"Johnnie Victory" by Pat Underhill


"Johnnie Victory" by Pat Underhill 
In 1996, I was a member of the Saint John's University Swim Team. We had just finished up a very successful conference meet, and were looking forward to competing at Nationals. We had set our goals very high that year, and had a real shot at placing in the top ten as a team. 
The meet was at Emory University inýGeorgia. Besides the waffle houses, the best part of Georgia for a Minnesotan was the weather. It snowed the first day we were there. So, I guess the waffles were the best part of Georgia. 
The first couple days of competition did not go as planned. We were horrible. Our 200 Free Relay was seeded 3rd, and we ended up 12th. Everything else went about as well. 
It was time for a pep talk. Our coach was a real character. He didn't know that much about swimming, but he certainly had a way about him. He was famous for such motivational speeches as "You think you have it bad, when I was your age, I was in Vietnam!" and "Do we hate our mothers?". I'm still not sure what that last one was about. 
Prior to the last day of competition, we had a team meeting, and he was particularly animated with us. I remember him stomping up and down the pool deck trying to convince us that we could turn it around. 
Well, I was angry. I wasn't interested in swimming slow, and I was going to take it upon myself to turn around my mindset, get angry, and swim with a purpose. 
The next day, we were preparing to swim the 400 Free Relay, the last event of the meet. A night of restless sleep did not quell my anger. I got behind the blocks about 30 minutes prior to the event and proceeded to pace up and down the pool deck with a scowl on my face. I'm certain I let a few expletives fly, and my teammates followed suit. 
As the race began, we were focused. It was going to take something special. After the first 2 swimmers, it was clear that it was going to be all up to me to start the comeback. We were 3 1/2 body lengths behind. I swam as angrily as I felt, and brought us back into contention after the 3rd leg. Then, our anchor brought it home, and we had made up the deficit to win our preliminary heat. We made the Championship Final. 
The top 6 at Finals receive a plaque, and achieve Automatic All-American status. We had one Senior on that relay, and he had never reached the Top 6. We decided we were going to get him that plaque. 
The Finals session was electric. I was excited, nervous, and still angry. The first 2 guys swam their best, but still had us at a huge deficit. They did their job, and swam best times. I swam about as fast as I had in the prelims, and we had a shot. Our anchor once again brought us home with everything he had, and as it came down to the last few yards, it was going to be close. As he came to the wall, we looked up at the clock, and saw a "6" by our lane. We had done it. Our team went nuts. 
One problem. The pad in lane 4 didn't fire. Lane 4 had won, yet it didn't register. We got 7th. By .03. We were devastated. We walked back to our team, still in disbelief. 
3 of us sat on a bench, heads in our hands, tears streaming down our faces. We worked so hard to get our teammate that plaque, and fell short. He came up to us, one by one, looked us in the eyes, and said "You did everything you could, and there's nothing to be ashamed of". It was a pretty powerful moment. 
We got on the podium at the finals ceremony, in the 7th place position. We were the only group of guys that were hugging each other up there. I've never been closer to a group of guys in my life. 
As an athlete, you have the power to decide to swim fast, and no matter what happens during a meet, or how you feel, you have the ability to determine how you respond to adversity. 
As a teammate, you can help your team reach it's potential. Celebrate the successes of your teammates, regardless of whether or not they're faster than you. Be positive and encouraging. Cheer for them because they make you better. 
If you've tried to train on your own, you know how hard it can be without your teammates. The people around you are important. They may become life-long friends. They may help you make it to the podium someday. Or, they may be there to pick you up when you fail.
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