SPORTING LIFE

Every day, athletes fight doubt and distress to grab their chance

An emotional Danielle Kang is interviewed after winning the KPMG Women's PGA Championship golf tournament - a Major title for her first LPGA Tour win - at Olympia Fields Country Club on July 2, 2017.
An emotional Danielle Kang is interviewed after winning the KPMG Women's PGA Championship golf tournament - a Major title for her first LPGA Tour win - at Olympia Fields Country Club on July 2, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

Danielle Kang writes notes to her father in her journal. Every day. He died in late 2013 of cancer and yet he's always by her side. Every day. And so when she - the ultimate winner - started her final round on Sunday at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship, she felt him there.

"We can do it," she wrote to him in her journal this week. "Just keep watching, I got it."

Kang was in a sense reassuring herself because she'd been waiting. One hundred and forty-three LPGA tournaments before Sunday and no victory. Months gone, years passed, nothing. Third place, fourth, fifth, sixth, never first. In an interview with Sports Illustrated in May she accepted that in golf more than "99 per cent" of the time you're going to lose. That you can be great but someone will have a greater day.

But it leaves 1 per cent. Almost nothing but everything. One per cent is hope and "hope" says Singapore high jumper Michelle Sng "is what keeps us going". One per cent is enough to wake up for.

One per cent is still The Chance.

Every year, in every sport, thousands of trophies are polished and lifted and kissed and 10 times that number of athletes go home with only a pat on the back. Adversity is their daily bread. And so they see psychologists, visit faith healers, change putting grips, do yoga, chant, alter their attitudes, experiment with diets. Anything to give themselves The Chance.

 

Kang, who won her first title at a Major, cried on Sunday. Cried on the green with her mum. Cried in the press room... 

And then she cried while talking about her late father.

Then they lose again.

Julien Benneteau, 35, the French tennis player, has won over US$8 million (S$11.1 million) in prize money and yet never won an ATP World Tour title. From 2008 to 2014, he got to 10 tour finals. He lost them all. Defeated on clay, on hard court, on carpet. Sport must seem unfair and unkind to him and yet Gilles Muller will tell him that fairy tales aren't fiction.

This year in January, Muller, 34, who got to his first final in 2004, finally won his first ATP title and wept. "I was very scared and worried," he said, "that I was going to be one of those players that would never win a title." Benneteau must have the same fear and yet Muller is proof to him that The Chance is still out there.

What else, you may ask, can athletes do except keep trying? This is their only job, sweat their only scent, effort their only choice. But, individual sports especially, can beat you down, steal your confidence, infect you with doubt, till winning medals or titles seems like something only other people do.

Still athletes - not all, but most - keep wrestling with themselves, trying to use self-belief to pin down doubt. When I asked Sng, the high jumper - who won her first SEA Games medal, a bronze, at 28 in 2015 - about this struggle, she replied: "On some days I'm all, 'The gold is mine'. Other days I wonder if I'm even able to clear the first height."

There's a small heroism involved in persistence, in not simply blaming luck, a gust of wind, an inspired opponent, an unfriendly crowd, but getting over defeat, finding new inspiration, wearing the lean times, just pushing on.

Even after a broken neck.

In 2000, Nick Skelton, the British rider, landed on his head and was told that at 42 he was done. Two years later, in 2002, he wrote in The Telegraph, he got back on a horse and "wasn't nervous. I thought, you can't worry about that. If you want to do something you've got to go and do it. Don't look back. Keep going forwards". Fourteen years later in Rio, at his seventh Olympics, with a metal hip, he won his first individual gold. He was 58 years old.

How much waiting these athletes do, how patient they've been, how intensely they care, how powerful the pressure they face, is often revealed in two ways.

Firstly through a single word they use: Relief. Or as Skelton told an equestrian website: "It was relief more than excitement and enjoyment; it was just relief". Secondly through tears. As if years of emotion can now legitimately be let go.

And so Kang, 24, who won her first title at a Major, cried on Sunday. Cried on the green with her mum. Cried in the press room as she said: "It's been a really difficult road for me for the past four or five years, and it's life, though. You have to pick yourself up and you have to keep working hard at it, and then believe in what you're doing, and not letting yourself down."

And then she cried while talking about her late father.

"He doesn't talk much, however when he does say something it means a lot," she said when asked to describe him. "He feels that I can do anything," she added. "He's like a rock to me," she continued.

Every sentence was spoken in the present tense. Dad was gone but he was there.

Helping her to take her chance.