I have a fear of defeat. Of the moment when everyone can press their eyes into me and tell me that I’m weak. That I didn’t try. When I thought I had done my best until someone beats me and I realize that I didn’t strive to be good as I possibly could. I did just enough to beat the competition, or so I thought. A competitive lifestyle is a certain way to meet defeat.

As a child, the only other contestant in my Darwinian way of life was my sister, Sara, who was blissfully ignorant of this fact. I was born a year and a half earlier, and if at some point I thought that meant I deserved some authority over her, I quickly learned otherwise. We were close enough in age that people treated us in the same patronizing way. I don’t know if that made her more mature or me more childish. Nevertheless, I felt that being older meant that I had to be better because no one wants to be beaten by a small fry. My goal in life was to defeat Sara in any undertaking.

My diabolical plan was effective for the first few years of my life. I was proud to be able to run faster than my little sister who was still in the process of developing her leg muscles. While she was still learning addition and subtraction, I hoarded all the properties when we played Monopoly and fabricated a $200 tax on the properties she bought that I wanted. I was satisfied when I memorized how to spell Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last name from a Terminator VHS tape just to add one more feat to my List of Accomplishments that Sara Doesn’t Have. We arm-wrestled, we raced, we fought. I always had to win. She never cried over her losses and wasn’t annoyed when I gloated. We did everything together because I couldn’t let her get ahead of me.
And then we started gymnastics. We both excelled in our YMCA classes, so Mom took us to a gymnastics club to join a team. It wasn’t until the coach asked Sara to start doing back handsprings did I realize that I was the one left in the chalky dust that permeated the gym. Gymnastics consumed our lives—Sara’s because she loved it and mine because I couldn’t lose the contest. I spent every moment that I had to myself doing push-ups, sit-ups, splits, planks, and handstands. I wore baggy pants to cover the weights I velcroed to my ankles. I went to practice thinking that I would be able to suddenly jump higher, spin faster, balance longer, but Sara was amazing and I wasn’t.

She had known defeat her whole life.

Now it was my turn.

The harsh reality settled in that Sara could do a back handspring on a ten-centimeter wide beam and I couldn’t. She could vault over a table four feet high, push off her hands, do a backward roll in the air and land on her feet and I couldn’t. Images of myself landing on my head often flickered though my mind just before trying something new, making me balk and require two weeks of mental preparation, whereas Sara would not hold back. She was eventually placed in a higher level than I was. Jealousy surged over me as this newfound passion of my sister’s cleaved in half the dam holding back Sara’s ambition. This proved my inferiority to my little sister, a defeat I thought I could never live down.

We trained and competed separately for the first time. I didn’t have to train to be better than Sara anymore. I realized that I actually liked gymnastics. Finally, I was able to enjoy a hobby that I wasn’t the best at, and I welcomed that. I didn’t feel humiliated when I erred. I pursued new moves that thrilled me instead of attempting to accomplish everything my sister had. The goals I set for myself were my own, not pursued because I wanted to live up to someone who had already reached them. I didn’t have to fight to keep my title. I was liberated.
Years after that first YMCA class, I was able to accept that Sara was more talented than I was. We went to each other’s meets to cheer the other on. The first time I watched her from the sidelines and not from the lineup was a novel experience. I was caught off-guard when I felt a tinge of admiration and pride. I spoke genuinely when I wished her luck. I felt anything but satisfaction when she fell off the beam and glared down the judge who took off a whole point for it. I screamed when she stuck the landing on vault, on which she did a perfect tsuk. Her layouts in her tumbling pass were so high up that I could have stood under her without touching her. She achieved what I never could, and I wanted to be there to encourage her.

I had always “cared” about Sara, namely her abilities, but for once I wasn’t seeing them as a threshold for me to surpass. I was proud of her achievements even though I didn’t share them with her. In hindsight, I saw myself as a vigilante whose mission was to keep my sister confined within the boundaries of my own victories, and that horrified me. Gymnastics was Sara’s escape route from my oppression and the end of my reign. This new me, enlightened, didn’t like who I was, how I put down others to satiate my need to prove to myself that I am significant. But I didn’t prove anything because significance isn’t measured by victory or countered by defeat, it’s measured by the impact you have on others. I could be significant to my sister by making up for all the support I never gave her in years before. John Steinbeck said, “Somewhere in the world there is a defeat for everyone. Some are destroyed by defeat, and some made small and mean by victory. Greatness lives in one who triumphs equally over defeat and victory.” I learned that defeat is not failure, that hardly any of the victories I had were great, that maybe I can be even greater in defeat than in success. My trivial, childish victories may have reassured me of my worth, but it was my defeat that made me discover that life isn’t meant to be a series of victories but a chance to learn about ourselves and enjoy what we do. My defeat destroyed me, until I realized that it was really my own egotism that destroyed me. My defeat dissipated my one-sided animalistic rivalry with my sister. My defeat doused me with reality. Defeat was my prize.

Kari Andresen

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