billion people in the world couldn’t do. They were picked from their entire country to come and show their talents. Why were they sad?
There was one athlete who I remember was sobbing into her coach’s shoulder because she had came in fourth. Fourth best in the world was not good enough. As I watched her, I started to feel a little sick. If she wasn’t a winner, what hope was there for me. Was there really room for so few winners in the world? I knew already that I didn’t have a chance.
I continued to compete in a variety of sports and other competitions throughout my life and whatever I placed, I always felt uneasy. When my soccer team came first in our league, we knew that there were better leagues in the city. When I finished writing my first book, it didn’t matter because it wasn’t published. No matter what I’ve done, there’s always someone who’s done it better, faster, or earlier. There’s always someone else who’s the champion. The idea of being a winner is elusive, more like a dream than anything that can really happen to me.
This weekend I was competing again. For my thirteenth year I was a part of the Dragon Boat competition in Winnipeg. We participated in three races over the weekend. Saturday we did pretty good, but Sunday, we had a perfect race. The start was powerful, we were completely in sync for the whole race, (20 women paddling as one) and we dug deep and sprinted (as much as a two ton boat can sprint) through the finish line at the end. We were proud and ecstatic. It didn’t matter that we didn’t know whether we had placed. We had raised over 16 000$ as a team for children going through cancer, we had beaten our rivals, and we had the perfect race. We couldn’t have been happier.
We all felt like winners. It was irrelevant that none of us expected to place first, our collective feeling was celebratory. We hugged and high-fived and laughed together. We were champions no matter what the results had to say.
In the end we placed third, brought home a very pretty trophy and had our team pictures published in the Winnipeg Free Press. It was a great weekend with an amazing group of women. We weren’t the best, but I had no problem feeling like a winner and it left me wondering: what does it mean to be a winner?
If my team had placed 6th, we would have still felt like winners. We would never think of ourselves as the best dragon boat team in the world, we’re not even the best in Winnipeg and yet, I wouldn’t choose to be on any other team. Winning for us wasn’t about being first. It wasn’t about some outer accolades. We had come together and done the best that we could do and that was enough. But, why isn’t it enough for the Olympic athletes or the actor who gets nominated for an Academy Award or the singer who is second in line for a Grammy?
I think the answer is that our boat is powered by smiles. The ethos of our team is that if we all work together and support each other then we win. We’ve set ourselves up to be winners and so that’s what we are. The feeling is genuine, powerful and amazing. It’s the power of perception coming to life.
Brene Brown says, “Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together” and of course, she’s right. It’s not through our perfection, but through our connections that we feel successful and loved. It might also help if we spent more time loving and less time judging ourselves. When I finish writing a book, I’d like to feel like a winner.
When I teach a really great and engaging lesson, I’d like to feel like a champion.
But, I don’t.
Maybe I need to bring my dragon boat team to work with me everyday. They could shout encouragement and cheer when the moment is just right. Maybe they could sit with me as I write or revise that last line in my book and help me marvel at the accomplishment.
There are of course some logistical difficulties with these plans, but it reminds me of a few important things. First, that I need a supportive community in whatever I do. Second that the more I let people in, the more I’m able to share and celebrate. And Third, that not being perfect doesn’t make me a loser, it makes me a human.
I am sending you the hope of being able to embrace your humanness this week. You've made it this far and I have no doubt that you have succeeded and triumphed over life’s difficulties countless times. Now, close your eyes and whisper just to yourself, “I am a winner.” and let yourself really feel it.