In August 1978, my family took a summer trip to Northern British Columbia to visit my aunt and uncle. I remember being very excited for the trip not only because it was far away and would require several flights (one being on a small plane), but also because I was going to get to spend time with one of my favourite cousins. Michael was different in a cool, wild, fearless kind of way and being around him was never dull, even if it resulted in us getting into a fair amount of trouble. He was full of adventure, never backing down from a challenge and he expected the same from me when he would dare me to do things I would never have considered trying on my own. Because of this, I was expecting the trip would be wild and free, but, unfortunately, it turned out to be less ‘Lord of The Flies’ than I had anticipated. At some point in the space of the few years since I had last been around Michael, his family had procured a billiards table and had it installed in the basement in Kitimat, BC, and, as a result, most of the trip was spent playing, or rather watching Michael play, pool. To a ten-year-old boy who had just travelled completely across the country to frolic in the untamed wilderness of the Western Canadian outback, this was a considerable let-down. Boring though it is to watch someone else play a game you have a mere tepid interest in, it is something approaching the excitement one experiences whilst suffering through a toothache to sit passively and watch them practice playing the game. Michael practised every day, all day and, though he was no more than thirteen years old, he approached his sessions with the precision of a diamond cutter, studying every possible angle on the table and the rolling resistance of every struck ball. He would attempt, what appeared to me to be, the exact same shot hundreds of times in a row, even when he was successful (especially when he was successful) and recorded the results in a notebook as though he was a scientist in a laboratory. On the flight out, I had envisioned 14 days of Jack Londonesque adventure, but was met with the tedium of Willie Mosconi.
Even though I didn’t enjoy myself as I had expected I would, I had to admire and appreciate what an unmitigated dedication to a singular task looked like. Michael had no time or desire for any other worldly pursuit because he was on a quest towards excellence. Shots he made, that looked absolutely brilliant to me, he would be visibly unsatisfied with. He was able to find miniscule errors within the tiniest component of the vast minutiae that make up a successful outcome. It was not merely good enough for the appropriate ball to find its way into the desired pocket. There needed to be grace, style, and above all, finesse in the execution of a play. The mere mechanical act of sinking a ball was crass and distasteful to him. A good player would enjoy the same outcome, but it would look simple and elegant all at once. For this reason, Michael never permitted more than a couple people to watch him play, and he wouldn’t actually play a game until he was thoroughly ready.
Ten years later, when I was living in Vancouver, I decided to go on a mountain biking trip to Vancouver Island where I would be able to stay with my Aunt Elaine and Uncle Mark. They had long since moved from Kitimat and were now living in a suburb of Victoria. When I arrived at their house, I was greeted by my cousin Michael, who was also visiting that weekend. Having not seen each other for a decade, we decided to head off to grab a beer at the local pub. The Prairie Inn Neighbourhood Pub was a cozy, uncrowded, entirely welcoming place that felt like the perfect environment to reconnect with each other. These genial intentions changed the moment we ordered our drinks and walked away from the bar towards another room at the back. There we encountered a few burly local men, dressed in an abundance of denim and plaid, shooting pool. The harmless, trivial chin-wag we had been having was immediately halted when Michael eyed the billiard table and heard the clacking sound the balls made as they came into contact with one another. Though we hadn’t exactly been solving the most profound philosophical conundrums of the modern era, our conversation now consisted of me asking a harmless, inane series of questions about what had been going on in the last ten years, and Michael offering one-word responses, punctuated with a series of clicks and twitches, while his eyes remained glued to the men playing pool before us. It had become painfully obvious that no amount of wit and charm I attempted to offer, could compete with a simple, mediocre game of pool that was being played ten feet away. Eventually, our conversation ended entirely, and we watched the men play, though the manner in which each of us performed this activity differed significantly. I passively watched much the same way that most North Americans watch a sitcom or sporting event on television, whereby I casually noticed general movement only feeling moved when something truly spectacular occurred. I followed the (in)action with easily distracted indifference. Michael, by contrast, was utterly engaged focusing on every detail from the way the players would rack the balls to rolling resistance to the angles they would hold their cues, even when not in use. Nothing escaped his notice. I became more interested in observing Michael study the game, which was like watching Alan Turing decipher the Enigma Code. In every other aspect of his life, Michael was as unremarkable as the rest of us, but here, at the Prairie Inn, he was Bill Gates.
