These days everything is a race, a contest, a challenge. The Wide World of Sports and Bowling for Dollars from my youth have burgeoned into the eight ESPN channels now available. Pat and Vanna keep the Wheel of Fortune spinning, and Alex Trebek is celebrating 35 years of Jeopardy – while this summer the networks have revived popular game shows of yesteryear. People cook and bake their way to fame on the Food Network; my favorite Bravo shows are Project Runway and Best Room Wins. Bachelors and Bachelorettes eliminate each other weekly, and aspiring young performers vie for contracts and titles as the next new singers and dancers. And let’s not forget the plethora of red-carpeted ceremonies that hand out awards across genres.
The past six weeks, for example, have served as a microcosm of the compelling nature of competition. Trophies and titles, medals and money have been bestowed and captured in blowouts and squeakers, upsets and Cinderella stories – with lots of us vicariously living and dying amidst “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
There is the final finality of the two-month-long post seasons for the NBA and the NHL – finally. At least for me, however, women’s World Cup soccer and tennis on the grass courts of Wimbledon have dominated recent sports headlines. As much as I enjoy a well-played athletic contest, however, it is more the history and human interest aspects of competition that pique my interest.
Although I admire the American ladies for accomplishing consecutive world titles, I must make a couple of admissions. I kept approximate track of their scores and progress through the entire tournament but spent my actual time watching tennis.
And please do not tell my German friends: I am not really much of a soccer fan. However, I still enjoy memorable moments of past World Cup matches, including Germany’s 1974 victory that occurred during my first exchange trip with kids. On the day of the championship game, I noticed empty streets and deserted stores while I shopped in Hannover. Only later did I understand that the entire country had come to a virtual standstill as Franz Beckenbauer and company defeated the team from Holland – subsequently unable, by the way, to use the commemorative stamps printed before the final game, ones declaring the Netherlands world champs! And then there was the mania that swept Germany 16 years later, when even we Americans recognized names from the National Eleven: Matthäus, Klinsmann, and Rudi-Rudi-Rudi Völler.
As for tennis, I have followed the sport for years and seen many a young upstart mature into a respected veteran retiring after an illustrious career. Such has been the case during the fortnight at Wimbledon as a 15-year-old American, Coco Gauff, upset three career players all at least twice her age, including Venus Williams, herself once a young phenom, now nearing the end of her distinguished 25-year career on the courts. I just love those magical runs that sometimes foreshadow the future.
As busy as ESPN always is, they annually find a slot for the decidedly non-athletic competition of spelling, though competition it surely is: and this year was no exception.
As a former spelling bee contestant myself, I have yet to wrap my brain around updated rules that make room for co-champions. Six ties in the history of the national bee, including back-to-back-to-back contests in 2014, 2015, and 2016 that ended with two kids spelling their way to ties and trophies.
But this year, EIGHT champions were crowned. These amazing youngsters breezed through almost twenty rounds and dozens of words I have never even heard or read, outlasting all the lists and running 1½ hours overtime. Each won prizes of trophies, reference materials, and $50,000. By the way, nowadays many top spellers practice with spelling coaches and log on to spelling websites.
Although I seldom tune into American Idol, The Voice, or Dancing with the Stars anymore, I did happen to be watching the more general America’s Got Talent the night the judges pushed the golden buzzer for Kodi Lee. The 22-year-old singer/pianist wowed everyone with his rendition of “A Song for You.” I joined millions of others, I am sure, in sobbing my way through a performance of such joy and talent even as Kodi overcame the challenges of blindness and autism. AGT is a competition, yes, but that night was about so much more than winning. It was a true victory for Kodi – of the heartwarming kind.
Similarly, it was smiles and cheers all around when Ali Stroker won a Tony for her portrayal of Ado Annie in Broadway’s fourth revival of Oklahoma. All season long she had belted out the lyrics of “I Cain’t Say No” from her wheelchair, to which she has been confined since her toddler days. Funny, I scarcely noticed her seated position as she rolled around the stage at a great rate while reprising her Broadway number. The award show brought out the noble side of competition: five best-of-the-best candidates being judged not on their mobility but their musical merits.
In the end, then, competition is how we measure ourselves, how we compare ourselves to the other guy. Competition is traditional and historic but always new, too. And far beyond medals of any color, competition pushes us to improve, motivates us to excel, and – from time to time – leads us right into our dreams.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.