Suzanne Tobias

Nothing beats good, healthy competition

Somewhere around the 35-yard mark in the 50-yard freestyle, my son met his match.

Jack was swimming in Lane 1 at last weekend's meet, well ahead of the boy to his left, when the swimmer in Lane 3, a kid named Marcus, shifted into high gear.

Both boys reached for the wall. I held my breath, and...

Marcus took first. He beat Jack by less than a second.

A while later, the same thing happened in the 50-yard backstroke: Marcus first, Jack second by a guppy-length.

On the ride home, I showed Jack the results, impressed by how much he had cut his times since the last meet.

"Ohhh, that was close!" Jack said, looking at the times scribbled in the margins of our heat sheet.

We jokingly shook our fists, looked toward the heavens and shouted: "Marcus!"

It wasn't an evil, "Curse you, Marcus!" full of fire and vengeance. We said it the way Jerry Seinfeld used to herald his down-the-hall neighbor, the nondescript, antagonist postal carrier:

"Helloooo, Newman."

The way I see it, every superhero needs a nemesis. Superman has Lex Luthor. Spider-Man has the Green Goblin. Batman has Joker, Riddler and Penguin.

Now Jack has Marcus. And vice versa.

My older brother Dave, who wrestled through junior high and high school, had an arch-rival named Lee Melvin who wrestled for a neighboring high school. Or maybe it was Melvin Lee. I don't recall how they wrote names on the brackets, only that his was usually on the final line.

My fiercest childhood competitor wasn't an athlete, but a smart, soft-spoken classmate named Paula who graduated valedictorian of our senior class. I was salutatorian and never forgot it.

Some say there's no such thing as healthy competition, but I disagree. Striving to beat a top-notch competitor can inspire dedicated practice and blue-ribbon achievement, especially when there's only one blue ribbon to win.

Author and educator Alfie Kohn, a nationally known voice against competition, delivered a lecture in Wichita recently. It was titled, "Don't Beat Them, Join Them: Exploring the Value of Cooperation in a Society Addicted to Winning."

"The more people are focused on beating others, the less able they are to reach their goals and truly achieve," Kohn argues. "Everyone loses in the desperate race to win."

Everyone? Really? What about the winner?

Of course some rivalries go horribly wrong. Figure skater Tonya Harding took down her competitor with a metal baton to the knee. A Texas mother conspired to murder the mom of a girl who was vying for her daughter's spot on the cheerleading squad. Countless parents spew venom from the sidelines, not caring about the weight of their words.

That's dreadful.

But it shouldn't mean denouncing good, productive, healthy competition.

I expect that Jack and Marcus will meet again. Some parents of kids on Jack's summer-league team tell me they still remember the names of their childhood rivals, swimmers who won by whole laps or split-seconds in the same pool where our kids swim now.

Like Jack, they accepted their second-place ribbons, got back in the pool, turned around and swam harder.