Even though I was part of a swim team from a very young age, I almost never participated in the relay events. I didn’t want my success to be tied to the effort of other. For years, I swam for myself, happily collecting blue ribbons. And then one day, a veteran teammate got sick before an important meet and I had to take her place in the 400 meter relay. Obviously I was not excited about this. She swam anchor, which meant she was responsible for the final leg of the race. I had always insisted on swimming first in my previous relays; I wanted to set the pace and establish a comfortable lead.
As my teammates swam their portions, I felt my frustration growing. We were in second place and losing ground. By the time the third girl dove in, we were tied for fourth and the team in the lead was ahead by almost a body length. I was pissed. This is why I DON’T SWIM RELAYS, I growled to myself. As I climbed up on the starting block to prepare to swim, my coach appeared next to me. I placed my feet and got into my dive stance while he spoke low in my ear: “Listen to me: the anchor isn’t first – the anchor is the leader. Make up the distance. Win this race.”
His words were electricity. I waited with gritted teeth while four other swimmers dove off the blocks before my teammate even hit the wall. The second she touched, I was in the water, pulling harder than I knew I should be if I wanted to have anything left for the last lap. But my pulse pounded steadily, matching my strokes: make up the distance – win this race.
By the last lap, I had closed the gap between myself and the girl in first. My lungs felt like they were going to explode, my muscles were screaming for rest, and the pool had never looked so long. I sucked in a final breath, put my head down, and swam. I fought my need for oxygen, fought for every stroke, until finally my fingers collided with the wall and I exploded out of the water, gasping for air. My teammates were jumping up and down, shouting and pumping their fists in the air. I had made up the distance. We had won the race.
I had to swim one more individual race that day, and I felt like there was no chance I’d have enough gas in the tank for another blue ribbon. I had burned it all swimming the relay. But guess what happened. My relay teammates lined up along the side of the pool and shouted encouragement at me as I swam all four laps. My dad got a picture of me just before I touched the wall in first place, I’m coming up for air, water streaming off me, a giant smile on my face. I remember being totally exhausted and totally elated. My teammates pushed me to that win. That day, they swam anchor for me too.
I was reflecting on this experience recently, and considering that there are often times in our lives when we need to be the anchor for those we love; times when we must take up the slack or make up some distance for them, simply because we can when they can’t. And there are also times when we need to admit that our own strength has failed us, and that we ourselves are in need of someone to push us through that last leg.
“Two are better than one, because they have good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!”
Even those of us who prefer independence have to recognize that God created us to experience this life in community and in relationship with others, particularly because we so often need support, encouragement, and supplemental strength.
So don’t be afraid to come alongside someone you love today, and pick up some slack for them. Don’t hoard your strength because you’re thinking about the races you have to win yourself. Be someone’s cheerleader. Be someone’s anchor. You’ll win more than you realize.