In Praise of Meghan Vogel

All the news isn’t bad. And maybe today’s youth aren’t a lost cause after all.

Sick and tired of big time college and professional sports? Knuckleheads running afoul of the law, the commercialism, the cheating, the excesses of competition. Then take a few minutes and read about how Ohio high school trackster Meghan Vogel (on the right below) recently stopped to help a fallen competitor across the finish line near the very end of the 3,200 meter final.

Maybe it’s an especially touching story because we mistakenly think competition is an elixir for all that ails us. Vogel’s decision highlights the power of cooperation. Her compassion and humble response to her fifteen minutes of fame inspire me. And the surprising decision by the meet officials not to apply the letter of the law and disqualify the two student-athletes warrants praise.

[But of course, all the news isn’t good on the adolescent front.]

Vogel, “I just did what I knew was right.” Credit: AP Photo/The Daily Call, Mike Ullery

Ephemeral Victory

A Sports Illustrated story. Synopsis. A South Pasadena High School pole vaulter thought she won a meet and league title for her team on her final vault until the Monrovia coach pointed out she had a string friendship bracelet on which is against the rules. The pole vaulter was disqualified on the technicality, giving Monrovia the victory and league title.

I’m going to guess this was what the Monrovia coach was thinking upon seeing the bracelet. “We got em’. Victory is ours.”

Here’s an alternative idea. Let’s assume that none of the South Pas or Monrovia girls are going to become professional tracksters. And let’s assume that in ten or twenty years few people will remember or care about who won the meet and league title. And let’s speculate on how the Monrovia coach might have processed things had he been thinking more like an educator.

Specifically, what if he had asked, “What’s the take-away for my athletes if we claim victory based on the technicality? What is it if we refuse to stake our claim to victory? Which is likelier to result in classy adults?”

Or what if he had quickly huddled up with the team and asked them what they thought they should do? “Coach,” I’m betting they would have said, “let’s go congratulate them on their victory.”

Excellence

Two events recently made me think about excellence, what it entails and how to cultivate it. Event one was Olympia High’s final orchestra concert of the school year. I’m always blown away by their individual and collective musicianship. Event two was Sunday’s Pre(fontaine) Classic track meet in Track Town, USA, Eugene, OR. In the mile, 12 people went sub 4, an American woman ran 3:59.9 in the 1500; a shot putter went over 71 feet; a long jumper 28’8″; the 100m winner, 9.94; and on and on. 

One thing musical and athletic excellence entail is beauty. There’s something mesmerizing about watching a gifted musician embrace and bring a piece alive just as there’s something almost mystical about watching an elite middle distance East African runner pull away in the last 400 meters.

Often there’s a knowledgeable, committed, demanding coach eliciting excellent performance. Chip Schooler, the Olympia High orchestra conductor is a case in point. I don’t want to put him on a pedestal even though he does stand on one, but those students are privileged to get to work with him day in and day out.

There also has to be an intrinsic love of the activity that translates into dedication to repetitive practice. Then there’s very careful preparation for the excellent performance. One of my favorite parts of the meet was watching the pole vaulters warm up an hour before their event started. Running drills, spraying the handle of their poles, taking practice runs and flopping into the mat, stretching, hydrating, narrowing their focus.

In excellence versus equity debates, I typically advocate for equity, but they don’t have to be mutually exclusive all the time. Maybe I’ve slighted excellence out of fear that it too often produces elitism.