Monday, November 18, 2019

A combination of spirit and strength

In 1963, we were the Pennsylvania state champions in the mile relay and invited to compete in a special event in New York City at the 168th Street Armory.

On the bus ride there, I sat, as usual, next to my best friend, Bobby Bryant, a six-foot African American superstar. Bobby was so warm and kind that it would take him forever to get through the school cafeteria because he had to stop and joke with every table. School was a struggle for him academically, but on the track, he was magic.

His family never had much money, so I bought him a pair of Adidas spikes with the money I made working. It was a gesture of friendship, but also more than that: Bobby running in a great pair of spikes made all of us look good.

Six teams lined up in the final. I always ran the first leg, and I never passed the baton in second place.

When the gun went off, I broke out in front. But coming around the first curve, I felt my right hamstring rip. The pain was sudden and excruciating.

I had a choice: I could pull over and stop, the sensible choice for my body. Or I could continue and find a way to keep us as close as I could and give us a chance to win.

I drifted to the middle of the track, forcing the runners behind me to find a way around. I gritted through the remaining distance, choking down the pain and watching my competitors sprint ahead. I passed the baton to our second leg runner twenty yards behind the leader. I limped to the infield, bent over, and vomited. I had done all I could, but there was no way we could make up the distance.

I had imagined victory and worked ferociously to ensure it. I had put in those hard and lonely laps through the winter. Now I was certain we would lose.

But as I stood there, my hands on my knees, I heard the crowd stirring, shouts bouncing off the brick walls.

My teammate running the second leg was starting to gain. Then our third runner closed the gap further. The spectators in the balcony took off their shoes and started banging them on the metal panels lining the track. After the third leg, the gap was down to twelve yards, still a huge distance to make up.

Brooklyn Boys High School had their best runner, the best runner in the city, waiting to grab the baton. Oli Hunter was six feet three inches tall with a shaved head, wide shoulders, a tapered waist, and extremely long legs, perfectly engineered to run. He had never been beaten in any competition.

Our final leg runner was Bobby. I watched Bobby take off on the flat, wooden armory floor, his eyes wild with intensity, focused on Hunter’s back. Stride by stride, he reeled him in. I knew Bobby better than anyone else, but even I couldn’t tell where he got that combination of spirit and strength from.

Right at the tape, he lunged forward to win. He did it! The crowd went wild! How could that possibly have happened? It had been a superhuman effort.

Afterward he came over to me in the infield. He put his big arms around me and hugged me. “I did it for you, Steve. I couldn’t let you down.”

Training and competing together, we made each other better.
Source: What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence by Stephen A. Schwarzman

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