I'm a pretty competitive guy, though I try to keep it in perspective. But there are times, often when I least expect it, when life teaches me lessons about the true nature of competition. One of those lessons came on a warm spring day several years ago, in a small town outside Portland, Oregon.
I used to love to watch the high school track team train—especially the distance runners. But that year, my eye was drawn to one girl in particular. Her running style was all wrong—she ran with her arms tucked close to her body, bouncing up and down in a way that must have driven her coaches crazy. My athletic mind scoffed at her strange style, I began to think of her as “the Bouncer. "
But the more I watched her, the more I began to notice something else about this awkward young girl. While she ran, she was oblivious to everything and everybody as she bounced around the track, and always wore a smile that could only be described as serene. For her, running had taken on significance that was difficult to define, and in spite of myself, that young woman with the angelic smile began to intrigue me.
Even so, I couldn't help wondering how she was going to fare once the real track season began—and it didn't take long to find out. In early May, the high school hosted its first big track, featuring athletes from every school in the conference.
Since the conference ran the distance races with both boys and girls on the track at the same time, a large group of athletes gathered at the starting line for the two-mile run—including the Bouncer. The gun sounded, and the runners took off in a multi-colored flash.
That year, our school had a very gifted runner named Dave, and he quickly took the lead, one he would never relinquish for that entire season, because he never lost a race.
But the Bouncer quickly fell far behind the pack and as the race progressed. Dave lapped her once, twice, and finally a third time. In fact, every runner, male and female, lapped the Bouncer at least once before it was over. But she just kept running, arms tucked close to her sides, never varying her stride, bouncing up and down—and always wearing the same angelic smile.
I found myself being embarrassed for that ungainly girl who was being lapped again and again. Surely she must be mortified, I thought—but it didn't seem to bother the Bouncer at all. She didn’t even seem to notice, and just kept doing exactly what she was doing, never changing her stride.
A short while later, the crowd rose to its feet, cheering Dave to another victory, followed by scattered applause for every athlete who crossed the finish line after him. It wasn’t long before the Bouncer was the only one left on the track, running all by herself.
That poor kid, I thought. What must she be feeling? Why didn't she just give up? There was nothing at stake now, and nothing to be gained by finishing so far behind the pack. Still, the Bouncer never faltered, and her serene expression never changed.
After what seemed like an eternity, the Bouncer finally approached the final turn, a full five minutes behind even the slowest runner. But then, something strange began to happen. As the Bouncer entered the home stretch, a cheer began to rise up from the bleachers. It rose and swelled, growing louder with each stride the Bouncer took toward the finish line until, finally, every person in the stands, regardless of which team they'd come to support, stood and cheered as if the fate of the entire meet hinged on this one lone girl, bouncing toward the finish line.
The Bouncer turned on no extra burst of speed or big kick down the straightaway. She just continued to run exactly as she’d been doing from the opening gun, smiling so sweetly that it made my heart ache. But as she neared the finish line, the roar of the crowd could be heard echoing throughout the valley. And in the midst of all that noise and celebration, the mighty, invincible Dave walked out onto the track and held out his arm to slap the Bouncer's hand as she crossed the finish line.
It was an incredible moment.
I've seen hundreds of races since that day, and I've seen thousands of runners cross the finish line. But I've never seen anything that embodied the true spirit of victory as I watched on that warm spring so long ago, when I saw a race won—and I mean won—by an ungainly girl I had laughingly called the Bouncer.
So here's to you, Bouncer, wherever you may be, and may your smile always be as sweet as it was on that day.
From Spider’s Night on the Boom
© Gary E. Anderson. All rights reserved.
About The Author
Gary Anderson is a freelance writer, editor, ghostwriter, and manuscript analyst, living on a small Iowa farm. He’s published more than 500 articles and four books. He’s also ghosted a dozen books, edited more than 30 full-length manuscripts, produced seven newsletters, and has done more than 800 manuscript reviews for various publishers around the nation. If you need writing or editing help, visit Gary’s website at www.abciowa.com .