Competition, or Chlorine Smells Equally Bad on Everyone

5 Aug

This past winter I was ice fishing.

I know, I’m allergic to fish. But it’s the silence and solitude, the early morning hours, the ritual of it that appeals to me. Not to mention a lot of grandfatherly types and it has been nearly 5 years since I had one. As well as the fact that doing pushups on ice are way more fun.

During this particular ice fishing trip, no one was talking. I talk a lot for work so it was refreshing to be alone with my thoughts but surrounded by people. My other “alone with my thought” activities are usually much more solo – long runs, hot showers, cleaning my apartment.

And then, my friend and I began our ritual pushup competition (he’s much faster, I’ve got more endurance). And one of the fisherman, watching our poles in their little ice hole, said “Chlorine smells equally bad on everyone.” At the time, I thought it was just a statement on life. In fact, I thought it was a polite attempt at the statement “Everyone poops.” And I enjoyed wondering what he’d been thinking of during all those quiet moments that led to “Chlorine smells equally bad on everyone.”

* * * * *

This past week I emerged from my third pool practice a bit discouraged. Sharing a lane makes me swim faster. Sharing a lane with a coworker who is training for the same Ironman makes me swim even faster. And yet I was constantly getting lapped by him…and the other coworker across the buoys.

“The thing is” a third coworker said nicely the night before, “they were both made to swim and your body type, well, it’s not swimming-friendly.” It’s true. I’m not over 6 feet tall with single digit body fat. I’m short and muscular. Swimming is not my best friend or my first choice. Thanks to practice, I’ve managed to gain some respectable speed and can finish in the middle range of the average triathlon event (Timberman, unfortunately, not being average, I will probably be the last to finish.)

As I hoisted myself out of the pool, and prepared to shower off the chlorine smell, I thought about how I could swim faster – can I turn over faster, can I breathe more efficiently, should I kick more or kick less? Deep in my thoughts, I didn’t notice my coworker get out with me until we were side by side, walking to the locker rooms. “We smell of chemicals!” he said brightly.

Why yes. Chlorine smells equally bad on everyone.

And now I wonder if the fisherman’s comment was based on seeing us doing pushups and pointedly about competition. Some sweat more, some sweat less, but everyone sweats. Some finish first, some finish last, but everyone finishes. Some swim efficiently, some flail a little bit, but everyone smells equally of chlorine.

I’ve been thinking of this a lot. I do not believe that competition is all good. It can become destructive (ruin friendships or keep you from making them) and it can become obsessive (judging oneself on one’s ability to compete). And I do not believe it is all bad. It can be productive (most of society’s advances are built on competition) and it can be empowering (to push yourself past your limits and realize those weren’t your limits). Some of us thrive on competition and it doesn’t have to be with other people. Some of us compete against our own abilities, our own speed, our own efficiency. Finding a better way to do something at work that saves me time makes me pretty darn happy. Training to run faster than I have before also gives me energy. Competing against my own ideas of what I can do grows me as a person and an athlete.

But its all about balance. Not everything is competition. And the times I take it too far and begin to think less of myself for silly reasons (I will never be 6 foot tall and 8% body fat but I’ve also come a long ways in a year of lap swimming) are the times I need to remind myself that everyone is alike, even while everyone is different. We all sweat and stink and smile and have insecurities and fears and doubts. We all want joy and stability and love. We do not all think, act, or feel the same way but we are also built with the capacity to understand those who think, act and feel differently than us (engineers struggle with this last part).

I can’t play basketball. I can’t flip turn in the pool. Handstand pushups are pretty hard for me and muscle ups are impossible. I don’t have the patience for most crafts, the rhythm for most dances, the time for gourmet cooking. But chlorine smells bad on me. Just like it smells bad on you. Proving, as if I needed proof, that we are all just human. And I can live with that.

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