In which I reaffirm my belief that it’s better to be a work horse than a Wunderkind

May 20th, 2011

Several years ago, I wrote this about Jan Ullrich, which isn’t really about Jan Ullrich at all. It’s about sports, and why I’ve always believed in the virtue of athletic endeavor, and this article reminded me of this old piece of mine.

Jan Ullrich always frustrated the hell out of the cyclist in me. He could have been, he should have been, the best cyclist of his generation, Lance Armstrong notwithstanding. At least one of Lance’s seven Tours should have been Ullrich’s – 2003, at least, should have been Ullrich’s. Ullrich was brilliant, the real deal; but he was the guy who seemed to think that being the real deal was enough. In a world where guys like Lance Armstrong go on training rides on Christmas day and count their calories in the off-season, where Ivan Basso spends the winter in a wind tunnel breaking down his time-trial form and putting it back together again, being the real deal wasn’t enough. Natural talent was never going to be enough when you have Lance Armstrong redesigning his water bottles to shave off an extra ounce. Ullrich was a Wunderkind, he really was. He could time trial like nobody’s business. He could climb, he could tear mountains apart. (And as the Tour de France wore on and he popped out in freckles across the bridge of his nose and into his sun- and wind-reddened cheeks he was cute as a button, to boot.) When he won the Tour de France in 1997 everybody – including Lance Armstrong – assumed it was just the first of many Tours in Ullrich’s future. But it didn’t work out that way. Partly because Lance Armstrong recovered from his cancer and Lance is, well, Lance. But also because Ullrich had been a Wunderkind and it took him too long to catch on to the fact that that just wasn’t going to cut it in the new world forged by Lance Armstrong’s iron will.

When I cycled in college, I was quite good. I had a certain level of athletic ability, but nobody would have confused me with a natural talent. But I was stubborn. I put in the hours and the miles. I rearranged my academic schedule to maximize track time. I took every tip my coach ever gave me, did everything he said, and he won me races that I wouldn’t have won on strength alone. I was never great, but I was really good. And I got as good as I did precisely because I was willing to accept how very far from great I was. Had I been better naturally, I suspect that I would have turned out marginally less successful. But the gap between me and the top girls was just visible enough to me to drive home the need for a little extra effort on my part. And the link between my effort and my results was clear; we kept training logs, after all. In autumn we’d do a ten mile time trial out on Flat Bottom Road to get a base-line and then in the spring we’d do a few more. I got faster. AJ would teach us about rolling through our gears, how to make a U-turn in the fastest possible way while still staying upright, how to dole out our energy. I got faster still. It was exhilarating, getting faster. More exhilarating was the knowlege that I was making myself faster, that all the tools for my success or failure were in my hands. I was never the very best, but the women who could beat me made up a small crowd; two of them were my own teammates who knew my tricks. For the specific event I trained for, I was top-tier. I did not start out top-tier, but I ended there. I forced my way into that circle by sheer will. And I was never the very best, but I was proud to have gotten so close.

Jan Ullrich. He stood on the very edge of greatness, of once-in-a-generation, once-in-a-lifetime larger than life greatness. Season after season he frustrated the cyclist in me so. So close, so very close, just a few calories, a few more hours on the road away from blinding greatness. But the gap between him and the small handful of guys who could beat him was too small for him to see. He was too good, far far too good, to see for himself how much harder he still needed to work and the people around him failed him by not driving home the point. For a person like me to be a step away from great (within my little universe, of course) was a tremendous success. For a person like Jan Ullrich to be a step away from great was a profound failure. He could have been, he should have been so great. Just an ounce, just an hour more effort. But Ullrich had been a Wunderkind and it took him too long to catch on to the fact that that just wasn’t going to cut it in a world filled with work-horses.

Because no matter how good you are, somewhere out there lives somebody just as good. But she’s trying just a little bit harder.

I’ve been around sports long enough to know that there are natural talents. There are people in every sport who have something special. But you know what? Even those people spend hours training, pushing their talents to the very limit. You can have all the natural talent in the world, but if you don’t take your coach’s advice, research the opposition, train regularly, hone your skills, learn some new tricks and keep up with the competition that natural talent can only take you so far. And you learn things about yourself as you bump up against your limits, as you find within yourself the desire to be the first one in the training room and the last one out, as you learn to see the connection between effort and outcome. You learn about effort, about will-power, about mental strength. You can apply those skills to schoolwork, to the job, to running a marathon because you want to, to saving money so that you can quit your job and travel for six months.

In February, at the end of the hockey season, R and I made a point of seeking out the trainer who had worked with Small Boy to help him overcome a bad habit that was interfering with his skating (he bent his right ankle out so that he was constantly on the outside edge of the blade, and to skate you need to push off the inside edge). We thanked him, and he said that Small Boy had done the work and we said but you took the time to teach him how to fix it, and M said he could see how hard Small Boy was trying and how fixing that little thing would help so much. M said, he has such a will.

I’ve written before about my little work horse, my Most Improved Player. You couldn’t pay me even to want to know if Small Boy has “the athlete gene.” I couldn’t care less. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I suspect Small Boy would be better off without it. Maybe, given my own experience and given the kind of hockey players my father taught me to admire, I’m biased towards work horses, but give me a work horse every time. Wunderkinds come and go. Work horses are in it for the long haul.