"First is first and second is last” has been cited in print since at least March 1980, when it was credited to American Olympic swimmer Steve Lundquist. Lundquist—an Olympic gold medalist—would become known for the saying throughout his career in the 1980s. Many athletes disagree with statement, believing that finishing second also demonstrates achievement.
Similar sports sayings include “Second place is the first loser” and “You don’t win silver—you lose gold.”
Wikipedia: Steve Lundquist
Stephen K. Lundquist (born February 20, 1961) is an American former swimmer who was an Olympic gold medalist. At the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California, he won gold medals in the 100-meter breaststroke and the 400-meter medley relay.
Lundquist was the first swimmer to break two minutes in the 200-yard breaststroke. He won every 100-yard breaststroke event he entered from 1980 to 1983. At 17 he broke his first world record and in his career he broke world and American records on 15 occasions. He first broke the 100-meter breaststroke world record in 1982 and held it until 1989 with the exception of one month when John Moffett held it. He also held the world record in the 200-meterindividual medley in 1978. He set American records in the 100-meter and 200-meterbreaststroke and the 200-meer individual medley.
20 March 1980, New York (NY) Times, “Games, With 0:43.36, Takes 100 Freestyle” by Frank Litsky, pg. S1:
As Steve puts it, “first is first and second is last.”
Swimming World and Junior Swimmer
Volume 22, Issues 7-12
As breaststroker Steve Lundquist once said, first is first and second is last, and reporters haven’t been lining up lately to talk with those who finish last, a.k.a. second. Mark Schubert, Linzmeier’s club coach at the Nadadores, says,
29 June 1984, Dallas (TX) Morning News, “Wet and Wild: Steve Lundquist’s back and going for the gold” by Dan Barreiro, pg. 6B, col. 6:
“Steve Lundquist used to say that first is first and second is last,” says fellow ‘84 Olympian Howdy Gaines.
New York (NY) Times
Diving; Neyer Wins a Personal Battle
By FRANK LITSKY, Special to the New York Times
Published: June 27, 1988
“I had a win-at-all-cost attitude,” said Neyer, “a results-oriented attitude. First is first and second is last. I went into every competition with that attitude.”
New York (NY) Times
SWIMMING; Motivated Barrowman Is a Winner for Losing
By FRANK LITSKY
Published: March 05, 1992
Barrowman recalled Steve Lundquist’s comment during the 1984 Olympic Trials in which Lundquist lost to John Moffet but went on to win in the Olympics. Lundquist said that first is first and second is last, except in the Olympic Trials.
Paths to the Olympics:
Maize and Blue to Olympic Gold
By Marc Parrish
Detroit, MI: Colemar Press
“First is first, second is last.” At the time l thought that was a great phrase. Now l think the guy was an idiot. Winning is not the only thing - it is only a part of the process.