Some athletes are born. They come into the world with an extra dose of competitiveness. Some athletes are made. They have the right bone, muscle, and ligament structure to be coached into excellence. But other athletes achieve their status by proclamation and determination.

I was not aware of this latter category when I was young. I was “drafted” in 8th grade to play basketball, with no prior experience, because I was tall. I looked the part of a basketball player. But by the time I scored 18 points in a half during a game in my 9th grade year, I was proud to claim “basketball player” as my identity. Since basketball players at my school also played volleyball in their “off season,” I adopted that sport as well. In college, softball was added and, eventually, running. My idea of myself as an athlete kept me grounded over the course of my adolescent and young adult years, while other parts of my life were spinning out of control. I continued to play on one team or another through the winter that I turned 36, the winter before Emily was born.

John considered himself an athlete as well. He played the traditional boy-sports of his generation: football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring. When we had kids, John and I assumed our children would play sports and excel as we had. Instead, each child tried a variety of sports and dropped them for lack of interest. No one seemed to find his or her passion – except Emily.

Emily loved to swim. She decided to become a year-round swimmer during middle school. I went to a swim club parent meeting to learn about the meets, qualifying times, and college swimming scholarship opportunities. It was so exciting.

Pretty soon, however, reality hit. Emily – though she would get faster and stronger – was never going to be a college scholarship swimmer. Emily realized this too. Did she quit? Not on your life. She will tell you that she loves to swim. Improving her times is important, but staying fit and feeling good about herself are even more important to her.

Last weekend, I watched Emily swim with her team. She didn’t expect to win a race, but she did take seconds off her best times in most of her events. But when Emily swam the 500 Freestyle, the last and longest distance event, there were tears in my eyes. Emily was in last place in her heat. She kept going. She gave it her best effort. She never quit. And when it was over, she didn’t kick herself or make excuses. She didn’t fall apart because she isn’t the “best.” She did exactly as she was trained to do. She reported to her coach for feedback and held her head high.

Emily has given me a whole new perspective on athletic “excellence.” So much emphasis is placed on winning, on scholarships, and on professional contracts that athletes will stoop to using performance enhancing drugs or compete until their bodies are broken and used up in order to rank among the best. My daughter is excellent because she never gives up. She doesn’t let others decide whether or not she is worthy to be called an athlete. She proclaims it. She persists. She is determined.

People will tell you that getting your kid on a team is important for a lot of reasons. It keeps them occupied with a worthwhile pursuit. It gives them less time and less motivation to use drugs and alcohol, or to engage in other risky behaviors. It teaches discipline, respect for authority, teamwork, and so much more.

I get that. I know Emily has benefitted in those ways by being part of her swim club. But I also believe that Emily’s teammates have benefitted by having HER on their team. When I think about my mindset as a teenage athlete, I remember the countless hours spent trying to live up to my coach’s expectations or trying to emulate the players who received the most game time. And I remember chastising myself when I failed to hit the mark. I would tell myself: “If you can’t achieve [a certain level of expertise], you have no right to call yourself a member of the team.”

If Emily had been on my team, I might have thought about myself differently. I would have seen an example of an athlete who took pride in doing her best no matter how she scored, someone who felt like she belonged and was a vital part of the team no matter her performance on a particular day. I would also have seen an example of someone who helped others feel included, who encouraged and supported both the novice and the experienced because they all mattered.

Do you know what Emily was doing when the meet ended? A group of swimmers from some other team had left a mess of orange peels and trash on the pool deck where they had been camped out. The custodian, stuck with the job of cleaning up after them, asked Emily if she knew who was responsible. She didn’t. But Emily immediately dropped her gear and set about picking up after them. When I asked Emily why she was helping, she said, “I don’t want swimmers to leave a bad impression.” Emily is the kind of athlete I want on my team. I am so proud to call her my daughter.

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