Cascadian athletes have experienced a lot of disappointment, but there’s still plenty to cheer.

Cascadia could be called the land of sporting disappointment.

Between Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, championships are few and far between. Most prominent, no doubt, are the Seattle Seahawks, who after suffering years of futility and loss, finally won the coveted Super Bowl, only to see that celebration quickly tempered by an errant play call the next year.

Victory, it’s clear, is fleeting. For sport in Cascadia, disappointment is our way.

Baseball fans are left with a Mariners’ legacy that includes record seasons and hall of fame players, but absent of World Series titles. Vancouver Canucks: game 7 losses and citywide riots are the legacy. Soccer has seen a slightly better track record of late, with the Portland Timbers as the only professional reigning champion in the region. But even that has been followed by a somewhat mediocre season with all three Cascadia teams fighting for a playoff spot. The B.C. Lions probably have the most championships of any Cascadian professional team, but let’s be honest, that’s Canadian football–I’m probably the only one reading who cares. Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention Cascadia’s NBA teams. The Vancouver Grizzlies lasted all of six seasons and the first professional champion of the region, the SuperSonics, is also gone (Go Trail Blazers!). Victory, it’s clear, is fleeting. For sport in Cascadia, disappointment is our way.

This Cascadian sporting reality was also evident during the recent Rio Olympics. To be sure, Rio 2016 wasn’t all disappointment for Cascadia. The events highlighted many Cascadia athletes, several of whom came away with medals. Bremerton-native Nathan Adrian led the way with four medals in swimming. Who could miss the dynamic duo of married medalists, Brianne Theisen-Eaton and Ashton Eaton, both of University of Oregon fame? And then there is Canadian soccer legend, Christine Sinclair, of Burnaby, B.C., who led Canada to another surprise bronze medal for the 10th ranked team. So while it certainly wasn’t all bad news for Cascadia at the Olympics, these stories of victory were few. There were many other examples of loss and disappointment so familiar to fans of this region.

For some at the games, anything less than gold was failure, and their reaction reflected that. For others during Rio 2016, however, loss was seen as inevitable, even if undesired. And the path of defeat and disappointment, so familiar in the Cascadia landscape, was met with courage and grace.

Enter Evan Dunfee of Richmond, B.C.

Dunfee competes in race walking, one of the lesser-known and least followed events in the Olympics. No one I know goes out of their way to follow the sport of race walking. Somewhere between jogging and strolling, are the intense paces of elite walkers that make up the sport. Yet in Rio 2016, Vancouverites took notice of the unusual sport as one of their own sped to the finish line in contention for a medal. Dunfee was poised to win a bronze medal when near the end of the 50km race he ended up in contact with another racer. Dunfee lost his stride and never recovered, falling to 4th place, with the runner who bumped him going on to capture the bronze medal. For medal-starved Canadians, and particularly for Dunfee himself, it was devastating as he collapsed across the finish line in exhaustion and one spot off the podium.

But then in a turn of events, Dunfee was awarded the bronze medal upon disqualification of his competitor. It seemed the Cascadia narrative of disappointment was not to be.

But before the medals were even awarded, an appeal overturned the decision and Dunfee’s disappointment-turned-success met the agony of defeat. Again. Back to 4th place. The way of sport in Cascadia continues.

Dunfee could have fought the decision, making additional appeals to fight for the medal. His effort was certainly deserving of such a response. But instead of sour complaint or self-serving appeal, Dunfee modeled an approach to loss that inspired not just Cascadian sports fans, but fans around the world. Faced with the choice of further appeal, and a seemingly good chance of victory, Dunfee humbly accepted defeat. So Cascadian of him. Here’s what he said in an interview:

Contact is part of our event, whether written or unwritten and is quite common, and I don’t believe that this was malicious or done with intent. Even if an appeal were successful, I would not have been able to receive that medal with a clear conscience and it isn’t something I would have been proud of. I will sleep soundly tonight, and for the rest of my life, knowing I made the right decision. I will never allow myself to be defined by the accolades I receive, rather the integrity I carry through life.

If victory is the goal, Dunfee and many other unknown losing athletes show us that how we pursue victory and how we accept loss is just as important as the goal itself.

For some, Dunfee may embody why Cascadian’s lose so much–we’re too honest and kind and lack the killer instinct to prevail. Perhaps. But Dunfee also models a way of dealing with disappointment that all Cascadians can aspire to. Success isn’t only measured in championships and medals. If victory is the goal, Dunfee and many other unknown losing athletes show us that how we pursue victory and how we accept loss is just as important as the goal itself. 

For Christians, we should know that life doesn’t offer an easy path–success isn’t defined by the glory of victory. Trouble and suffering is the path to life and fulfillment (Mt. 10:39; Jn. 16:33). But knowing this path doesn’t make it any easier to live out. And as we saw repeatedly in Rio 2016, human nature doesn’t always take losing easily. But for some–and for the One–the way of disappointment points to a way beyond disappointment, a way where victory marked by suffering and sacrifice reveals a beauty in the journey of life, a journey full of humility and grace.

Yes, I’ll continue to lament the disappointment of losing as a Cascadia sports fan. But in the face of loss, athletes like Evan Dunfee and others remind us that losing isn’t the whole story. How we lose can say a lot about what we value and how we live in the face of disappointment, in Cascadian sports no doubt, but hopefully in all that life brings our way.