Nine-year-old Josh Zuchowski and ten-year-old Reese Branzell are two of Florida's top swimmers in their age group. In fact, they've usually finished 1-2 in head-to-head matchups for the past three years, and each has a slew of trophies and medals to prove it.
The lineup was different, however, at the Santa Claus Invitational in West Palm Beach on December 7. Reese was missing because he had been hospitalized for a month with a bacterial hip infection. His top competitor absent, Josh went on to win five gold medals and to be awarded the all-around trophy as the meet's high point-getter.
I almost typed "took home the all-around trophy," but I corrected myself because Josh did not take it home. Instead, he handed the trophy to Reese's coach for delivery in the hospital with this handwritten note: "Reese: I am so sorry that you have not been feeling well. Get well soon. So we can get back to battling in the pool. I have looked up to you since I was seven. You were an inspiration for me wanting to swim fast. I would rather get second with you at the meet than win with you absent. I won this trophy for you today. I hope to see [you]back in the pool. Your friend, Josh.''
"I thought it was amazing," Reese said, "that he worked so hard, and he got a well- earned trophy, and then decided to pass it on to me. I think we just got a closer friendship after he did that."
"Right Thing" versus the "Usual Thing"
"I can't believe I am getting attention for doing the right thing," said Josh when news of his gesture was picked up by the local and national media. Perhaps the media noticed because the "right thing" in youth sports may not be the "usual thing."
Trophies are big news in youth sports these days, but not because competitors willingly give away the ones they receive. Go to a few youth tournaments in almost any sport, and you will likely notice the lengths to which players (and their parents) may go to win a trophy or a medal. Sometimes, their efforts involve unruliness, skirting the rules, or casting sportsmanship aside to gain an advantage. Temptation to cut corners can be powerful in the quest for tangible reward, even when almost everyone may forget the scores in a few weeks, if not sooner.
Josh Zuchowski received his trophies and medals for winning, but these days it seems winning is not a prerequisite; it may be enough just to show up each week. "Trophies were once rare things," reports best-selling writer Ashley Merryman. "But in the 1960s, they began to be mass-produced, marketed in catalogs to teachers and coaches, and sold in sporting-goods stores. Today, participation trophies and prizes are almost a given, as children are constantly assured that they are winners."
One business group recently reported that "[t]rophy and award sales are now an estimated $3 billion-a-year industry in the United States and Canada." We may debate the pros and cons of guaranteeing each player a trophy or medal just for being on the team, but mass production bringing in billions suggests that most kids covet the hardware, at least in the short run, and that they would not willingly give theirs to someone else.
Josh's personal presentation of his all-around trophy to his hospitalized friend and closest competitor won attention precisely because stories such as these demonstrate what we would like youth sports to be. Friendship and mutual respect evidently will not keep Josh or Reese from wanting to defeat the other in each swim meet.
It would be nice if the stories of sportsmanship, empathy and fair play that I present each month on MomsTEAM.com were as common as stories of behavior so crass that it embarrasses most of us who want youth sports to be something special. Until nobility stops being exceptional, however, noble gestures will attract attention because they make most of us feel better about the games children play.
Sources: Scott Stump, "Swimming Champ, 9, Gives Trophy to Hospitalized Rival, http://www.today.com/news/swimming-champ-9-gives-trophy-hospitalized-riv... Jackie Damico, "Winning for Reese: Swim Champ Gives Rival His Trophy," http://www.kxly.com/news/-Winning-for-Reese-Swim-champ-gives-rival-his-t... Ashley Merryman, "Losing Is Good for You," New York Times, September 25, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/25/opinion/losing-is-good-for-you.html?_r... "What a $12 Trophy Will Not Do for Your Child Business" Business2Community.com, November 5, 2013, http://www.business2community.com/sports/12-trophy-will-child-0672085.