By Chris Warren.
A favorite recurring topics here at Twenty First Summer is young people displaying an amazing understanding of personal honor, maturity, and respect for others that reaches decades beyond the few years they’ve been around. I’m blessed to have people like this in my own life and it makes my heart cheer to be reminded that it’s not just me who is the lucky one. High school swimmer Michael Spark is that reminder.
Michael Spark and Rich Fortels are high school athletes on competing swim teams. In a major conference meet, Spark came in second to Fortels, but when Fortels was disqualified because he did not turn his swimmer’s cap inside out to hide a club logo (per high school sports rules), the first place win was given to Michael Spark. Fortels’ coach appealed the referee’s call, and lost.
You heard that right. Rich Fortels, who broke a 14 year old record and finished the race more than two seconds faster than Micheal Spark, was kicked out over a swim cap, or more specifically, the logo on a swim cap!
“He beat me fair and square. He beat me because he trained harder than me.”
Spark could have kept his award and spent the rest of his life telling everyone he was a champion swimmer in high school. And technically, according to the rules, he would have been correct in that belief.
Michael Spark is a sportsman, not a lawyer. He had enough respect for himself and his competitor to see that winning because of a technicality was nothing to be proud of, so he later personally gave his gold medal to Fortels and congratulated him on his win.
Rules may be rules, but a rule is not automatically fair just because it is a rule. Michael Spark knew a printed logo on a swim cap gave Fortels no competitive advantage. He knew Fortels was the better swimmer, and even admitted so. “He beat me fair and square. He beat me because he trained harder than me,” Spark stated, “He out swam me. He beat me on that day and that race.”
Everyone who was at the pool that day knew who the better swimmer was. The referee, coaches, and even the governing body that ultimately decided against Fortels’ appeal knew who the better swimmer was. And most importantly, Michael Spark, the kid who had the most to gain and lose by this entire affair, knew who the better swimmer was. And it wasn’t him.
Michael Spark’s remarkable act of sportsmanship and goodwill does not change the official records. He is still the recorded meet winner. But in this story, that’s not the point.
The news media is choked with stories about bratty overindulged kids who expect an award for getting up in the morning. Quiet acts of decency seldom become a top story. That’s why this blog will continue to spread the word about amazing young people wherever they can be found. And there are a lot more of them out there doing the right thing, not expecting to be the center of attention.
Years from now when Michael Spark is an old man, he will not have to live with a nagging voice inside telling him that the records and the rules can say whatever they want, but that other kid beat his ass good. His conscience will not tease him about how the real champion with the forgotten name was over two seconds faster lost only because of some lame technicality that had absolutely nothing to do with who was the stronger athlete.
And years from now when Rich Fortels is an old man, he can show his medal to his grandchildren and tell them the incredible true story of a competitor’s spirit of fair play. He will not have to live with the bitter memory of what should have been. He will not carry the weight of resentment. He can hold his head high knowing that a selfless rival gave back the honor that some goofy rule took away.
Micheal Spark let go of an award that meant a lot to him but he gained the deepest respect of a competitor and countless strangers who heard this story. Many of those strangers are parents themselves and will be praying to God that their kid would do the exact same thing if faced with a similar situation. When kids do something so profoundly right, it ripples out like the waves in a pool, touching others and serving as a living example that character is an award in itself.