Often in the heat of athletic competition, sportsmanship can become lost in the shuffle of epic confrontation. And the results of those battles become the focal point of newspaper headlines and social media posts.
At Saturday’s TD Bank Beach to Beacon 10K road race in Cape Elizabeth, it was a selfless act by a talented, humble Maine road runner that made almost everything else irrelevant.
Waldoboro native Robert Gomez, who now lives in Windham, had second place in the Maine division of one of the state’s premiere athletic events in hand, but he could have selfishly taken first after Jesse Orach of Gorham, whom Gomez said commanded the race after the first mile, collapsed about 100 meters from the finish line in Fort Williams Park.
“He had the race in the bag,” Gomez said Sunday morning. “There was no way I was going to catch him.”
Technically, Gomez did. Orach, a former University of Maine standout who had a stellar career with the Black Bears, had gone down just after winding the final turn that takes runners in view of the Portland Head Light. But passing Orach never popped into Gomez’s mind.
“I took a glance at him and just my first thought in my head was, I need to get him off the ground,” Gomez said. “He deserved to win. I felt that it was necessary to get him there.”
So Gomez helped Orach to his feet and aided him those final 100 meters and across the finish line. Both men received an official time of 31 minutes, 31 seconds, with Orach awarded first place and Gomez second.
The two men had met on Friday at a pre-race event at the fort during which elite athletes, race founder and running legend Joan Benoit Samuelson, and top Maine athletes get to talk to us reporters, and Gomez quickly grew to like Orach, who won an America East cross country title as a senior.
“He really seems like he’s got a good head on his shoulders,” Gomez said. “It’s easy to like the guy.”
Not surprisingly, Gomez’s phone was blowing up throughout the day on Saturday as his act when viral on social media.
The photograph of Gomez and Orach crossing the finish line is now the cover photo on the Beach to Beacon’s Facebook page, and the post had received more than 4,000 likes and 350 shares as of Sunday morning.
But like a lot of his peers in the Maine running community, Gomez has remained humble. And Orach was gracious.
“He offered to split the difference in prize money with me,” Gomez said. “The bigger message is to me, I’m not a special person. I’m just one of a very large community of runners in this state. What I did on Saturday was not out of the ordinary, it’s something most Mainers would have done.”
If anything, what Robert Gomez did on Saturday morning in a small Maine town should be a teaching lesson for athletes everywhere in a world where winning is celebrated: Sometimes it’s not about being on top of the medal stand.
It’s about doing the right thing, and that’s what Gomez did.
“I really hope that people see it as something that everyone should do, and I hope they see it as the type of sportsmanship and camaraderie that Mainers in general have,” he said.
That is a large part of what makes “Joanie’s Race,” the Beach to Beacon, the spectacular event that it is. And it’s part of what makes runners a special, selfless breed of athlete — that helping your fellow competitor trumps a larger sum of prize money.
We could all learn from what Gomez did. And the fact that he was humble about it makes it all the more special.
Follow Ryan McLaughlin on Twitter at rmclaughlin23.