Failing Forward 500 Meters

I wound up a long way from here (photo credit)

Dear Daughters,

When I tell you it’s okay–good, in fact–to try new things even at the risk of failing, I’m not just echoing a hot parenting topic. I’m speaking from real-life experience. To give just one example…

On Your Marks, Get Set

Allow me to set the stage: I’m 14, a freshman in high school, and standing in front of a group of my peers wearing only a Speedo and a pair of swim goggles. (This is not some weird nightmare, mind you. This actually happened.)

It’s my first-ever high school swim meet, and I’m about to swim 20 laps–500 meters–as fast as I can. I have never swum 500 meters in a race before. And I have never stood in front of a bunch of 18-year-old girls in a Speedo before, either. For both reasons, I tremble slightly on the starting block, until the command comes to take our marks.

20 Laps, 500 Meters to Go

I bend over and stick my Speedo-shrouded backside in the air. Then, when the starter beeps, I launch myself headlong into the pool, adrenaline pumping.

As soon as I hit the water, my goggles are ripped from my face. Uh-oh.

I am now underwater, kicking like a dolphin with its eyes closed. I have to keep my eyes closed because I swim with contact lenses in. After all, I am so nearsighted that the back of my hand looks blurry if I hold it out at arm’s length. And losing my contacts is not an option–not in 1985, when a single pair of lenses is designed to last all year (and priced accordingly).

19 Laps, 475 Meters to Go

After trying to quickly glimpse the wall I’m swimming toward, I decide to attempt the first of 19 blind flip turns this race will now require.

Bad idea, Steve:  By the time I flip, I’m so close to the wall that I slam both heels onto the concrete pool deck. My older brother, Tim, who is watching from the other side of the pool, will later describe the sound as “like someone dropping a frozen chicken in the bathroom.” (We Sampsons are a poetic lot.)

18 Laps, 450 Meters to Go

Blind and bruised, I’m ready to quit after just two laps. But as my hand touches the wall and I lift my head up, not even trying to flip this time, I hear Tim’s voice. “Don’t quit,” he says. “Just finish.”

So I keep going.

12 Laps, 300 Meters to Go

Somewhere along the way, I start humming REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight this Feeling” to myself. It helps to dull the monotony, if not the pain in my heels. (The irony of the song choice will not occur to me until years later.)

I’m way off my target time by now.

8 Laps, 200 Meters to Go

As fatigue sets in, my (still-blind) stroke gets sloppy. I accidentally punch the lane lines repeatedly, cutting knuckles on both hands. There is now blood in the water. Literally.

4 Laps, 100 Meters to Go

The winner of the race is already done, and I still have four laps to go!

“Keep going,” Tim yells. “Just finish!”

2 Laps, 50 Meters to Go

More than six minutes have passed since I lost my goggles and bruised my heels. Everyone else in the race is now done. The race winner is out of the pool, enjoying a blueberry Hostess pie at the snack bar–or so I imagine.

“Just finish. Just finish. Just finish.”

Last 10 Meters

I sprint to the wall with everything I have left. And I finish. In last place. By a long way.

As I climb from the pool, the tears well up in the corners of my just-opened eyes.

Tim puts his arm around my shoulder. “Forget it,” he says. “Just forget it.”

But I never have. It was my first big moment as a high school athlete, and I failed completely.

Unless you count the fact that I kept on going, no matter how bad it got.

And the fact that my brother didn’t let me go it alone.

Unless, that is, you count the stuff that actually matters most.

Keep going. You’ll make it. No matter how far the finish.

And wherever you wind up …

I love you,


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