Finish line

“I am as nervous as I’ve ever been.”

That was my son this morning, up before the sun for his first youth triathlon. At eight years old, he would be among the youngest of the hundreds of children in the event–a 100 meter swim, five mile bike ride, and 1.3 mile run. The boy took small, slow bites of whole wheat toast slathered in peanut butter and honey. Although he’s a kid with a flair for drama, it was too early for one of his patented one act plays. He was serious. He was nervous.

This entire story could be about my son. It could be about his fear of his first bike ride without his mom. It could be about a longer swim than he’s used to. It could be about his worry—his chief fear—that he wouldn’t be able to cross the finish line like the big kids. I was nervous for him, and I can’t adequately describe the pride of watching him overcome his fear and turn it into grit. Was he the fastest? No, but that was never the point. The point was giving him an opportunity to test himself, and more, give him an opportunity to be proud. That’s our story, but not the most important story of the day.

Grit

When you watch a group of children—hundreds ranging in age from 8 to 15—engage in something so physically grueling as today’s event, it inspires a lot of emotion, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to wanting to get a little preachy about childhood obesity or out-of-touch parents. But those aren’t the most important stories of the day either.

The last quarter mile of the youth triathlon was a gentle uphill climb to the finish line. After watching our kid gut out the swim, grit out the ride, and transition to the run, we settled in on the sidewalk about a tenth of a mile from the finish. As we waited for our son to run, we watched the kids come in. That’s where the story was.

The humidity this morning had climbed above 90%.

“My entire body feels sticky,” my kid said. And I understood. There is nothing fun about trying to exercise in South Carolina on a humid day. I was soaked after setting up his transition area.

These kids were in the final stretch of 30-45 minutes that would be a struggle for most of the adults I know. For some of them, it was easy. Most, however, had the same look as my son as they climbed toward the waiting crowd.

The face of struggle

And so, as we waited, we offered children we didn’t know a few words of encouragement and a round of applause. That’s when I saw the story of the day.

It didn’t happen with every child, but the vast majority of them turned their heads toward the cheers and transformed into smiling, driven machines. For every “finish strong” or “you’re almost there,” we saw a child dig down into her heart and dash for the finish. It only took a few words to take a child on the verge of collapse and turn him into a churning engine of pride and accomplishment.

I know this feeling. When I was in the final stretch of the Las Vegas half marathon last year, I thought I was going to collapse just short of the finish line. I’ve spent most of my life thinking I wasn’t good enough, and on that day in Vegas, I felt no different. That’s when I heard a crowd of my friends chanting for me, a sound that pushed me the final steps to the end.

Now, however, I was watching it happen over and over again and with children 30 years younger than me. Inside each of them was a well of potential they didn’t know existed until they heard a crowd of people telling them they could do it. It happened with my son, which gave me immense pride. But more so, it happened with children I’d never met. Just a few words and some applause changed those kids in an instant.

I thought about it for most of the day, and as I go to bed tonight, I wonder what we might be able to learn from that moment. It doesn’t matter if it’s a kid who likes to swim, bike, and run, or a kid who likes to build things, or a kid who draws cars. How many children might succeed if we just took a second to cheer them on?

My kid threw a fist in the air as he crossed the finish line. He didn’t care about his time. He only cared that he finished. And he cared that once he got his medal and a bottle of water, he had someone at the end to give him a hug.

First place, no matter where he finished