More Than One Kind of Champion
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“More Than One Kind of Champion,” Tambuli, Oct. 1989, 38

More Than One Kind of Champion

As a boy, I loved to run. When I was eleven years old, I won an Oregon state cross-country race and I vowed to become a national champion before I graduated from high school. Full of boldness, determined to be better than anyone else, I began a training routine that was to last for years. Every day I ran from five to sixteen kilometers. I loved training. Neither mud, rain, sweat, nor pain were to keep me from my goal. “You only get out of it what you put into it” became my motto.

I began to look ahead to running in the Junior Olympics. My plan was to prepare to race in the 1985 competition, when I would be fourteen years old, and again in 1987, when I would be sixteen. I calculated that these would be in my best years and I would be in my top running condition. What I didn’t calculate was that by 1985 I would grow from a skinny, lightweight boy, to a taller and heavier young man. My whole system had to catch up with the added dimensions of my growing body. My knees ached constantly; my feet and hips almost cried out in pain as I ran; and it was all I could do to win a state championship by a fraction of a second. I knew 1985 wasn’t the year to enter the Junior Olympics, but I would have two years to prepare myself for the 1987 event.

By the spring of 1987 I was running well. I was undefeated in the 1,500-meter run and praised by a local newspaper as the fastest high school freshman in the state of Oregon. My aches and pains had gone. I felt good and I knew I was ready for the Junior Olympics.

Meanwhile, three teammates and I had been invited to participate in a prestigious regional track meet. Full of confidence and in high spirits, we got into the team van with our coach for the ride to the meet.

As we drove onto the main highway, I noticed how congested the traffic was and subconsciously fastened my seat belt. We were all laughing and joking when I casually looked up and noticed a speeding car coming our way. Completely out of control, it began swerving back and forth in our traffic lane, barely avoiding several cars ahead. Stunned into silence, we helplessly watched the car head straight for us.

I awoke to the sounds of screaming sirens, two-way radios crackling, and shouting policemen. We had been hit head-on by a car driven by a wanted man in a stolen car who was being pursued by police in a high-speed chase. My teammate and good friend, Lenny, who was in the seat behind me without his seat belt on, had been thrown across my seat. I had been propelled forward and pinned under the weight of his unconscious body and my doubled-up seat.

I managed to move just enough to see out of the window. The other car looked like a crumpled piece of paper. Two ambulances drove in beside our crushed van, and I was quickly, but very carefully, lifted out of our wrecked vehicle. “I think this one has a broken back!” I heard one ambulance man say as he looked at me with pity and concern.

As miracles go, my back wasn’t broken—just my nose! However, serious back strain, several pulled muscles, and joint displacement prevented me from walking for a few days and kept me from running normally for several months. This had not been in my plan. I became discouraged as my training schedule for being in top condition was once again interrupted.

I continued to train, both with the high school team and with a running club my brothers and sisters and I belong to. As I watched my ten-year-old brother, Tyler, run, I began to feel more frustration and irritation. He ran strong and well. He could keep up with several of the high school runners and was getting better every week. As much as I loved him, I resented how easy it all seemed for him.

I watched Tyler win in a state track and field championship, defeating his nearest competition by 500 meters. A crowd of excited supporters gathered around him as I stood back. An incredible sense of pride built up inside me, and as Tyler looked past all the well-wishers, seeking my approval, the feeling of love was so intense between us that I felt we were the only two in the noisy stadium. As I sensed his deep need for my approval my resentment of his success totally left me. At that moment, I vowed that my little brother would go to the national championships prepared with all the knowledge I could share and with the assurance of my support.

We ran together after that. I talked about form and strategy, how to pass other runners and maintain a lead. We ran up hills to build his endurance, sprinted on the track to build his speed, and made up all sorts of exercises to improve his reflexes. We talked about racing as we did chores around the house, as we ate breakfast, as we drove into town, and as we watched sports news on television. We ran in pouring rain and sweltering heat.

Tyler and I both placed first in our age categories in the Northwest Regional Championships, and that gave us the chance to compete in the national championships. Because of the accident and the interruption of my training, I thought I might only place in the top twenty-five runners. My race was first, and I was twenty-first out of 300 and gained a national ranking.

Satisfied and happy with my performance, I then turned my attention to Tyler. I had already taken him through the cross-country course, showing him how to approach and hurdle a deep ditch, when to stride out, where to save his strength, what to avoid, and how to stay mentally tough. He wa ready! As we looked for his starting place among the other 265 runners on the starting line, I felt as nervous as when I had lined up for my own race. Tyler was tense, and I just kept assuring him that he was the best. I could sense his apprehension as if it were my own. How I wished I could transform his pain to joy! “Be tough, Tyler. Just remember, no one is better than you. No one can beat you,” I said. My arm slipped around his slumping shoulder, and I felt like I was deserting a desperate man when I walked away and noticed the tears in his eyes.

I watched him run a perfect race as I ran from place to place on the course to cheer him on, hoping he could feel my support reaching out to him. Could he hear? Could he sense my strength reaching out to him? He came toward the last stretch of the race in second place. “Keep going, Tyler!” I yelled. “Use your arms! Breathe deeply!” If he could just feel what I felt for him in that crowd of 5,000 wildly screaming spectators.

He was turning the corner for the last 100 meters—a part of the course we had run over and over together as we planned this moment. “Now Tyler! Give it all you’ve got left! Come on!” I pleaded. My voice choked as I thrilled at the sight of my little brother, a picture of perfect health, striding down the homestretch to a spectacular finish to become the national champion I had planned to be.

My pride in him told me that I had won something too. I realized I had given part of myself away to help Tyler succeed, and it created a feeling within me far richer and more powerful than I could have ever imagined. As an exhausted Tyler broke away from the crowd and came to me, he gasped out the words which taught me the lesson of my life.

“Jason, I felt terrible—but I could hear you cheering the whole way, over the noise of all the people, and I knew I could win. I knew I had to win!”

What other lessons would this little champion learn from me—good or bad?

What about all our other brothers and sisters in the family of men. What messages do they hear above the crowd? Just as Tyler could hear and respond to that call to win, how many others need that voice in the crowd? How often do we get caught up in our own plans and fail to call out our encouragement, fail to cheer others on to victory?

As Tyler and I embraced, I truly knew the meaning of the words, “He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him” (1 Jn. 2:10).

Illustrated by Larry Winborg