We were watching the same scene, but we were witnessing very different things. I saw four men, aged 25-40, who appeared to be pretty good amateur pool players. They made most of the shots they called, and their movements all seemed methodical and well-practised. To me, they certainly appeared to know what they were doing, and it was very obvious that their skill far exceeded my own. Michael, on the other hand, was perceiving strengths and weaknesses. He was playing the game for them in his mind, making imaginary shots four or five moves ahead of what was actually being played-out. While I looked on, distracted by anything and everything happening in other parts of the room, my cousin studied with such precision that it appeared he was preparing for something in particular. I couldn’t help wondering if he was still as good at pool as he was ten years ago. I had no idea what he did for a living (our conversation hadn’t been able to get that far), but surely it had to be too time-consuming, coupled with the fact that he was already a father, to hone his billiards skills the way he had the last time I had seen him. As luck would have it, I was about to find out just how good he was because the men finished their match and Michael was off his barstool and talking with them before I even noticed the game was over.
When he was done talking, Michael walked back over to me and handed me a pool cue so we could play a few quick games while the local dudes went to the bar. When I asked him how he managed to get the table, he said he was sure the other guys wanted to size us up so they could challenge us to a game later on. After taking a couple practice shots, I told Michael I wasn’t any better than I had been when I was ten. He replied, unaffected by the insulting nature of his words, “I can see that. It’s actually better that you suck”. Brushing off the snub, I tried to understand how having a shitty teammate could make things better. Michael, it appeared, worked with an entirely different value system than I, and treated me like the tool that I was. My presence was to be manipulated much the same as the cue in his hand.
We played a few games, just the two of us, and though his skill was much better than mine, I was struck by how unremarkable Michael’s play seemed. He did not appear to be any better than the locals (or even as good), and I secretly hoped that when it came time to challenge them, we wouldn’t be doing it for drinks because we were going to lose. Michael did not appear to notice how bad we were as a team, and his child-like expressions led me to believe he was just having some pleasant, innocent fun. Perhaps, I thought, he doesn’t get out much and hasn’t played in so long that he is just happy to be doing something different from what he gets to do on a daily basis. He was just having fun.
After a half hour or so, the local dudes came over and asked if we’d like to play a game for fun. Before I could say anything, my cousin agreed saying, “so long as it’s just for kicks”.
We played. We lost, not exactly by a landslide, but it wasn’t close. Michael asked them if they wanted to go again. They seemed a little annoyed because we offered no challenge, but they agreed to one more game…for fun. We played. Michael and I did a little better, but still lost, easily. As one of their players sunk the last ball, I held out my hand to the other guy thanking them for the game. When I turned to shake the hand of his partner, Michael was pleading with him to go another round. The guy was having none of it, but my cousin persisted until the guy agreed, but only if we played for beers. I felt uncomfortable, but Michael shook on the deal.
We played. We lost. I bought a round of beers. While I was off getting the drinks, they had all agreed to play again. We played again, and again we lost. Once more, I bought another round. When I returned, they had all agreed to another game, this time for $20, which I was okay with because the drinks, with tip, were more expensive.
We played. We lost. I paid. At this point, they assumed I was rich (they didn’t know I was the four to midnight janitor at the Coquitlam Centre shopping mall back on the Lower Mainland) and asked if we would be interested in another game…this time for $50. I looked at my cousin with eyes and gestures that screamed, “NO FUCKING WAY!!!!”, then turned to the other guys about to politely decline. It was, however, too late because Michael had already agreed to their offer.
