A personal reminder of why trying trumps failure
Two weeks ago, I raced my final stage of the Exergy Tour in Idaho and crossed the line in less than first place. I knew immediately I had not earned enough qualification points to make it to London, and my Olympic dream, more than six years in the making, was over.
I remember rain, sadness, fatigue and disappointment, but I recall few other details about the day except for my father's phone call that night. I thought he was calling to give me one of his great pep talks about being proud of my efforts and how I'm always a winner even if I come in 197th place, the typical, wonderful, supportive dad stuff. I wasn't prepared for the news of his impending open-heart surgery, just days away.
"I didn't want to tell you until your final qualification race was over," he said. "I wanted you to focus on your dream."
Oh, Dad. Really?!
A major (yet gentle) scolding for withholding such life-and-death information ensued, information I deem far more important than any Olympic dream. I bought a red-eye plane ticket to New York.
It took a few hours to gather my thoughts; my father's upcoming heart surgery and the finale of my Olympic dream ping-ponged with my emotions. The state of my father's health dwarfed my disappointment on the bike, and I knew any frustration over the latter would release itself in its own time. And so, in the middle of a crowded Boise restaurant during our team dinner that evening, it did.
Somewhere between appetizers and entrées, time slowed down just enough for a reflection on the day, and the re-realization of my Olympic dream coming to an end. With public weeping in restaurants located near the bottom on my list of Fun Things in Life, I excused myself and let the disappointment run its course in private. But at the same time, I could see the Big Picture of what I had and had not achieved. Underneath the tears, everything really was OK. I've been through disappointment before; I'm familiar with the effects.
I have twice tried to cycle my way to the Olympics and did not succeed on either attempt. And yet, I refuse to use the word "fail." Not reaching a goal is one thing, but to attach failure to it would take away all I did achieve along the way. From seeing the world to meeting incredible competitors to improving as an athlete, I have only gained, not lost. To "fail" at any anything means one must first try something, so technically the failure cannot exist without trying; and if there is effort, then perhaps there is no such thing as failure.
I believe trying -- trying anything! -- is what we are meant to do with our lives, and perhaps the only true failure is never to try. My father taught me this when he took up triathlons 10 years ago at age 66. He wasn't after a podium spot or an Olympic dream; he only wanted to partake in the greatest thrill of athleticism, which we so often overlook: trying.
Of course, that doesn't mean trying is easy; sometimes it's downright devastating. I compete in a sport that has a Broom Wagon -- an actual car with brooms as decorations that sweeps losing cyclists off the course if they're not fast enough that day. It's rather humiliating. To commit to a life of pro cycling requires an athlete to sign a mental contract that states:
I am OK with being swept off European courses, dealing with hypercompetitive type-A women, having airlines lose/crack/charge my bike, picking asphalt out of my thighs and getting my butt kicked on a regular basis, all for a 3-in-200 chance of standing on a podium.
This is a sport that practically ensures disappointment. And yet, I willingly signed that contract time and time again, because there is true beauty hidden in the disappointment.
The gift of disappointment is it shows us our capacity to care, want, hope and be truly invested in life and go after what we want. It hurts when we don't reach our goal, but disappointment is an odd sort of victory; it can be felt only by those who try. I put my heart and soul into trying. I am pretty certain that is what hearts and souls are for. There is no greater regret than looking back on life and wondering, "What if?" So, here I am at the end of a six-year adventure, holding my head high, not as an Olympian, but as a proud Almostian. I do not regret one minute of my life-changing journey. London called, and I answered. We had a four-year conversation. I treasure every word, sentiment and lesson learned.
Before my father's mitral valve surgery, he and I had some heart-wrenching conversations about wills, wishes, requests and documents that covered all the necessary "what ifs" that come with a parent heading into a serious operation. I felt both grown up and six years old at the same time. My father handed me a list of names and phone numbers, then diffused the tension with dark humor and athletic philosophy.
"These are the people I want you to call if I DNF the operation," he said. "Remember, when it comes to living, it is always better to DNF than DNS." This time, my tears fell as laughter. Mostly.
The day before his procedure, my father urged me to drive the two-hour trip to Philadelphia to compete with my team in the Liberty Classic. There were no Olympic points there, but I am still a pro cyclist and have a job with Team Colavita. Life goes on, and this was my next stop on the journey. My mind was still reeling from all things Olympic and aortic, but Dad and I decided a quick trip to Philly might do a mind and body good. My legs wanted to race; so did my heart.
Our team director asked for a volunteer to "go off the front," which is cycling speak for making a solo breakaway, one of the tactics involved in saving our other riders for the later parts of the race. "I don't care if you DNF," Iona Wynter Parks said. "Just give it everything you have." I volunteered, my father's words echoing within.
When it comes to living, it is always better to DNF than DNS ...
For five miles at the start of the Liberty Classic, I broke away alone. The peloton would eventually catch me and I would be gobbled up and spit out the back, completely shattered by exertion. The broom wagon (in the form of referees) would also sweep me into obscurity. In the meantime, however, my mind was quieted from all matters of disappointment, apprehension, Olympic almostness, life, death and hearts both literal and figurative. It was just me and my bike. I was completely in the moment of physical effort; I was neither winning nor losing, neither failing nor succeeding. I was striving and doing and seeing and feeling; I was obliterating What Ifs and reveling in Maybes. At that moment, I was in the actual heart of what it means to be an athlete: I am trying. It felt awesome.
My father's mitral valve repair surgery was a success. I crushed my dad's DNF call list into a ball and tossed it into the garbage. We don't need that just yet. After seven days in the hospital, he was released, and a new lease on life awaits.
He and I are in the process of reassessing exactly what is next in our respective journeys. For him, it will be a while before he can get back in the pool or on the bike. Walking is the current challenge.
"Someday, I'd like to do a sprint triathlon again, but that's a long way off," he said. "Right now, I'd just like to be able to walk over to the fridge and have myself a beer."
Indeed. Not every goal needs to be of Olympic proportions. Whatever the journey -- whether it is across the world or the kitchen -- it has the potential to be a valiant effort.
All that matters is we try, with all our heart.
Kathryn Bertine is the author of two sports memoirs, "All The Sundays Yet To Come" and "As Good As Gold." You can follow her on Twitter @kathrynbertine, or check out her latest endeavor to help women's cycling.