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Sibling Rivalry: How “Healthy” Is Competition?

When you have triplets, you get good at predicting the future as it pertains to their multiplicity. For example, my guys start Kindergarten in a couple of weeks. Given there’s three of them, but only two classes, something’s got to give. Thankfully, we saw the situation coming and have been giving the matter thought for a long time now.

But the other day, something popped up that we never saw coming. My boys, just five, were pitted against each other in official competition for the first time ever.

It won’t be the last. Nor is it some big surprise that Sam and Jack will be rivals in athletic competition. Their mother and I have always known that at some point, the day would come.

It’s just we thought we had a while. After all, during these early years, it’s not uncommon for siblings and close friends to be on the same team, in part because it’s always nice to have a familiar face when you’re learning a new sport, and in part because of carpool considerations. (And when you have triplets, that’s a considerate consideration!) Plus, at age five, they’re not exactly old enough to where the competitive element of each sport takes precedent. It’s still about dipping a toe in the water. It’s still about socialization.

But their 12-year-old sister serves notice that it won’t be long before the competitive element does come first. Which, again, is why their mom and I have always understood that at some point they’d square off. But, like the Kindergarten scenario, we thought we’d be able to see it coming. We thought it’d be something we’d be able to prepare for.

But we were wrong. And I knew it the moment I snapped this photo.

sibling rivalry

Sam and Jack were paired in the same heat in their first-ever swim meet.

They’re so different, my boys are. Sam’s rough. Jack’s sensitive. Sam’s shy. Jack’s outgoing. Sam’s aggressive. Jack’s reticent. (I know. That’s the opposite you’d think given the shy/outgoing comparison, but it’s true.) Sam rushes through life on impulse. Jack takes his time and chooses his line carefully.

I looked for these differences to manifest themselves on the soccer field, and I suppose they did to an extent. But at the end of the day, both my boys proved to be worthy competitors. Solid little athletes with worlds of competition before them.

And that day at the swim meet, those worlds would collide.

I thought about the spirit of competition as my boys dove into the water at the sound of the starting gun. And by dove I mean flopped. I reminisced about my own competitive drive as they took their initial strokes.

I was a competitive kid. Even with my friends. Actually, especially with my friends. The closer I was with someone, the more competitive I was with them, too. Not the petty stuff, though. Just with things that had a final score attached to it.

Whether it was basketball, baseball, soccer, ping pong or even checkers, for crying out loud, whenever I played my friends in anything, I wanted to win and I wanted to win badly. The more official the contest, the greater that desire.

You can’t win ‘em all though. Which is why there were lots of bumps along the way. Some bruised egos, too. And hurt feelings. A lot of swallowed pride, as well. But if the competition divided my friends while we were between the lines — and believe me it did — it only made us tighter once the final buzzer sounded.

Simply put, you didn’t mess with me and my boys. Even if we’d mess with each other, that never meant you were allowed to. Because, yeah, we were competitors, but we also brothers who had each others’ back. Competitors are loyal like that.

As they came down the homestretch, my oldest daughter and her friends were waiting in Jack’s lane for him to finish while Caroline and I waited in Sam’s. I watched my beautiful boys gulp for air between their comical and overzealous strokes, their fogged-up goggles noticeably askew. They weren’t cutting the water as much as they were assaulting it, each, I suspected, frantically trying to outdo the other.

Or were they? Perhaps I was projecting my competitive drive upon them.

When Sam touched the wall, I lifted his taut little body out of the water, and before I’d even had time to set him down on the pool deck, the question came between heavy breaths.

“Did I beat Jack?”

That was a week ago, and I must have revisited that moment 100 times since. And each time I do, a giant smile comes across my face. And it has nothing to do with whether or not Sam beat Jack.

It has to do with competitors, and the bond they share.

As if those womb-mates needed another one.

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