Reaching Your Potential: Pass or Fail?

Story written by EPelle

Have you as an athlete felt as though you reached your full potential?

This is a subject which has both intrigued me and burned inside of me through the years following an athletics career which had its challenging periods and very successful ones as well.

I was indirectly asked this question on a forum on Wednesday, and can honestly say in retrospect that I always felt I had the potential to achieve greater things than what was eventually recorded as historical fact.

My name is neither Alex Rodgriguez nor Kenenisa Bekele. I didn't have the world at my fingertips once-upon-a-time when I was an athlete, though I had aspirations of being as famous as Patrik Sjöberg and Sergei Bubka -- even Joe Montana. I had Olympic goals and had the potential to really make something big of myself had I stuck with things.

I'd heard about this word "potential" since the first day I was ever forced to run - a Monday, the 27th day of the month of August many years ago.

It all started off when I ran in a compulsory 880 yard run around the high school track -- something we 35 kids, each in grade-9 who had been arbitrarily selected for that first-period class, were made to do to compare notes to other kids from other periods and other years.

The guy holding the watch, who doubled as the basketball trainer, said someting about it being "a fitness test". Two laps around that dirt track at 08.00 seemed like torture to most of us.

That "potential" landed me directly on a cross country team where others, watching me train and compete, made long-winded comments about potential -- even though some of them were more seasoned, more experienced and a lot faster than a 14-year-old guy who ran so "effortlessly" and "like he's not even trying."

I trained for -- and competed in -- two sports during those four years - eight seasons with the same trainer who, as time elapsed and the end drew near, finally told me what my potential was. I'd just not reach it in high school, he said -- it had to do with something about building-block years. Those years were spent running conservatively in practice, and "pace" in the races. We didn't try anything foolish. However, where there was nothing ventured, there was nothing much gained for most of my teammates.

One of my teammates attempted to skirt around caution and patience during his four years in high school. He had a father whose expectations were higher and more outrageous than nearly anyone I'd ever met - save one other father whose son competed against me week-in and week-out in for two of those years in the exact same event all the way to the state 1.600m -final -- a race neither of us won.

This particular teammate had "potential" as well -- and it seemed he had a tonne more of it than the rest of us in the same class. He was already a varsity runner at grade-9, and had broken 15.00 for 3 miles in cross country during grade-10 -- a year our seven-man crew won conference with 15 points, won sub-section with 25, repeated as section champions and finished six lousy points short of winning the Northern CA championships.

He had the "potential" to run 8.36 in the two-mile, he was told, and made every living moment count toward attaining that goal.

He won a very tough conference on a monstrously-challenging course our grade-12 cross country season -- I finished a second behind him in second,. He thought he had a shot at the state title. I had the same goal in mind and beat him to it in the qualifying meet for state, finishing second at the sectional qualification meet; he finished third, four seconds behind. Neither of us collected medals at the state meet the following week, however. He finished in the top-20, and I succumbed to the adverse affects of a very bad cold during the final mile of the 5km race.

My teammate didn't reach his cross country potential, and his father, who was obsessed with winning, had determined that his son would be the star that his older sister, who attended an even more competitive school -- a public one with a national record-holder who still ranks in the all-time lists at her distance -- had failed to become.

He competed in track one final time during high school, and still had hopes of "running under 9 [minutes in the two-mile]" by the time spring came around. He'd tossed aside the outrageous notion of running two 4.18 miles, because he couldn't yet break 4.30 for one over half the distance.

Unfortunately, in this story, that kid -- who looked like a man among boys, fell far short of his potential, whatever it was. He set personal bests at three distances his final season, running 800m in 2.01, 1.600m in 4.22, and running 9.30 for the 3.200m.

Or, perhaps that was his full potential, and he was aiming too high to begin with.

That kid would never run another competitive race as far as I knew. Even worse, he's been AWOL from the face of the earth over the past two decades, with only rumours left behind.

There are many morals to that story -- pick whichever one is applicable to you. Only one was applicable to me, however.

One life application from the story above that I packed with me as I entered university was not to stress over the final clock times as I competed, but rather to listen to my new trainer and do what he said in order to be a good competitor. I entered a great university with an excellent tradition, and my trainer had helped previous recruits reach and exceed their goals and realise their potential. He said he could help me reach my potential as well.

I trained and raced hard my first year at university, and eventually was told what my potential was -- first by my teammates who, again, said something about running effortlessly, and then by my trainer, who knew when and how often to dangle that carrot in front of me.

Three years later, when all was said and done -- at least under the university's colours, unfortunately, I fell far, far short of the time goals -- the ones I was not supposed to dwell on despite the fact that a big 3 followed by 34 was taped onto my running logbook. I'd lost the one for the 12,5-lap race -- I think its four numbers were 1 3 4 and 2.

Somehow "potential" got mingled together with those, though memory has now grown faint as to which was the dream and which was the goal.

I didn't reach my potential in athletics. I didn't break four minutes in the mile, nor did I chase the wind -- and pace-makers -- around European tracks as a realisation of potential would have allowed...demanded...afforded. I had a great gift and used it well, but not to its fullest capability. I squandered some of it, and injured another part of it.

Finally, I grew bored of having potential without the results that I finally traded in my spikes for a remote control and watched athletics on television rather than compete against the very people whose potentials were being realised.

There are million steps I'd take backward in order to have fulfilled my potential, but I can't, so I won't. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to realise that I had potential in the first place, though it has now simply become gossimer mind fiction with no true effect on my present day life.

What "gift" were you given as an athlete, and do you feel you reached down as deep into your "potential" as you could?

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