When I was a senior in college, I was ready to do a fast 100 fly. But at my conference championship I blew all three turns very badly (this was in the days before swimmers wore goggles, and I was very nearsighted before I had LASIKS). So I did my best time by only a few hundredths of a second, when I should have gone two seconds faster. To this day -- 34 years later -- it still galls me that I blew my opportunity like that.
I had always assumed that my continuing regret stems from my singularly obsessive personality. But I asked a friend yesterday if he still gnashed his teeth over having blown out his anterior cruciate ligament during college and having lost his potential shot at the NBA that way. He said yes, that he thinks about it frequently.
And I've heard enough guys express such frustrations to think this is a much more common phenomenon than most realize. In fact it probably deserves its own name in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders put out by the American Psychiatric Association. Perhaps the new edition, due out in 2013, could list it as an official syndrome. Maybe they could call it athleticus neuroticus regretitis.
My nephew just graduated from Harvard, where he was the captain of the swimming team. This past spring was Harvard's first chance to beat Princeton in the Ivy championships since his freshman year, and the meet was held in Cambridge. On paper it looked as if Harvard could win. My nephew's parents flew in from Albuquerque, his brother came out from Michigan, and my wife and daughter drove up from Connecticut to watch him swim.
Right before the meet, my nephew got sick, and so scored maybe forty points less than he would have healthy. Harvard lost the meet to Princeton by five and a half points.
An Ivy League swimming championship means nothing to the sports world at large, and means almost nothing to anybody except those who are directly involved in it. But it meant a lot to my nephew.
I was kind enough to inform my nephew that he would probably still be reliving that meet when he was fifty. (I said this partly in an effort to convince him that he ought to extend his swimming career -- and delay his regular career -- for a few more months after graduation, since he is eligible to compete in the Pan Am Games. I told him this would help wipe the bad taste of that last meet out of his mouth.)
But I suspect that even if he does continue to swim, and does well at Pan Ams, he'll always remember his last Harvard meet with chagrin.
I've used swimming examples here, because that's what I'm most familiar with. But I think it's true of virtually every serious -- not necessarily good, but serious -- athlete who ever fell short of his goals, or missed some crucial play. Which, by the way, is roughly 99.99% of them: if only I had caught that touchdown pass. If only I hadn't bobbled that grounder. If only I hadn't pulled my hamstring junior year....
I'm guessing at least 30% of the male population suffers from this disease, more than enough to warrant inclusion in the DSM.