by Steve Clem on March 22, 2013

You want to know what you never hear anyone say? You never hear anyone say, “You know, that Aleksandr Dityatin dude is my hero.” Or, “Mikhail Voronin is the shiznit, man.” Both men, former Soviet gymnasts, hold the record for the most silver medals in Olympic history, with six apiece.

There were no Wheaties box covers for Dityatin or Voronin. No major endorsement deals, like Michael Phelps or Carl Lewis got. They live obscurely, on paper. In fact, Dityatin works as an airport checkpoint security guard in Russia, and Voronin died in 2004 at the age of 59.

Me, well, I’d be the record-holder if the Olympics included dating as a sport. Countless times, I end up with the silver medal around my neck, while some other douchebag stands on the top tier of the medal stand, looking down at me with a condescending, shit-eating grin. At least that’s how I picture it, anyway.

And you know what they say: if you finish in second place enough times, you start to believe you’re really only good enough for second place. Okay, so nobody says that — but I just did, so now someone has. Finishing second sucks. Just ask Iowa Hawkeye wrestler Matt McDonough.

Last weekend, at the Big Ten wrestling championships, McDonough — a three-time All-American wrestler — missed out on first place. It angered McDonough so much that he threw his silver medal into the garbage in Champaign, Illinois.

I’d never go as far as McDonough did. I’d keep the medal and hang it up on my bathroom mirror, so I’d be reminded every day that I still needed to earn the gold. In fact, I have a collection of all my dating silver medals hanging in my mental closet.

Back in my swimming days in high school, I had an archrival from the crosstown high school, J. D. Dirks, who always beat me in my best event, the 100-yard backstroke. And I mean ALWAYS. I worked my butt off to be the swimmer I was, and J. D. seemed to rely on natural talent alone. But no matter what, I’d always look up after the race and see his teammates congratulating him, while I stared at the results board and read my name in second place.

And then it happened: the district swim meet of my senior year, the last meet before state, and it was the last time I’d swim directly against J. D. in the 100-yard backstroke. The first-place finisher in the district meet was guaranteed a spot at the state meet. Knowing I had already qualified in another event earlier in the day, I had a nothing-to-lose attitude going into the race. I always actually swam much quicker than J. D., but I had an atrocious flip turn that cost me so much time.

So as I dove into the water to get ready to start, I told myself, “Don’t think. Just swim.” And on my final turn in the race, I had a slight lead that turned into a huge lead off the final wall. I propelled to the finish in my fastest time ever (at that point, anyway), and looked up to see my name atop the results board.

I still have my district championship gold medal.

And someday, I’m going to be wearing the dating gold medal again.

Don’t think. Just swim.

* * * *

Steve Clem is a divorced dad, a recovering Republican, and a Prisoner in the Tundra. He is in The Guinness Book of World Records for being part of the largest Hokey Pokey of all time. He was the founding editor of the Iowa City weekly The ICON.

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