Junior distance runner Meghan Vogel won the open mile at the Ohio State championship this past weekend but was on her way to finishing last in the two mile. As she was approaching the finish line, the runner in front of her, Arden McMath, began to collapse–and then something extraordinary happens: Vogel lifts McMath and supports her weight across the finish line, advancing McMath ahead of her in the final push! Instead of taking her shot at not finishing dead last, Vogel exhibits an incredible sense of integrity by advancing McMath ahead of her thereby reflecting McMath’s front runner status before her urgent decline. As someone who competed on that same Ohio track when I was in high school and thus knowing the drama attached to success on the state’s biggest stage for runners, I find Vogel’s compassion and generosity inspiring. Ultimately, she maintained a clear perspective concerning what was at stake. Neither of the runners could win first place. Instead of giving in to the terms of competition that would make finishing last the goal to fight against, Vogel redefined the meaningfulness of the event so that the goal became maintaining one’s humanity in the face of an alleged indignity. From the way that Vogel casts these terms, losing would have been passing by a fading opponent; ignoring someone’s clear need for assistance.
I admire McMath’s response as well. I have seen runners completely pass out in a race. Instead of conceding to the burning in her lungs and the lactic acid weighing down her legs, McMath allowed herself to be helped and in doing so made Vogel’s load an easier one to carry. As cooperative competitors, they redefined the most basic terms of athletic competition. Together they turned the simple grammar of competition’s starkest expression into an elegant, lyrical statement of human achievement.