Why Are We Even Here?

Posted on February 21st, 2018 by


Last weekend, our daughter swam in her college conference swim championships. She was seeded anywhere from 7th to 10th in her individual events, and had one of the slower relay times on her relay teams going in. She swam the meet of her life. She ended up with five firsts and a fourth, and was named conference newcomer of the year. No one saw this coming. Including us. Including her team. Including her. Her coaches said she had it in her, but I doubt they thought she had it in her this year. We were so overwhelmed and taken by surprise we literally didn’t know where to turn after each swim, each swim confounding and delighting us more than the last. She had never been individually first in anything before in her swim career, or even the fastest on her relay teams. Ever.

Winning is intoxicating. It’s fun. It’s even addictive. Once you’ve tasted it, you want more. And you can start to lose perspective. Madeline didn’t lose perspective, but I did. With each successive win, I began wanting another one. We told her the Three Crowns™ of Positive Attitude, Full Effort, and Good Sportsmanship were all that mattered. We believe it. But, as a parent, with each unexpected victory, I was seduced. I wanted more. Expected another. I began getting nervous before each swim in a way I don’t normally. Because now the expectation of winning (which is completely outside any of our control) became a pressure. Inside me. Who was not even swimming! I lost sight of the Three Crowns.

And then, two minutes after her fourth victory, as I was giddy in my own misplaced parental pride, I got news that a dear friend’s wife had unexpectedly died. From complete elation and dancing in the stands to gut punching devastation.

Why are we even here?

I had to remove myself from the stands and go walk. In the hallway, I felt numb. I walked past a mother consoling her son, who was sobbing on her shoulder because he missed the cut for finals in his event, and it was his senior year. She was soothing him, listening to him, giving no advice. Just loving him.

I walked more. There was one of Madeline’s teammates, who had just missed medalling in the event Madeline had won. Profoundly sad. Mother sitting with her, listening. Giving no advice. Just loving her.

And then, “Julia”. A former club teammate and rival of Madeline’s, now with a rival college. She has always been faster than Madeline. She missed last season completely as doctors tried to diagnose a chronic illness. She came back this year, but could only attend half the practices. She stood on the blocks next to Madeline, then right before the race, walked over and smiled wide and high fived her. When she finished far behind, she climbed out of the pool and hugged Madeline, truly happy for her. She will probably not swim competitively again.

And I was reminded she could be my daughter. All of these kids could be my children. And, in a way, aren’t they? Aren’t we all really related?

All of this was swirling in the devastation of my friend’s wife’s death. That night, Leandra said as she hugged me in my sadness for my friend, “All I can think of is that nothing matters but this. Right here. This.”

My friend’s wife could have just as easily been mine. Or me. Someday it will.

If I am honest, winning is almost always more fun than losing. I play to win. But when winning becomes the addictive end goal, it has a way of dulling our ability to feel the pain and joy others inevitably have. It has a way of making us forget those around us, in sports and in life. My daughter will be the one who did not make the cut again someday (it happened this fall in a different situation in life, it will happen again). And someday, we will all come to an end.

Do we not celebrate our victories, then? No, that is not what I am saying at all. All I am saying is, I need to be constantly reminded that the only thing that matters, through winning and losing, is our commitment to love. To refuse to define our success by the number of victories we obtain.

To be like the mom who held her son. The mom who held her daughter. The rival who hugged my daughter. My friend who held his wife. My wife who held me.

We cannot ever lose sight of this. Or we truly lose. Even if we win.

How Can I Contribute?



  1. David Peterson says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. Why are we even here? That is quite a deep question. And the answer (I believe) is to create, create who we are and are going to become.This takes love , compromise (on certain issues) and work. It includes disappointment, tragedy and sadness but also delight, playfulness and happiness (and many more positive attributes). We are all Creators!

  2. Rene Moriarty says:

    Thanks for the ultimate perspective on this beautiful morning.

  3. Greta Wood says:

    So very true Neal. Thanks once again for reminding me of the purpose of our athletic endeavours and what are the truly meaningful things in life. So sorry for the loss of your friend.

    Oh and congratulations to your daughter!


  4. Diane Marsh says:

    Your writings are always so touching, Neal.

