What is excellence?
As an athlete, in an occupation that constantly pits me against my contemporaries and ranks us by order of performance, it is a question I am faced with daily. As a Paralympian, the question takes on a different tenor. Paralympians, like female athletes, are athletes with a label. We are “female athletes,” or “athletes with a disability,” and our excellence is tagged as different from the excellence of “athletes,” i.e. our male, able- bodied counterparts. Excellence does not work like this, however. Excellence is a universal concept; and while the parameters of excellence vary, they are the same, regardless of gender, creed, race, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.
Excellence is not confined by labels. After winning her semifinal match at this year’s Wimbledon, a reporter asked Serena Williams what it felt like to go down as the greatest “female” athlete of all time. Serena’s response (rightfully so) was, “I prefer the words, ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time.’” On message boards across the globe she caught both flak and praise for her comment. She brings up a very good question, however. Why do we argue that Roger Federer is one of the greatest “athletes” in the world, while Serena Williams is one of the greatest “female athletes”? To extrapolate further, why is swimmer Michael Phelps’s excellence at the Beijing Olympics, winning all five of his individual events (and three relay events) considered one of the greatest “athletic performances” ever, while wheelchair racer David Weir’s excellence in the London Paralympics,
winning gold medals in each of his five events, is considered one of the greatest “athletic performances for a person with a disability” ever?
Excellence is the ability to maximize the potential of your natural ability. An athlete achieves excellence by maximizing the potential of their body, no matter whether that body is male or female; has a fully functioning spinal cord or a damaged one; or has four, three, two, one, or no limbs. Excellence comes from asking, “What do I have and how do I get the most out of it?” There can be no discussion of who the “greatest” is without assessing how much success, and at what level of performance, an individual got out of their body. Did they get more out of their body than those with comparable starting points? Did they last longer, did they hit harder, go faster, get stronger, or play more skillfully?
Humans need labels to organize the world around them, and to quickly and easily make sense of their surroundings. However, this does not mean that the excellence of an athlete is any more or less excellent just because the male dominated, able-body centric culture that we live in allows male athletes to be defined as the “greatest,” while non male, or non able- bodied athletes get defined as the “greatest [insert label here].” This type of labeling implies that male, able-bodied athletes are inherently greater than female, or non able-bodied athletes, a statement that is only true under an impossibly narrow definition of the word “great.”
Serena Williams is one of the greatest athletes ever, no label required. Her
excellence is unquestionable. The fact that she cannot beat her male counterparts if they were to play a match is irrelevant, and an impossible feat to ask of her. The physiological starting point is not the same. It is actually the insanely male dominated sport of boxing that does the best job of summing up greatness and excellence based on physiology.
Over the past decade or so Floyd Mayweather Jr. has widely been considered the best boxer on the planet. Floyd, who at his heaviest, fought as a light middleweight (147lbs.–154lbs.), was never expected to fight every other boxer in the world to claim his title. Boxing is divided by weight class, with the understanding that at a certain point sheer size outweighs talent. Not once did Floyd fight Vitali Klitschko, a heavyweight boxer whose fighting weight is over 200lbs. Though Floyd may be the more talented boxer, odds are he would lose to the much larger fighter. The boxing world recognizes the absurdity of expecting a smaller fighter to beat a larger fighter in order to be considered the best, and thus, analysts instead argue for who is the best “pound for pound” fighter. That is to say, all things being physiologically equal, who is the best.
Excellence is not innate. Serena Williams is not excellent because she was born with a genetic makeup that granted her a physicality that no one else could compete with. She is excellent because she took absolute advantage of her physical gifts, maximized her potential, honed her skills, her technique, her strategy, until her physical attributes became nothing more than icing on the cake. Or, more aptly, her physical attributes are like
the yeast in cake batter, necessary for the batter to rise and become a cake, but not at all responsible for the flavor, aesthetic, or greatness of the cake. Likewise, Serena Williams is no less great because, despite her hard work, she would not beat top male tennis players. The potential power, pace and speed that male players can play at is much higher. Ultimately, potential is meaningless; excellence comes when potential is maximized.
What makes Serena one of the greatest athletes of all time is that she has worked tirelessly to perfect her craft for her entire life. By her own estimations, she’s been frequenting tennis courts since before she could walk, and has been swinging a racket since she was three. By the force of her own efforts she honed the technique behind her powerful groundstrokes, fierce serve, and precise volleys. Through endless training and video sessions she has gained the knowledge, strategy and confidence to utilize those skills in the most effective ways possible to win a match, and through her intense attention to detail she has maintained a longevity that is remarkable, even in a sport known for the long careers of its athletes. She began playing professionally 21 years ago, was ranked No. 1 in the world for the first time 14 years ago, has won nine singles Grand Slam titles since turning 30, and just won her 22nd Grand Slam title mere months before her 35th birthday, a title that ties Stefi Graf for the most Grand Slam singles titles in the modern era.
No, Serena would not beat Roger Federer if they were to play each other, and she should not have to. That does not mean that Serena is worse at
tennis than Federer (and I don’t know tennis nearly well enough to begin that argument), or that Serena is a worse athlete than Federer. They are both excellent at what they do and should both be in the same conversation for “greatest athletes ever.” They’ve taken their natural abilities and realized their full potential. They’ve maintained a high level of success, for extended periods of time, in a highly competitive environment.
Excellence knows no labels. Athletes are athletes are athletes. What makes any one of them great is what makes all of them great.