The contender is that person who knows full well that the competition includes others who are more likely to win, but who enters the arena nonetheless. The contender arrives at the start of the event believing in the possibilities, and more often than not goes home without “winning.” The contender is a lost name, over time; who remembers those with the silver or bronze medals?
Yet without contenders, there would be no winners. Without others pushing from behind, a winner has no race. Without others willing to put in the work of trying, there is no competition. On the rare occasions I have taken home the blue ribbon from the triathlon of the horse sport of Eventing, it is with astonishment and pride, and gratitude for my fellow athletes for being there, too.
The contender gets up every day, just like those who always seem to win, primed to try, ready to improve the skills required for the sport of choice, determined to Be Better, Stronger, Faster. To me, it is this process of asking more of oneself that somehow, over time, translates to something far deeper and more meaningful than winning a particular competition. Don’t get me wrong: winning is really nice! But getting out of bed and wading through the tasks of daily life, and dropping back into bed at night knowing you did your best matters. An elite athlete does the same, but for us regular folks, it is a different sort of winning. Anyone can choose to be a contender in this way. It is the try, more than the result, that builds a better person. Results that bring a trip to the gold medal platform cannot be denied, not a bit, but effort counts for something big, too.
The Olympic stories that probably tug hardest on the heartstrings of viewers like me are those about the contenders who will never make the final heat, the ones who have struggled far differently from those in the limelight, but who compete nonetheless. Those people are at the Olympics not to win, because they know they won’t, but to reach different goals than what that limelight has to offer. Those athletes lend courage to contenders like me who are at the level of simply trying to live honorably and with dignity. The heart which those contenders show to the world is a quiet lesson to us all.
In seven years of Eventing with my partner, Gentleman Jack (“Jake”), including several at the upper levels of the sport, he and I won exactly one event together. It was a undeniable thrill! In dozens of outings, we were almost always in the hunt, and came home with many second and third place ribbons. We also often came home with no fabric to show for the effort—but we were contenders. We showed up, we did our best. I offered congratulations to those who bested us and remained ever-humble when things went well; it is not a sport for the faint of heart.
More than the ribbons, what I will always remember (and still bring to daily life) is the work of training hard every day, of preparing myself and my horse so we could enter that arena as worthy contenders. What sticks is the knowledge that the effort was my own. I built it, I owned it, I earned the memories.
If we can’t all be Michael Phelps, or Katie Ledecky, or Simone or Simone, we can—in whatever arena we choose to contend, including the arena of life—bring the human qualities of effort, humility, and grace to the game. That’s what a good contender does.