Was it the World Cup? Or perhaps the Super Bowl, or Wimbledon Grand-Slam? No.
But for me, a 14-year-old never away from his parents longer than a night, the two-week school rugby tour to South Africa certainly felt pretty close.
My school rugby team, of which I had been a member since entering the school, had always been a solid team. To us, this was a four-match international tournament extraordinaire; we saw ourselves as representing England on a global level! While the modest truth didn't match our unmoderated enthusiasm, we retained pride from beginning to end.
Match one. Johannesburg. We had flown 8,611 miles to be here, the fear of failure had crept up to me---as well as a self-inflicted pressure. What was the point in coming if we were to lose? The battle was hard-fought, but we eventually prevailed at a close score of 19-17.
Match Two. Pretoria. We had started off this expedition with prejudice, a victory already under our belt. Would we continue this streak with another triumph? No. But we put up a good fight, finishing eventually at a respectable 17-22. While disappointed, I wasn't sad; losing is not failure. Both are part of life.
Match 3 and 4. Cape Town. Cape Town is a fascinating place, likely the most exciting place I had ever been. A city of extremes; neighbourhoods like suburban America, affluent, attractive and safe sharing borders with miles of poverty, ramshackle aluminium huts and scores of homeless. As I travelled through the city, these polar opposites contrasted like black and white. More correctly; like Blacks and Whites. It took me some time to recognize that sad irony.
Our matches reflected that stark contrast. One game at a school in a black township - a slum. The second at a wealthy school high up in the mountains. In the UK, students feel burdened to go to class. In this township school, every single student wanted to be there!My team and I sat in on a few classes, and there was no misbehaviour, no interruptions, and flawless uniforms. They were proud to be at school, their only hope for a future. I found this attitude humbling and inspiring. Later in my difficult exam period, I used their attitude as a example for my own. I wanted to be worthyof the township students. I believe this allowed me to achieve the best results I could have hoped for.
Unfortunately, we never played their rugby team. Their field was littered with broken glass, and their team mixed with adults. Our coach decided the only safe thing was to decline the match. Despite this setback, the students still welcomed us to a meal with them, a traditional South African "Braai".
At the wealthy school, our team’s line of pink spread out across the lush grass turf; My mind wandered to thoughts of triumph, imagining the praise and victory we would bring if we prevailed. Within the first five minutes, the opponents scored; 0-7. Two minutes later; 0-14. Our captain limps off injured at 0-21. Play continues: 0-26, then 0-33. Our spirits were broken, the game lost. Eventually, I limped off the field, crushed emotionally and physically. We had lost 0-44. The referee had called the match off early, due to the numerous injuries in our team.
We lost badly. But I know we did not fail. When I stepped off the ten-hour flight, back in the UK, I had changed. I discovered numerous valuable lessons. I met and befriended fantastic people from completely different worlds - broadening my view of that world. I saw religions, panoramas, food, wildlife that I could only see on television. I saw the raw injustice of poverty and racial discrimination. I learned that losing is not failure, and both are OK, if you learn from them.