Sporting Life

In new year, athletes wish for the smell of competition

Fencer Amita Berthier has learnt to be more patient this coronavirus-hit year PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

The workplaces of athletes are known to smell of grubby socks and perspiration, chlorine and frustration, and yet they'd never exchange them. As Derek Jeter once drawled: "My office is at Yankee Stadium."

You can do your accounting at home in your pyjamas, but athletes need to get into arenas and respond to the energy. It's where they become whole.

And so when I asked athletes, as one Covid year bends into another, what their wish list is for 2021, naturally odour came up. "I want to be able to feel and smell competition halls in international venues again," said fencer Amita Berthier. "Have that adrenaline rush and that bit of nervousness before competing."

As January beckons, lists are being made by athletes. Lists of wishes and goals. Lists of how they can stretch themselves. Last month after his latest world record, breaststroker Adam Peaty said on the BBC podcast Don't Tell Me The Score: "After the initial kind of high... (it's) how do we get faster next time." There's always room for a faster time on a list.

Athletes make lists of positions they're chasing, some first place, some a fifth spot, some plain crazy. Michael Phelps later admitted he "wanted to change the sport of swimming". Oh, only that. These lists are written in optimistic ink and kept in a drawer of dreams.

For nurse cum rower Joan Poh, her wish list includes finding a way "to fly my Canadian coach to Singapore for a training stint much needed by us both". For high jumper Kampton Kam it's hoping to "represent Singapore at the 2021 SEA Games in Vietnam".

Tessa Neo - the 10m air rifle shooter who secured a Tokyo 2020 quota spot for Singapore - wishes to "persevere till the end (of the selection competitions) and earn the opportunity to compete in next year's Olympic Games". Later, she adds: "Another wish would be to win at the Games and do the nation proud."

The second question I asked athletes was, "What's the most amazing thing you saw in sport this year?" and for synchronised swimmer Debbie Soh it was athletes with a voice. Or as she put it: "Seeing athletes from different backgrounds, who may speak different languages, come together to stand up for common initiatives like speaking up about mental health or the hidden abuse in sport."

Athletes, quite beautifully, were mostly amazed by each other. Inspired by the resilience they saw. Impressed by the drive they found. In a way they were all lifting each other out of distress.

Amazing, said swimmer Yip Pin Xiu, was "athletes still training and everyone still doing their best even if no competition was in sight". Amazing, said Kam, was athletes "training in creative and ingenious ways, especially in the Ultimate Garden Clash where three pole vaulters competed in different countries via Zoom".

Amazing, responded Poh, was "how much mental grit athletes need to have". From the outside we might see an athlete's muscles, but strength this year lay on the inside.

"Four years," she said in reference to the Olympics, "is a looooong time to train fervently for something. But how brutal it is on the mind when the four years becomes rubber band-time." When the Olympics stretch to five years, athletes have to renegotiate jobs, studies, funding, take a breath and continue. "It's not physical strength that builds the athlete," she clarifies.

Finally, I asked what part of themselves these athletes had improved. "Patience," said Berthier about what she developed as time slid by. "My diet," said Yip. An ability to "juggle more", said Poh, who was rowing and nursing and went from an athlete who got anxious if her meal times were changed to one who could "multi-focus".

For Neo, progress was found in her "adaptability". In a lockdown world of no physical meetings, fine-tuning in a technical sport which is obsessed with perfection meant a video call. "It was challenging as it wasn't as easy for the coaches and physical trainers to correct our mistakes over Zoom", she said. But from improvisation came improvement.

You hope the athletic world reopens fully for athletes need to take their energy somewhere. But till then they have to keep working because in this new year it's possible they're going to be asked to make a major leap upwards.

From very little competition to the Olympics. From living room squats to heroics on the big stage. It's a pretty big jump but at least diver Jonathan Chan is on the rise.

"(This year) I managed," he said, "to do 12 triple skips in a row." Which if you're wondering is the rope passing under the feet three times in a single jump.

Impressive, kid. But better start working on 13.

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