Some people might glance at this picture taken at the last practice at Disney before The Summit and think nothing of it but I look at it and see so much...
I see a 13-year old who: stands "clean" even when the rest are relaxing; gave up her summer (trips to the beach, amusement parks, camping out) to cheer on two teams; gave up middle school sleepovers and parties so she could compete for the gym that's been her second home for five years; doesn't say much until she can't hold things in any longer; does things herself even when she's not sure what she wants to do; has become stronger both mentally and physically because she has cheer; learned at an early age that discipline, commitment and hardwork can get her to The Summit (and NCA, CHEERPORT) with a full-paid bid and be captured in this moment (by my talented friend Rina Still).
I also see a fierce competitor who, last weekend, faced an inconceivable reality.
“I’ve never come in last place before,” was the first thing Rachel said after I made my way as fast as I could through the massive crowd to meet her outside Arena South after The Summit's Large J3 awards. I didn't know what to expect from her, I just knew I had to get to her. There were no tears, only disbelief.
In reality, receiving a full-paid bid to compete in one of the largest divisions at the Summit against 23 other teams and moving on to Day 2 finals is not “last.” My daughter and her teammates represent the top 5% of Allstars in the world.
But I knew this day would come. It HAD to come.
During her first year as a Mini 1 Fierce Kidz, Rachel was on an undefeated team that would often receive Grand Champs, which was unheard of, or at least I'd never seen a mini team score higher than a senior team. “This isn’t normal! It’s just not normal!” I would say to the other parents after awards and to Rachel during the car ride home. I knew it wasn’t “normal,” to always win, because my other daughter, Becky was an Allstar for four years before she would receive a sweatshirt and title of “National Champ.” First is hard. First is rare.
But First became Rachel’s expectation during the next mini year which was nearly undefeated as was the next year when Rachel was placed on the Showstoppers, Small Youth Level 2: a competitive division that challenged the team week after week during Nationals season. By the beginning of this 2014-15 season, Rachel had won two NCA jackets, two CHEERSPORT jackets, numerous sweatshirts, backpacks, medals and rings (Last year’s Summit and a ring for the original Summit concept of “International All Levels).
But Rachel wasn’t just happy with First Place anymore. If she didn’t win Grand Champs, it wasn’t good enough for her. And her team won Grand Champs a LOT.
If you saw those jackets and other coveted rewards strewn across her bedroom floor, you wouldn’t think they were special at all. It’s not that coming in first place was easy…those kids worked harder than kids twice their age. But it's a snapshot into appreciation, and how can you really appreciate winning if you never lose?
The first slap of reality for Rachel came two years ago when her team placed second at CHEERSPORT. I thought she was taking it well until I found her medal in the hotel bathroom trash can. When and how she had pulled the medal from the ribbon I don’t know but one thing is for sure: she wanted nothing to do with it. I thought back to the first time Becky attended CHEERSPORT; instead of puling medals apart she pulled the CHEERSPORT blanket over her head, only her eyes visible, looking at me in defeat once more as she lay in the hotel bed. What Rachel was experiencing was nothing compared to that. She should be happy with placing second but all she said was, repeating Dance Mom’s Abby Lee, “Second place is the first loser.”
Last year, on two teams that came in second and third at CHEERSPORT, Rachel pulled the medals apart again. When I tried to tell her how hard it was to place in the top three at any of these big competitions, she walked away from me because “You don’t know anything.” At least Rachel managed a “Thank you” of a whisper, when the woman in the airport, making small talk in line, was genuinely impressed by the second and third placements, saying how happy her daughter’s team was to come in seventh out of 17.
It’s not that Rachel is conceited or arrogant. Wasn’t it a good thing that all she knew was success, and the hard work that brought it. How could she understand what it felt like to NOT win, if she was on a team that always won?
This year, I watched and wondered at times if it would be Rachel’s last year as an Allstar. Now in middle school, she was torn between wanting to have a “social life” and spending as much time in the gym as she could like she used to do when she was younger.
All that changed last Sunday when, instead of being the last team announced, hers was the first to be called.
I am aware of people reading this who won’t sympathize with Rachel. I know that “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” and that “Winning isn’t everything.” I also know, from personal experiences, including being attacked at gunpoint, sexual abuse, family addictions/mental illness/alcoholism, that life isn’t fair and you can’t always win no matter how hard you try. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced their share of pain and challenges. Maybe that’s why I can put it into perspective.
Rachel is a very gracious winner, her gym, coaches and I wouldn’t stand for anything less. But please don’t judge my daughter or those like her who “finally get theirs.” I get it, people like to pull others down.
But it’s my job to pull my kid back up.
In the last couple of days, Rachel and I have had discussions about how other kids must feel when they don’t win. Remembered the inconsolable girls the day before who didn’t move on from Day 1. Thought about the times when other teams very obviously did not share in her enthusiasm at awards.
I know what it was like to be a mother of an Allstar that rarely won, the long car rides spent in tears and frustration. And I knew how much pride Becky had in wearing that Nationals sweatshirt, which you’d better believe never hit her bedroom floor.
After a travel day, followed by a quiet "down day," I recognized the champion in Rachel return. “Coming in last” (her perception) gave her a fire for wanting to be first again. It had happened once; losing was no longer an inconceivable mishap. Last night Rachel went to open tumble, and tonight she did too. Tomorrow she’ll have a private tumble lesson. She’s doing sit ups and conditioning; she’s challenging herself and putting herself back out there. The 2014-15 competition season is over by four days and she's focused on tryouts and next year.
And in my mind, that’s what makes Rachel the real winner.