The Difference Between Throats and Toes

Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

The wind whipped across my face, grabbing the hair I had attempted to coax into a ponytail, pushing it into my mouth, and tangling it around my neck. Water splashed with unrelenting ferocity off the blade spinning desperately in my hands. My muscles ached with a vengeance and my throat stung from the harsh intake of breath, but I ignored my discomfort. I wanted this race more than anything.

For the past three years, my favorite part of the day has been settling into my kayak seat, slipping my feet beneath the foot strap and on either side of the tiller bar, and sinking my blade into the murky, pollen-filled lake that was my training arena. School day afternoons consisted of lifting weights in my high school weight room, surrounded only by testosterone-fueled young men, and then spending two hours on the water. Because I fell in love with a unique water sport in ice-infested Minnesota, most of my training has been done on my own and thus required a large amount of willpower, extensive cross-training, and a working stop watch. Each spring, summer, and fall, I spent hundreds of hours working with my amazingly supportive coach to condition my mind and body in hopes of achieving my dream. I yearned to compete at the Junior World Sprint Kayak Championships in Welland, Ontario.

My only chance was to race at trials in April and make the team. April is a fine month for states on the coast that have open water and cooperating weather. Minnesota, however, was not bothered by my dream. Lakes remained stubbornly frozen, despite my daily efforts to warm them with my gaze. With trials swiftly approaching, I had been on the water a total of five hours in the preceding seven months. While I knew I would be at a disadvantage, I refused to let the things I could not control nibble away at my confidence—if my hairdryer blowing full blast would not melt the ice, there was nothing else I could do. All of this preparation and anticipation, doubt and fear, worry and hope, would culminate in the millisecond the bow of my boat touched the finish line.

I did not need to turn my head to see who finished first, but I turned it nonetheless. I did not want to believe the emptiness gathering in my stomach. I did not want to see the three boats sweep across the line ahead of me. But that is what I saw, and the reality of failure was numbing.

The numbers smirked and taunted from their place on the time sheet so hastily slapped on the wall with a jagged piece of scotch tape. I struggled to control the corners of my mouth and keep the feeling of childish disappointment from showing on my face. The most difficult part though, was acting kindly towards the girls who did make the team. Although I had missed a goal, I knew that good sportsmanship was more important than floundering in sobbing waves of self-pity.

Until then, I had never had to face real failure. Failure on a vocab quiz or in a soccer match, yes. But failure of a dream is an uppercut to the throat compared to those toe-stubs. It knocked me breathless with its harshness. But I refused to crawl under a rug and collect dust while lamenting what could have been. Instead, I found the strength to congratulate those girls sincerely on winning the spot I had so badly craved. I worked hard, and got my spot back one year later.

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