The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat
Tags: Agony of defeat, Qualifying meets, Thrill of victory
The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Those words, made famous by ABC’s Wide World of Sports in the 1970’s certainly sum up sports. It is probably why I love sports so much. It’s the competition that keeps me involved in running and coaching. I am the first to acknowledge that winning is not everything. But at the same time, I find nothing wrong with competing. I often tell high school athletes when they graduate that what they will miss most is the competition. That’s what I missed – the drama of not knowing how the race was going to turn out. Being able to still experience that type of drama is what brought me to coaching.
The emotions of track & field qualifying meets capture the “thrill of victory and agony of defeat.” I’m talking about “sudden death” types of meets where you need to place in order to move on to the next week. It’s the track & field equivalent of a sudden death overtime playoff football game or a bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two-outs situation in baseball. Perhaps the ultimate sudden death situation is the single elimination NCAA college basketball tournament. It’s win and move on, or lose and go home.
That’s what happened during the semi-final races on Wednesday and Thursday at the NCAA Championships in Eugene. To qualify from the semi-final to the final athletes needed to place in the top eight. Eighth place was as good as first place. Ninth place, even if just one centimeter or a millisecond behind eighth place might as well have been last place. I’m not a big fan of the saying, “second place is the first loser,” but the sentiment rings true in these qualifying meets. That’s also what makes them exciting. It’s why I am a ball of nerves on qualifying meet days.
Track & field athletes of almost every ability level experience this type of qualifying meet pressure. Using the Sacred Heart Cathedral team as an example:
– I had athletes in the last dual meet of the season trying to have a strong performance so that I would enter them into the WCAL Trials meet.
– At WCAL Trials, some athletes knew they were unlikely to qualify for WCAL Finals. Some were pretty confident they would qualify. Others were on the bubble, experiencing the qualifying meet’s “win and move on or lose and go home” nervousness.
– At WCAL Finals, again there were some athletes hoping to qualify for the CCS Trials.
– At CCS Trials, there were athletes nervous about qualifying for CCS Finals.
– At CCS Finals, the nervousness was over qualifying for the State Meet Trials.
– At the State Meet, there are always athletes hoping to continue their season one more day by qualifying to the State Meet Finals.
– Finally, on State Meet Finals day the nervousness is the pressure of trying to win a state championship.
No matter what ability level you are, there is probably some meet during the season that is your “win or go home” meet.
At any given meet, the level of nervousness depends on your seeding. If you are a low seed, not expected to move on, it’s probably an accomplishment just to be at the meet. You are happy to be there and will probably compete relaxed, trying to just give a strong effort. As a low seed, you probably had your “nerve-racking” meet the week before when you qualified to get to this week’s meet. The athletes seeded in the middle have the most pressure. They are on the bubble. Perform well and they may qualify on to the next round. Don’t do so well and their season may be over.
Qualifying meets are very stressful for the high seeds, too. “Live to run again” was a saying I had when I coached Shannon Rowbury in high school. She was often a high seed and my feeling was that nothing good could really happen. If she qualified to the next round, it was expected. And if she didn’t qualify, it would pretty much be a disaster.
I spent hours coaching her on the nuances of making sure she qualified when she was a high seed. If the top two runners in a heat qualified automatically, I tried to give her a race plan to get second place. We didn’t worry about winning trials races when it wasn’t necessary. Another of our mantras was to run slow at trials to save energy for the finals. Shannon described this to a reporter saying, “You want to go slow to save a little for the finals but if you go too slow you won’t be in the finals.” When Shannon won the state meet in the 800 in 2001, I distinctly remember that she had one of the slower trials times of the eight finals qualifiers. We were cooling down together when we heard the names and times of all the qualifiers read over the PA system. I told her that her time at trials didn’t matter, all that mattered was that she qualified. “No one remembers what your trials time was,” I told her, “You have to run with your head on Friday and then with your heart on Saturday. What people remember is your Saturday race.”
In talking about Oregon’s chances of winning the NCAA Championship, Oregon head coach Vin Lananna said, “We’re going to have to have a great Saturday,” referring to the final day of the meet when most of the finals will be contested. “To make Saturday count, we’re going to have to have a good Wednesday, Thursday and Friday,” referring to the trials.
The most exciting, nerve-racking, and dramatic moments are when you are on the bubble. Maybe you’ll qualify, maybe you won’t. Those are the competitions that define what sports are all about. At the recently completed CCS Trials I was extremely nervous. With good races we could qualify athletes to CCS Finals in the 4X100 and 4X400 relays and the 100, 200, and 3200 meters. Yet, we could easily have had no one qualify on in any event. The margin of error was very small. The fact that failing to qualify meant the end of the season only added to my apprehension.
Our first two legs of the 4X100 relay were great but we failed to get the baton into our third runner’s hand. Boom! Just like that the season was over for the 4X100 relay team. Since we didn’t have another race for two hours, I had the agony of defeat in my head non-stop for two hours. Fortunately we got some great races in the 100, 200, and 3200 meters to qualify for CCS Finals.
Then in the final event of the day, our 4X400 relay team ran 3:27.26 in the second of four heats. We would have to wait and see if that time would be in the top eight, qualifying us for CCS Finals. In heat three, three teams beat our time. We were in trouble. We had to hope that our time was faster than whoever came in second place in the last heat. If we were faster we would qualify. If not, the season was over for the 4X4. There were four teams battling it out and on the last exchange and I knew it was going to be close. I had tears in my eyes thinking that the season could be over in less than a
minute for the 4X4 boys and there was nothing I could do to prevent it. With 200 meters to go I muttered to the assistant coach next to me, “This is bad, four teams battling it out means they are going to run fast down the homestretch.” Then at the top of the final turn, one of the runners fell and he tripped up one of the other runners. All of a sudden there were just two teams battling it out and both seemed to slow down just a tad. That was all we needed. The boys came over to the fence by me and we waited for the results. We all agreed that we felt pretty guilty for being excited to see the two teams fall because it helped our chances. Seconds later the final times popped up on the scoreboard and then they announced our name as one of the qualifiers. Ah, the thrill of victory.
The apprehension that I feel at qualifying meets, that is a combination of nervousness and excitement is what makes athletic competition so great. I think it is both an honor and a privilege to experience these emotions. There’s a quote I’ve used with the team, “You won’t cry if you don’t care” – this defines why you often see me tearing up at the end of a big meet. Sometimes it’s tears of joy and pride, and sometimes it’s tears of sadness and agony. But always it’s because I care.