Watch the finish of Lieuwe Westra in stage 5 of the Paris-Nice race and you will see the sublime crossing unfold in all of its perfection. For all of the finishes I have seen, this is one of the purest. He looks to be victory himself proclaiming the day a good one. There is a gesture of gratitude and pride as he wipes his hands across his chest where his team’s name is displayed. Then, even more beautifully, he opens his arms to take in all of the sweet glory that is winning. For him, how can we not help rising to our feet? And what a delight that he opens his arms and takes us with him. “Hey, c’mon in, here is my win, isn’t it delicious? Taste.” “Ah, so good.” We lick our lips. We turn and lift our faces just a little,”Mmm, yes, it is really good.” Yes, we all know that texture, that flavor on our tongue. “This my friend,” he nods, “why, this is winning.”
Now watch the curtain open again as dancers come out to take a bow after a performance. Watch the very best open their arms to the audience with the same purity and presence. They know the night is theirs, that they too have won. Do you know that as the curtain is falling, they are awaiting a bounce back open? Like Westra, the best are in front, they feel the power of the race behind them, that they have been pushed every day by the people behind them and are better dancers for it, and that together they have all in some sense won the race. So you see, it is not just that the curtain closes or that the cyclist gets his fraction of a second over the line that is marked finish, it is the bounce of the curtain back open, the confident letting go of the handle bars even before the race finish time has been clocked. It is knowing that this is not one race–this win is only one amongst the many behind it and, even better, the many wins ahead.
In an X-ray somewhere far away from where I live, not so long ago were the post-crash, smashed collar bones of Swedish cyclist Emma Johansson who was recently hit by a car while training. Johansson is one of the world’s great women cyclists at age 29. Yet there in that X-ray, lines crossed and re-crossed the film. Here is a break, and here another. Here, Emma, is where force decided to take the game. Here is where your bones lost. But Johansson is no loser and her body has a mind of its own in all games mind over matter. These lines were only the curtain coming down where she knew there would be the bounce back up, the opened armed glory that awaits. There was victory herself, just around the corner. Not long after those X-rays, she proclaimed the day a good one (specifically, a podium finish already on March 10, 2012). In fact, just five days after her crash and curtain drop, she climbed on an indoor bicycle trainer and began training again. A sublime crossing this one, a netherworld that is sweeter than winning.
If Shakespeare’s Polonius had many conniving ways about him when he said, “…unto thine ownself be true,” then there is a little of this mix of false truth and seeming earnestness in the story of the ballet dancer Sergei Polunin. Polunin recently decided to quit his profession at age 22, after years of difficult training. His claim is that training is boring, he has conquered dance, and it’s on to tattoo parlors and whatever else for him. He is playing a game of winner take all forever, drawing a game-over line for himself in which the game becomes a dare to not cross. The truth about Polunin, the one that we have to at least hope he will find for himself, has yet to come out. It is one of Hamlet’s questions, “…to be or not to be,” not a Polonius-like cover story for a pretend face. Yes, for Polunin…let us hope it is “to be.”
As Polunin was quitting, Westra was beautifully winning, and Johansson was getting back on her bike. Imagine, Westra riding all that way and stopping one fraction of a second before the finish line and stating, “I am bored, training is boring. I quit.” In the face of win after win, there is sometimes this crunch between the race behind and the race ahead. To let go of the handle bars just before the race is won, to climb back on the bike, to take the stage over once again, these moments carry us to the next and the next and the next. If we are smart, if we are lucky, we keep crossing and re-crossing before it’s too late and the curtain is down for good. Emily Gresh