What Makes a Champion? Two Views

Phoebe Wright (741) runs a 4:14.80 for second in the 1500 at the 2015 Payton Jordan meet. Photo by an Old Crock; click to enlarge.
Phoebe Wright (741) runs a 4:14.80 for second in her least-favorite event, the 1500, at the 2015 Payton Jordan. Photo by an Old Crock; click to enlarge.

How many of us have thought, at the start of our careers, that if we worked real hard we might get good? And then…

And then reality comes along and sticks its foot out and laughs merrily.

Nothing wrong with dreaming; even less with aspiring and working hard. But the plain fat fact is that we’re all made differently, and there’s something fundamentally wrong with a system that doesn’t recognize this.

“Everybody a champion?” No, that’s going too far. But let’s honor those who make the most of their gifts, even if they’re fairly pathetic.

In the last couple days I’ve enjoyed two articles on the qualities that make champions, written by people who should know.

First up was “Barriers to Championship Performance,” by Dan Pfaff. Dan ran the US Olympic Training Center for a time; he now coaches at the World Athletic Center in Phoenix. Dan’s article is very serious. Fair warning, his 20-item checklist for champions will make you feel small.

Phoebe Wright takes another approach. Phoebe doesn’t update her Stop Phe blog often, but when she does it’s worth the time. She’s funny, and she’s someone we can identify with, because she isn’t a bit shy about sharing her mistakes and the lessons she learned. Oh, and she’s run a 1:58.22 800m and a 4:08 1500. Check her long, hilarious article, “The Not-So-Cinderella Story,” posted today.

Of these two views of the qualities of champions, which one is right, or righter? I don’t know. I had more fun reading Phoebe’s story, possibly because it’s human and personally engaging, while Dan Pfaff was a bit more in the vein, “if you can’t jump over these bars, don’t even think about being great.”

Maybe so, but I can think of a number of champions who because I’m a gentleman I will not name, who broke more than one of the rules and obliterated the competition.

Meditating about champions, I think a quality that Dan and Phoebe might agree on is a relentless, always-pressing thirst for joy.

Joy comes inevitably when we do what’s expansive — that is, what allows our body, heart, will, and mind to thrive. For athletes of all levels of talent, expansion comes by “nudging our edges,” as my once-upon-a-time roommate the late Ian Jackson used to say. Ian had decent athletic creds, including a win at the Pacific AAU 50-K Championship in the early ’70s.

Anyway, that’s the overarching method, as far as I can tell. Look for joy. Champions who follow it tend to be remarkably cheerful. Ian was like that, and I saw it in most of the champions who wandered through the Runner’s World offices when I worked there nearly 45 years ago.

I think it might be partly why Phoebe Wright’s blog is so darn cheerful and fun.

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