We played. We lost. I paid. I was now down to my last ten bucks and I leaned over to my cousin and told him he was an asshole. He grabbed my elbow and took me aside telling me not to worry and to trust him, which I had no reason to do, but did, nonetheless. The men asked if we wanted to play again, stating how much we had been improving with every round, this time for a cool one hundred dollars. Michael, knowing I could not cover this, pretended to be shocked by the amount, but agreed to play one last time.
One of their guys broke and sunk a solid, then another, then another. He missed his next shot leaving the table for my cousin. Michael ran the table, but made it look like a fluke. We won $100. Because the game seemed so close, they asked us to play again. I didn’t want anything to do with it and was shocked to hear Michael agree with me and tell them, “No thanks. We should get going”. They persisted, raising the stakes to $200. Michael acted concerned but allowed himself to be talked into it. This time Michael broke and proceeded to completely run the table. We won $200, but he made it look difficult; like he had just “got lucky”. They insisted we go for another $200. They broke and sunk a ball, then another before missing. I went and actually sunk a ball. I missed my next shot as did their player. It was now my cousin’s turn and he sunk the rest of our balls, this time it looked easy. Another $200 for us. The locals were now, understandably, pissed off, rightly feeling as though they had been hustled. Three of them tried to get their pal to leave, but he was trying to convince Michael to give some money back. He was the oldest of the four of them and had a wife and kids at home. He needed that money. Michael refused, outright, but gave them an opportunity to get back what they had lost by offering to play their best player, one on one, for $500. If they lost, he added, they would only have to pay another $200. The guy refused, knowing they didn’t have a chance. Michael then offered to play with only one hand and that they could choose the hand. After much deliberation, they agreed. Michael was to use his left hand (which was the correct call. My cousin is right-handed).
Michael won the coin toss and chose to break, which he did, sinking two balls in the process. He went on to run the table in under two minutes. The men emptied their wallets and Michael and I left. Once outside, the guy with the family met us in the parking lot. He was on the verge of tears and begged us for his money back. Michael looked the man right in the eye and, without any emotion whatsoever, said “no”. Though it appeared otherwise, Michael was not being ruthless. He was doing business. The guy implored him, saying he needed the money to help feed his children. My cousin told him that he, too, had a child to feed and that this was his job. This was how he made his money. Some people, like this local dude, work construction, some are teachers, doctors, sanitation workers. Michael played pool. It was his only skill and he worked very hard at it. He studied everything about the game and about his opponents. It was not his fault, he felt, if others did not do the same. He then told the guy something I will never forget, and it is exactly how I approach racing and training for triathlon. He looked at the man, without the slightest amount of pity, and said, “If you cannot afford to lose or are unwilling to risk losing big, then don’t play”. Michael could have lost, but he was truly ready to take that risk. It wasn’t a game of chance, like arbitrarily rolling the dice. He did the work required to have a shot at winning. Sometimes he would get lucky, but his dedication mitigated the need for it most of the time because he had put in the time practicing and studying. He did not (and does not) come out to play until the groundwork was done. He ‘trains’ for hours to be as good as he is and will always do his absolute best, even if it means that sometimes he will lose.
My approach to triathlon is similar (though I am nowhere near as good at it as my cousin is at shooting pool). When I first became interested in the sport, before admitting that fact to anyone else, I trained like a madman. I bought zero triathlon specific gear and plodded along for eight years until I knew I would be able to truly compete with others in my age group. There was never any desire within me to merely participate and I intended to race so that I could push myself to my limits. This is not something I did to meet new friends (though I have met some), and it certainly wasn’t a social experiment. Once I started to race, I always committed myself to doing my absolute best every time. Many people say they have given their best when they, in reality, haven’t. In fact, they have never come close to the outer boundary of what they are capable of. Somewhere inside, they are terrified of going ‘all in’ because they know it will hurt and they are unsure they will be able to endure the pain. Others are afraid that if they give it everything, but the desired results don’t come, they will be considered a failure. The only failure worthy of the title is the failure to try. Though my goal in every race is to be on the podium in my age group, I know that if that doesn’t happen, I will not have failed because I have done the very best I could that day. I will always risk losing for the opportunity to win.
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