  5. Susie Lott says:

    Simply, thank you, Neal,

  6. Karen Mann says:

    Gosh! How right you are!
    Would love to see you in Grinnell !
    Way to go Madeline!

  7. Rozan Anderson says:

    Another beautifully written piece, Neal! Thanks for helping to inspire us all to win in the important ways!

  8. Barbara Lewis says:

    Congratulations to Madeline. That was awesome and you guys should be amazingly proud of her!!! 😁

  9. Barbara Wilkinson says:

    Well done, Neal.

    We can practice not being so terribly attached to the outcome, i.e. winning, by watching a tennis match, or swim meet, or basketball game, where we don’t have a very high stake in a winning outcome. Then we can truly enjoy the spirit and dedication it takes to perform at a high level as well as the beauty of the game.
    I have been very impressed by the attitude of the athletes at the Winter Olympics, particularly the ice skaters who started with the highest expectations. When they fell they could shrug and realize that “it was just not a very good day.” I am sure they were disappointed, but they could put it in perspective. Arthur Ashe talked about those two impostors: winning and losing. Yes, winning feels wonderful and we want to enjoy it. The hard part is learning to live with our losses and to not let them defeat us.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Amen. I think the skiers and snowboarders also have this mentality. and Jessie Diggins, when she was questioned if she was upset that she had only gotten fifth place (before her gold) was offended and said, It’s not about the medal, it’s about the team as a family. Which is why she dedicated the gold to the whole team. Loved it!

  10. Steve and Beth Fridinger says:

    Beautifully articulated, Neal. Thank you!

  11. Marcia G. says:

    I have started purposely not looking at the scoreboard at my grandson’s basketball games. It is freeing to be dis-invested in the outcome, while enjoying the efforts. And easier to do as a grandparent than as a parent!

  12. Karen Prest says:

    This was the perfect thing for me to read today. Thank you!

  13. Chad Larson says:

    Profound. Once again, thanks for sharing your wisdom with the world. Chad (from Mitchell)

  14. Pat Lonneman says:

    You get it Neal big picture thanks for your gift of kindness to others!!

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thank you, Pat, my wife always says “Zoom out” for the big picture to put it all in perspective. I’m lucky to have people in my life who help me do that…

  15. Melissa Sigel says:

    Neal- Taylor Johnson my niece who is a sophomore at the University of Arizona sent me the blog today and said: “i liked this one a lot”. If a college Sophomore that has time to read the TLC blog- then I thought “I do too” (even though I eventually get around to reading it). So I took a break from what I was working on and read it. You nailed it again. “I like it a lot too.”

    It brought to mind a poem I heard on last nights CNN’s Town Hall with the (survivor) kids from Parkland, legislators and even a spokesperson from the NRA. A father who lost his son in the mass shooting read the last poem his son wrote;

    ‘Life is like a roller coaster’ by Alex Schachter

    Life is like a roller coaster
    it has some ups and downs
    Sometimes you can take it slow or very fast
    It maybe hard to breath at times
    but you have to push yourself and keep going
    Your bar is your safety
    it’s like your family and friends
    You hold on tight and you don’t let go
    But sometimes you might throw your hands up
    Because your friends and family will always be with you
    Just like that bar keeping you safe at all times
    It maybe too much for you at times — the twists, the turns, the upside downs
    But you get back up
    you keep chugging along
    eventually, it comes to a stop
    you won’t know when or how
    but you will know that’ll be time to get off and start anew
    Life is like a roller coaster

    Neal, thanks for helping us keep things in perspective when we live in such an emotionally charged, crazy and uncertain time. Since none of us really know when the roller coaster is going to stop in our lives- we need to remember what truly matters.

  16. Jen Severson says:

    Excellent, Neal, as always. To choose to love — whenever and however possible — is the ultimate win in life.

    Jen =)

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thank you, Jen. The older I get, the simpler it becomes, when I can remember it. I love how you call it “the ultimate win”. That’s a brilliant way of putting it.

    • Andy Elofson says:

      Thanks for the beautiful reminders Neal! Love, Love, Love!

      • Neal Hagberg says:

        Thanks, Andy! I watch you do this with your kids and give them that constant love and reassurance it is not about the results…

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