Full Circle: Second Place
Sometimes, the best winners don’t win

No one could beat me. Not a boy. Not a girl. Not the 6 dogs that lived with Mrs. Finkelstein. I was the fastest kid on the block. Always. From the day I moved in at 3 years old, until the day I was 10. Then came Timmy Donegan.

He was a year older than me and, so he said, 7 steps faster. He talked about it often. To my face and behind my back. Then one day, I decided to shut him up for good. I agreed to race him. Telly pole to telly pole.

Going into it, I wasn’t worried at all. I had this extra gear. I would be running, and then, with 20 yards to go, I would just flap my elbow and take off. Boom.

We readied for the great race. It was a hot day, a day of sun, a day of sweat. Danny Sammin held up his hand and yelled, “Ready, set…” And then it happened. Timmy Donegan jumped the gun and kept running, like a bat out of Hellerman Street. I took off after him. I was catching him, I was catching him, and then it ended. He beat me by a nose.

I called him cheating cheater. Because he was. And when my father got home from work, his hat still in hand, I told him all about it. I was almost in tears.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “So you won the silver medal.”

I wasn’t happy. I hated second place.

Which brings us to the Olympics. The men’s 400 meter hurdles might have been the best race ever. Rai Benjamin, an American runner, broke the world record. But he finished second, after someone with an even better time, someone who beat him by a nose.

After the race, he was interviewed. “So you won a silver medal, what did you think about the race?” “I think I lost,” he said, his head down, his shoulders rounded.

Boy, do I know how he felt. I have won lots of medals and awards in my career. Mostly for investigative reporting. Local awards and national awards.

“Which one stands out the most?” I was once asked.

“The one I lost,” I said.

Let me tell you about The National Press Club in Washington, DC. It’s where the best journalists in the world meet. It’s where the President speaks. And years ago, out of all the stories in all the magazines in all the land, mine was nominated.

When my category came up, I couldn’t wait to hear my name called. It was a great story. It saved some lives. I already knew what I was going to say when I got up to the podium.

They opened the envelope. I put my hands on the arms of my chair and started pushing to stand. “And the winner is Edmund Fitzgerald of Newsweek.”

“What?!” I fell back in my chair. I slammed the table in anger.

After the ceremony, one of the judges came over to me. “I understand why you’re upset,” he said. “There was a lot of arguing in the judges’ room. I thought your story was great. Much more important. But you lost by one vote. They went for the big national magazine instead of you.”

He presented me with a beautiful second place certificate. “This is quite an honor,” he said.

That certificate sat on the floor of my office for 30 years. I never hung it up. To me, it was a loss. But then Allyson Felix stepped up. She had become America’s sweetheart. She had run in every Olympics since 2004. Her best event was the women’s 400 meters.

This year, she ran it for the last time, and she finished third. She was asked if she was disappointed in only winning a bronze medal.

“No,” she said, “I’m happy to know I tried my best, with character and integrity. And that’s the prize I will cherish.”

Such great wisdom. I knew what I had to do. I picked up my National Press Club certificate and proudly hung it on the wall.

October 2021
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