It’s nice to be number one. Everyone relishes the opportunity to be the best. But with every media outlet in the world publishing ranking systems seemingly every week for every single sport, it’s easy to lose track of really what it means to be the best. One week it’s you being heralded as the favorite, the next week it’s your rival while you’re being cast aside as an after-thought. But the reality is, the only time you want to be number one is when it’s all said and done.
Humility is often a forgotten characteristic when we speak about the sports figures in today’s world, those that bask in the glory thrown upon them and encourage all of the propaganda with their name on it. Some people, such as the 2008 France 4×100 freestyle relay team, will spend so much time listening to the words said about them that they don’t bother to remember that their competitors hear those same words in a different tone. Unfortunately for the French, Jason Lezak heard every hyperbolic, adorning word said about his opponent that year. He interpreted it as a challenge.
Coming into the 2008 Olympics, there was no shortage of storylines surrounding the Men’s Swimming events with Michael Phelps leading the American squad against a group of pompous Frenchmen, lead by their aloof captain Alain Bernard. The French captain played the role perfectly, taunting the Americans before the race and agreeing with the widespread media by stating they would “crush” the United States team. He pleaded, with a sly grin, for a chance to destroy the American hopes once and for all.
Be careful what you wish for.
When Bernard, the anchor of the French squad, splashed into the pool at the Beijing National Aquatics Centre his team was living up to his every wish. They were outpacing the Americans by a significant margin, more than on pace to break the World Record for a 4×100 freestyle relay. Bernard was gliding along when the American anchor, Jason Lezak, leapt into the pool and NBC commentator Rowdy Gaines was already declaring the race had been won by the French. But as Gaines was concentrating on the Australians fighting for 2nd place, he was caught off guard by the masterpiece that he had on his hands.
Right hand. Drive. Left Hand. Drive. One after another, Lezak dug his powerful arms into the pool and willed his body back into contention with Bernard. This was no spring chicken fighting the good fight, Lezak was the oldest competitor on the entire American swimming team at the ripe age of 33 years old. As Bernard continued on what he thought was a victory lap, Lezak pushed. And pushed. Suddenly, the impossible was becoming the inevitable.
“Bernard is losing some ground. Here comes Lezak! Unbelievable at the end!”
46.06 seconds. Lezak didn’t break the world record for a freestyle relay split, he completely shattered it on his way to one of the most triumphant moments in American Olympic history. As Lezak, lifted his head out of the water to see the final verdict with his teammates bellowing at the top of their lungs, he raised one fist in victory. He was a champion when it counted the most.
Be humble. Let hype catch the attention of everyone but you. Accept the challenge. For those that need to add fuel on the fire with their words or actions leading up to an event, I give you this: winning is always enough.
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