In Her Words: Melanie McQuaid On Rivalry

This report filed August 25, 2005 on http://www.insidetri.com

(Jamie Whitmore and Melanie McQuaid have waged a seesaw war over the past three years of Xterra – Whitmore capturing the world championship on the strength of her run in 2004 and McQuaid using her vicious bike skills to take the world title in 2003. Who will prevail in Maui, at the 2005 world championships on October 23rd? Here, Melanie writes about how a strong rivalry can force competitors to improve beyond perceived limits.)

A rivalry exists when one strives to obtain something simultaneously with another – something which only one can possess. In sport, there can be only one winner, which is why sport inspires some of the greatest rivalries in history. A great rivalry is something quite special. It allows competing athletes to create a history in the sport beyond themselves. It allows their actions, their efforts, and their heart to be permanently recorded with the spirit of sportsmanship and competitiveness. I can think of some great rivalries which will forever be linked with that sport: Armstrong v. Ullrich (cycling); Evert v. Navratilova (tennis); Allan v. Scott (triathlon). The story of their competition remains vivid beyond the victories, and I feel proud that within the sport of Xterra for the last three years I have participated in my own rivalry, McQuaid vs. Whitmore. Having close competition can be one of the greatest ways to explore your own ability as an athlete, and it can make even your losses become some of the best races of your career.

A rivalry exists not only in the top ranks of professional sport; I know of serious athletes battling with the same intensity I do for the top of their region, their age group, or to beat their buddy that they used to race with ten years ago (before the family, the fifteen pounds, and the real job). Rivalries can be positive, even when the participants might not be best friends. I feel there are a few reasons why having, or creating, a rivalry can make you a better athlete, or at least help you get even more out of your racing experience.

?The way is to avoid what is strong and strike at what is weak.? — Lao Tsu’s The Art Of War

Successful athletes know to use their strengths to their best advantage and protect their weaknesses. A fierce rival will inspire you to continually improve on your weaknesses, because that person is the best to point those weaknesses out. Likewise, your rival can help to gauge your strengths – if you didn’t have difficult challenges, it would take longer to identify what to work on. As you get more experienced as an athlete, the improvement curve can become flat. Months of work may achieve only small gains in performance, so a close competitor can be valuable for quantifying the results of hard work. There is no room for complacency when you are always thinking about that other person working as hard as you are.

Any great win is only as satisfying as the intensity with which you fought for it. Without Jamie, no victory for me can be complete, and the same is true for her. A career of easy wins would never be satisfying, because the point of being an athlete is to challenge yourself to fulfill your own personal excellence.

A close competitor is the best way to explore just how good you can be. Most of the time you have a good idea how well you raced before you find out what place you finished, because you know your mental state while you were racing. Sometimes having someone close to you in ability will give you that extra 10% that makes the difference between a good race and a great race. That person has just helped you push past the pain and suffer just a little bit more. At the end of a hard race, it feels so good to know that you couldn’t have possibly raced any harder. It may be cliche, but it’s true – win or lose, the point is always to do your very best.

Having a rival can remove your fear of losing. If I have a bad race, I identify what happened (mechanical, poor preparation, illness), figure out why it didn’t go well, and then determine how to improve next time – before putting it aside forever. When things happen that are out of your control, let them go rather than use them as excuses – you weren’t the fastest, so you are not the winner. Case closed. And sometimes, you do everything right and come up a bit short. Losing races does not indicate a lack of ability; it speaks to the quality of your competition.

Some people would prefer to go to races that they know they can win. For me, the satisfaction of winning only comes when I win something I worked really hard at. I was very excited to finish second to Jamie in 2003 at the US Championships in Lake Tahoe, when we went back and forth on the bike until she eventually beat me on the run. I knew after the race that I had had a good race, and I knew that Jamie’s was better. A month later, I had an even better one, winning the World Championships in Maui. Had I beat myself up over my rival beating me in the series I would not have had the confidence in my fitness to win worlds. You can learn a lot more from losing than you can from winning.

Over the years Jamie and I have developed respect for each other and for all the other athletes in our sport. Although it might seem that we focus on each other, really the journey is that of self improvement, and each of us toes the line to race our own race. A win is very gratifying; a loss is a stepping stone to improvement. I know that the competition gets stronger every year, and if I am to continue to have success, I need to continually improve my race. Jamie has been a better runner, so I have worked to make my run faster. I was a better swimmer, so now Jamie is swimming faster. Each year we work towards that ultimate race: the fastest swim, bike, and run.

Racing is an adventure for both of us, and I can thank her for motivating me to be a better athlete and helping me to get the most out of my experience as a competitive athlete. Some of the races that I have lost to her have been some of my best, and those losses have inspired me to achieve some of my greatest wins. Winning and losing, I have enjoyed it all, and hope that the next generation of women who compete in Xterra will also have their rivals, and those rivals will continue to push the level of the sport.

Melanie is coached by Cliff English and Houshang Amiri.

She is sponsored by Saucony, Compex, Powerbar, Orbea, Shimano, and others.

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