Every now and again I catch myself playing the “what if” game – you know, the one where you picture your younger self, living your boring, pedestrian life as the kid that no one noticed because you were so chronically and genetically uncool, untalented, and unremarkable so as to be invisible. Then one day you turn up at school having won the Wimbledon Singles Boys Junior Championship. Overnight, you go from bullied to fêted, zero to hero.
I recently heard Bradley Wiggins speak about his life on a BBC Radio 4 interview*. For the uninitiated, Wiggins is a celebrated British cyclist, 2012 Tour de France champion, holder of seven Olympic medals, and six time gold medallist at the Track World Championships. On hearing that he was on the 2013 New Years Honours list for services to cycling, he is reported to have said:
“I’ve won a bike race, you know, and I feel a little bit inferior to everyone. I was just talking to some of the other people getting stuff, and asking them what they’ve been honoured for, and they are historic things, ground-breaking science or whatever.”
What? Tour de France? Four Olympic Gold Medals? Six World Championship Gold Medals? I’d call that an achievement worth celebration. That he has achieved all of this without cheating (in a sport marred by high profile cheaters), while being a great ambassador for the sport in Britain and an inspiration to a whole generation of young athletes, should surely qualify him for the knighthood.
Wiggins sees it quite differently. Asked about his achievements, he speaks about his wife and two children and keeping a marriage of 13 years. Asked about how he felt winning the Tour de France, he spoke about his gratefulness to his supporters, and how he felt compelled to turn away from the dignitaries on the podium at the Champs-Élysées to face his British fans who had travelled all the way to Paris to see him win.
One more anecdote from the Tour de France to cement in your minds the kind of man we are dealing with. I quote from Wiggins’ Wikipedia page:
During stage fourteen, a mountain stage, a spectator threw carpet tacks onto the narrow road at the top of the Mur de Péguère climb. Several riders suffered punctures, including Evans, the defending champion, who lost approximately two minutes while his team repaired his bicycle. Wiggins and his fellow members of Team Sky emerged without a puncture. Believing that a puncture resulting from an unfortunate incident should not determine the fate of a competitor, Wiggins then had his team-mates and the rest of the peloton slow down to allow Evans and other affected cyclists to catch up. It was perceived as a generous act of sportsmanship and Wiggins was called “Le Gentleman” as a result.
My interest in humility has recently been stirred by my son’s curious response to success. If you don’t already know, you need to know that I hold my children in high esteem. They certainly did not inherit their father’s skill at mediocrity. However, gifted as he is, my fifteen year old hates being called out for excellence. He resents being praised for doing good work. And he particularly despises being asked to play the piano “because you play so well.” In the interest of family harmony, we have had to coach doting grandparents and unctuous uncles to refrain from public praise.
Wiggins seems to have taken a similar approach to success. As a child he worked hard to fly under the radar so as not to be picked out by his teachers. When asked by his teachers after winning a race at the Junior Track Championships why he had never said anything about his racing, he said “I didn’t feel the need to”. He was happiest to be left alone to do his thing and not to stand out. In fact, his invisibility caused other competitors to underestimate him. After winning the Tour de France, many of his peers said that they remembered him as a bit of a clown and karaoke king, but “they never expected him to win the Tour”.
Maybe my son is on to something.
* Desert Island Discs – Sir Bradley Wiggins, 10th May, 2015