The Spell of Perfection

by Casey Barrett

Extreme Expectations and the End of the World

Standing behind the blocks, the winner was already obvious. Eight 10-year-old boys stood twitching and nervous behind their lanes, waiting to be summoned to the start and released into the water, racing one lap of butterfly down this 50-meter pool at a college in the Bronx. The one in the middle did not belong among the others. If not yet a man among boys, then certainly a thoroughbred among ponies. A head taller, shoulders broader, an impassive mask of focus locked down his lane… A Swimmer, capital S required.

Four seconds and two strokes into the race, he’d opened a body length on his nearest “competitor.” The lead continued to widen, astonishingly so, until about 32 seconds later, when his two hands plowed into the far wall and stopped the clock. Five slow seconds after that, the second place finisher arrived one lane over. Among timers and coaches and officials and parents, there was considerable buzz for this young flying phenom as he climbed from the pool. Then a strange thing happened:

This 10-year-old newly minted Junior Olympic Champion burst into tears. Goggles were thrown. Pats on the back brushed off and unacknowledged. The walk back to his coaches was spent weeping unashamed and devastated. He’d swum his lifetime best, but missed a 20-year record by a tenth, and that was all that mattered. Winning meant absolutely nothing to him. He failed to reach his goal, one that would have required a perfect race. And in this particular breed of athlete, short of perfection meant total inconsolable meltdown. It was the end of the world, and in this state of irrational mania, he did not want to hear otherwise. This wasn’t the first time.

Because this swimmer was one of our own, the star of our young New York City club team, this reaction provoked a curious mix of confusion and dismay among his teammates and coaches. Where there should have been high fives, there were shrugs and averted eyes. Coaches from other teams looked our way with bemused sympathy. Parents in the stands looked for the boy’s mom and dad, assuming parental pressure must be the root. Unfortunately, as a former confirmed goggle-thrower who threw tearful tantrums well past the age of embarrassment, I recognized this behavior too well. We were one of the same tribe. That’s written without pride, and an awful lot of half-suppressed shame.

Why do some athletes succumb to this spell of perfection? This need, and it is a need, to reach their sky-high goals with absolute perfect performance… How do they get so worked up, so obsessive about reaching these extreme expectations, that anything less is utter devastation? Why does it matter so MUCH?

It’s not healthy, we know this. We know even in the midst of meltdown. But no, we don’t want to hear it. We believe, and in part we are right, that this consuming passion for excellence is what makes us successful, what separates us from the ho-hum cheerful jokers in the next lanes who can actually get happy with a mere best time. Problem is, that ho-hum joker sometimes becomes the what-me-worry Ryan Lochte standing on top of Olympic podiums, long after the fire-breathing head case has burned out and faded away.

In my case, my 11-year-old self ended up on a shrink’s couch, trying to explain to a kindly bearded child psychologist why things like state records and top sixteen times felt like a matter of life and death. He didn’t give me many answers, but he did give me a small wax figurine of a mouse, about three inches tall. He told me to keep it in my bag at competitions, and when I felt the rage coming on after a race that went less than perfect (all of them), I should take it out and pour out my feelings to the mouse in private. You know, rather than publicly weep on deck while throwing my goggles and stomping away from coaches. So, instead I became the nut bar who mumbled furiously to a wax mouse in the locker room. It helped a little. I also crushed that mouse into a wax ball the size of a golf ball.

Gradually, you learn to hide this madness. You’re still cast under its spell; you still need that perfect race, that far off goal time. But when it doesn’t happen, you learn to channel the crushing disappointment, or at least you learn to take an extra long warm down until you get a hold of yourself. But deep down, you know you’re right, that the world really is coming to an end.

In a terrific new novel called The Art of Fielding, author Chad Harbach shows us just how the universe splinters when perfection cracks. It’s the story of a college baseball prodigy, a shortstop named Henry Skrimshander, with a glove poetically, and perfectly, christened Zero. As in the number of errors Henry’s ever made in his life… When he makes his first, with a disastrous throw to first, the demons descend and the fates of those around him veer darkly in new directions. The truth might be stranger than fiction, but the best fiction is a whole lot more true than any reality.

Thinking of Henry and his glove Zero, envying Harbach’s close to perfect novel, and hoping I can figure out some way to guide our driven young butterfly prodigy, you start to realize how absurd this doomed quest is. You start to take pathetic cliches like ‘nobody’s perfect’ to heart. You hope not just for brilliant flawless all-your-dreams-come-true success, but for something like satisfaction…

And so, from his tearful triumph at Junior Olympics, our young flyer traveled a few weeks later to Eastern Zones, still deeply under the spell of perfection, for his last meet as a 10-year-old. His last chance to break that elusive record. I texted back and forth with his mom, praying he’d succeed, but praying just as much that he’d come out of the meet without cracking up in a fit of flawed despair. On the third day of the meet, he took his marks in the 50 fly… where he proceeded to demolish that record by a second and a half, posting the fastest time in America. His 50 fly was faster than Michael Phelps when he was 10. It was perfect.

Screw satisfaction. Perfection was possible after all, and long live its spell.