Not Every Victory Is Gold

Good thing I didn’t accomplish all my goals yet, because then what would I do tomorrow. — Alexi Pappas, Olympian

Over the past week I have watched the fastest man in the world solidify his reputation, outpacing the assertive American seeking to unseat him, a gymnast who stands half a foot below much of her competition tumble head and shoulders above them earning gold medals in rapid succession; and a Japanese wrestling team roll their opponents one by one across the mat toward sweeping victory, at least for one night.

In that same week I watched that same gymnast fumble a somersault then reach down and touch the beam to find her balance. I watched her face fall as she knew immediately that that touch had melted away her next gold medal. I watched hopeful swimmers lose their place on the podium by fractions of seconds that I couldn’t distinguish by sight, that even a computer had trouble measuring for sure. I watched the understanding sink in, as their hopes sunk down, that they had done everything they could, swam as fast as they could, and maybe even as fast as the winner next to them but that still wasn’t going to be enough this time. I watched as countries took home first ever medals in various events and as champions were unseated. Maybe most notably I read the recap of two runners colliding, finishing their route injured, any hope of a medal completely eroded. I kept reading as one of them was eventually granted a rarely awarded commendation for spectacular sportsmanship which should carry with it important lessons for everyone paying any attention at all, to anything at all.

That week I also spent a number of nights waiting, wondering, and hoping that our little restaurant might graduate from the finalists list of Bon Appetit Magazine’s best 50 new restaurants in the country to the winners list of just 10. We didn’t.

For three weeks we had been hoping, just to be let down. Ten recently opened restaurants were in print, their names being delivered to mailboxes around the country. I remembered going home for a holiday five years ago and seeing my step mother reading the 2011 version of that same feature which listed a restaurant by one of my mentors among the awardees. I had nothing to do with that restaurant but felt an enormous pride for him, and for being so close to it. For the past three weeks I had unbelievable visions of joining that rank.

It came to my attention through researching some of the competitors that I found interesting in Rio that roughly 10,500 olympic athletes this year will not win any medals at all. You probably won’t read their names unless they happen to be from your town, or maybe your state. Years, often most of a lifetime, of preparation will end in frustration, defeat, and the deep lung burn that only comes after a truly desperate effort that fails.

But how many will never come near that stage at all? Many more than 10,500. And what a privilege to have your years of preparation amount to your chance to claim a title that so few could even dream of being possible.

In our case 50 restaurants would make it to the final heat. We were one of them. Somehow not only was our name tossed around in an editorial meeting somewhere as a contender but we made it to the top of the class after the trial round. We found ourselves among the elite crop of new arrivals. Six months ago when we turned over the key in the lock to open the doors of Juliet to the public for the first time we had no specific reason to suspect we would even be considered. Something like 4,000 restaurants open each year.

The crush of defeat in the end was real, but just for a moment. Like that swimmer who touches the wall in the same instant as his opponent but looks up to see his name in the fourth position instead of the third, but then remembers where he is in the first place. I read the list of the top 10 and was amazed with some of their stories. I can’t wait to try some of them as my staff continues to grow and improve and Katrina and I eventually take a little trip away from this place for a day. Maybe. One of them is within an afternoon’s driving distance.

I notified the staff that we hadn’t made the final cut and thanked them again for such an amazing performance to reach as high as we had. I set off around the corner to attend a local business owners meeting as my attention abruptly and happily narrowed from national accolades to the community around us. Later I laced up my running shoes and took my usual route which twice crosses the front doors of my restaurant and beamed with pride at the bustling scene I saw there. I strode by unnoticed by the staff inside whose attention was held fast by the business of serving our neighbors and continuing to put one foot in front of the other toward something uniquely special.

illustrated by Katrina Jazayeri

Dedicated to my adoptive grandfather, Buddy Johnson. Who at 88 years old was presented yesterday with his hometown’s first Hall of Fame Award for all time athletic achievement. One of only eight individuals to receive the distinction. A four sport varsity athlete and later small business owner and generally all around great guy, Bud was responsible for landing me my first job as a dishwasher, inarguably changing my life. In more ways than the obvious. When I received a call that Bud was being discharged from the hospital to spend whatever last time he could carve out for himself in this life in the living room of the house that he built, I scrubbed the kitchen down and made the hour and a half drive home that I generally reserve only for Thanksgiving and Christmas to see him. He sat up straight and gripped my hand with purpose. We discussed childhood, and business; determination, and the Olympics. I have never seen an individual confront finality with such brave understanding, the strong look in his eyes easily overshadowing the pained effort of his voice and possibly changing my life all over again. I am proud to show him what I’ve done with that phone call he made so long ago to send a teenager to work.

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