First Place Not Essential for Victory

by Richard S. Winer, M.D. | Current Events

This week, we have been commemorating the 40th anniversary of man landing on the moon. I remember how everyone was caught up in the so-called “space race” to see who would be the first to the moon. At times, it seemed there was less appreciation for the technical feat and personal courage of those space pioneers than there was for the fact that the United States “won” the race to the moon over the Soviet Union.

The Russians might have been the first to launch the unmanned Sputnik into outer space and, for a while, they were seemingly ahead in manned space travel. But, when it came to reaching the finish line better known as the surface of the moon, Apollo 11 earned the proverbial checkered flag.

Winning seemed to be an obsession then and I doubt that things have changed that much in this regard in the ensuing years. We place a very high premium on winning and there are many who consider the person who comes in second place as the “first loser.” After all, the late, great Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi reminded us that from his standpoint, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

Ronald Reagan, in his acting days, played Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne and uttered the immortal words “Let’s win one for the Gipper.” referring to Fighting Irish coach Frank Gipp. It was as though losing was not an option. Even former coach and current Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis simplified this obsession by saying “Just win, baby.”

Can you recall any remarks over the years that essentially conveyed the desire to come in second place?  I can’t and the closest thing I can recall that glorified second place was the old Avis car rental acknowledgement that “We’re Number 2; We try harder.”

We have a hard time remembering who came in second place in most competitions even if those competitors tried just as hard and perhaps even overcame more to achieve that lofty position as those who took first place.

This week, we are hearing quite a bit about Neil Armstrong being the first man on the moon and although Buzz Aldrin was part of that same mission, he does not quite enjoy the same recognition by virtue of being the second man to set foot on the moon. As for Michael Collins, the third astronaut on Apollo 11 who orbited the moon while his colleagues took the lunar excursion module to the moon’s surface, he has been relegated to relative anonymity.

Michael Phelps won eight gold medals last year in the Beijing Olympics. Anybody know who won the most silver medals there?  Not me and I try to keep up with those sorts of records.

I have been struck by the number of phenomenal performances in the sports world recently by those athletes who have come close to victory, but have fallen just short. This may indeed be a year of some of the most memorable second place finishes I can ever recall.

Just this past weekend, many of us were mesmerized by 59 year old Tom Watson’s gallant attempt to become the oldest golfer by more than a decade to win a major championship. His remarkable play less than a year after hip replacement surgery at Turnberry where he had won three decades before reminded us that age can be an obstacle, but not an absolute barrier to accomplishment.

At the same time, Lance Armstrong has returned to the Tour de France after a several year’s absence and finds himself in second place in one of the most grueling athletic competitions. In recent weeks, Andy Roddick was disappointed, but acquitted himself admirably in an unforgettable loss to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon finals. The U.S. soccer team went to South Africa to play in the Confederation Cup and after having everything go just right on the final day of the first round just to advance, the men’s team stunned Spain in the semifinals and led Brazil 2-0 in the finals before losing 3-2.

If you want to go back earlier in the year, how about Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals? Not only did they make it to the Super Bowl, but they came from behind in the fourth quarter to lead before the Pittsburgh Steelers scored a last minute touchdown to win the game.

What does all this mean? Well, I refer back to a series of programs I participated in some years ago with a psychiatric hospital in conjunction with the Atlanta Hawks basketball team. The programs were entitled “Winning Is An Attitude.” You can’t always look at the scoreboard to determine who has won.

Maybe we should recognize the efforts of the winners and the “near-winners” as well because they are not really losers. We can accomplish great things in our lives without ever winning the Claret Jug, an Olympic gold medal, the yellow jersey, or the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

As I have said often in talks before, if you can look at yourself in the mirror and believe you have done your best to put in the effort required to be a winner, then you are indeed a winner. Then, even coming in second place can mean you are the second winner and not the first loser.

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