The Winner


When Panda Greene tried out for the girls’ one-mile run, she didn’t think she had a chance. She’d been running all her life, but never in formal competition. It had always been just for fun. The students and teachers at Andrews School had been buzzing about the race ever since she enrolled there in the sixth grade three months ago, and she knew that the very best runners would be competing. She could hardly believe it when she finished well ahead of her classmates. And when everyone at school suddenly knew who she was, and even the teachers stopped to chat with her in the halls, she couldn’t help but be pleased.

“Go, Panda! Go! Go!” the students cheered as she crossed the finish line ahead of the other runners during practices.

Andrews School’s biggest rival was Washington School. Every year for the past five years the winner of their track meet had finally been determined by the winner of the two-mile race, and each time, Washington had walked away with the trophy. But enthusiasm was running high at Andrews this year. And their hopes were set on Panda. Winning had never seemed important to Panda before, but now she wanted very much to win—not for herself, but for her classmates, for her teachers, for Andrews School!

When Panda’s parents heard about the track meet, they were just as excited as she was.

“We’ll be sure to be there,” her mother said, giving her a big hug. “We’re so proud of you!”

“When Grandpa Greene hears about it,” her father added, “I’ll expect he’ll make a special visit just to see you run.”

Billy, Panda’s eight-year-old brother, looked at her through squinted eyes. “Well, I hope you win, but I saw Washington’s team last Saturday. Their runner looks tough, and she runs like a cougar.”

Billy’s warning only increased Panda’s determination to win. Every afternoon, right after school, she hurried to the track at the neighboring high school and practiced running until her brown hair was damp with perspiration and the muscles of her legs cried out for rest.

Panda felt good the morning of the race. She stood at the top of the grandstand in the warm sun and looked down at the track. “You’d better go sit with Mom and Dad and Grandpa, now,” she said to Billy, who had been following after her all morning. “I have to go to the girls’ locker room and get ready for the race.”

As she spoke, Marianne Harper, her rival from Washington School, came over to her. Billy was right. Marianne looked strong and fast. She also looked unfriendly.

“I just wanted a closer look at you,” she said to Panda. “Everyone’s been telling me that you’re quite a runner. But you don’t looked like much to me.”

Billy scrambled up on to a seat until he was at face level with Marianne. He stuck out his chin and glared at her. “Well, that’s OK, because you’re going to see nothing but her dust once the race starts!”

Marianne merely looked past Billy at Panda. “You don’t stand a chance of winning,” she said coolly as she walked away. “You don’t need to win the race bad enough.”

Billy turned to Panda. “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t have time to figure it out now,” she said as she headed down toward the track. Turning to wave to Billy, Panda caught the toe of her running shoe on an uneven step and pitched forward. She quickly regained her balance, but she felt a sharp pain in her right ankle. After gently testing it, she decided there wasn’t anything seriously wrong with her ankle and she hurried off to the locker room.

The race was eight laps around the school’s quarter-mile track. Six girls, each one from a local elementary school, were lined up across the track in starting position. Panda was in the inside lane, Marianne Harper in the lane next to her. The starting pistol was fired, and Marianne instantly led the group.

Panda paced herself, concentrating on her breathing. Relax, she told herself. Take deep, even breaths.

At the end of the second lap, two girls were ahead of her: Marianne Harper, and Sue Winton from Longfellow School. Panda continued her steady pace. The whole school was counting on her, and she wasn’t planning to let them down. By the third lap, only Marianne stood between Panda and victory. But her near fall in the grandstand had been more damaging than Panda had suspected, and the pounding of her feet against the hard surface of the track was taking its toll on her ankle. Each step filled her leg with fiery pain. Got to win! she thought. Forget the pain. Run! Run! Run!

Panda saw her chance for victory midway in the last lap. Marianne was showing signs of fatigue. Panda increased her speed, closing the gap until the two girls were running side by side. Marianne glanced at Panda, her eyes hard and cold. It was clear that she would not take losing lightly.

There were only fifty yards to go when seating pain ripped through Panda’s leg; she felt her ankle twist beneath her body as she plunged toward the ground. Her hands plowed up the track, scraping them raw. Blood trickled from her knees, and the gritty sand filled her mouth as she saw Marianne sprint across the finish line.

A party had been planned at the high school auditorium for all the contestants, winners and losers alike, immediately following the meet. Panda really wanted to attend it, so despite her injuries, her parents drove her there directly from the doctor’s office and helped her into a chair. She was immediately surrounded by concerned friends, determined to console her and cheer her up. Billy stood at her side, while her parents and grandfather talked with several other parents and some teachers.

“Does your leg hurt a lot?” Billy asked when her classmates temporarily drifted away.

“No, not too much,” Panda said. “The doctor says it’ll be fine in a week or so. I just have to let it rest.”

Billy was the first to see Marianne Harper heading their way. “Oh, oh. Here comes trouble!” he whispered.

Panda expected a sneer from Marianne, but her face was serious. “I’m sorry about your leg,” she said. “I wanted to win awfully bad, but not this way.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Panda said. “You beat me fair and square. You’re the winner.”

“Am I? Look around.” Marianne motioned to the many parents, teachers, and students in the room. “Your whole family’s here … and so many friends! They don’t care that you lost. They’re still cheering for you.” She shook her head sadly. “I thought it might be different if I won, but it isn’t. My classmates only came because we’re getting the trophy, and my parents didn’t show up at all.”

Marianne turned to walk away, and Panda reached out and grasped her arm. “Wait,” she said. “You’ll be going to Jefferson Junior High School next year, won’t you?”

Marianne nodded.

“I will, too,” Panda said. “Maybe we can be on a relay team together. We’d make great partners.”

“You mean that?”

“Of course,” Panda said.

“Then you have yourself a partner!” Marianne smiled a half-smile as she left, but her eyes were wet with tears.

“I don’t get it,” Billy said. “She’s the winner. Winners don’t cry.”

“Sometimes they do, Billy,” Panda said thoughtfully. “I guess there are lots of things more important than winning.”

“Yes,” Billy said. “Like having a brother.”

Panda put her arm around Billy’s shoulder. “Yes,” she agreed with a broad smile. “Like having a brother.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Scott Greer