Sporting Life

Sporting Life: On a crowded track, a lonely athlete labours in search of her best self

Dipna Lim Prasad is searching for oxygen. Opening her mouth and gulping it down gratefully. Trying to inhale life. The 400m runner and hurdler, her breath ragged, is sitting on a track at the Kallang and taking a brief break. But now she has to go again. There's no choice but to go again. One more series of four hurdles at a time. Then another. Then another. Excellence is far away.

"48, 49, 50..."

As practice starts she huddles with Luis Cunha, her coach, and tells him the split times - 48 means 4.8 seconds - she's aiming for between hurdles which are 35m apart. Cunha will check her precision on his stopwatch. Of course, he has two.

It's not just speed she seeks today but smoothness and seamlessness. A sort of flow to her movement where everything is easy but exact: Number of steps between hurdles, length of stride, take-off point, height over the hurdle and flight time over each hurdle which is 76.20cm high. The more she does it, the more calculation turns into instinct.

"Taking off too close to the hurdle makes you jump upwards rather than hurdling forward," she explains "and you lose momentum, waste energy and waste time". This is sprinting as science and as she crouches on the track she softly reminds herself of what she must do.

Athletes are humans in search of their machine-like best, for what is practice but a type of endless tuning. They oil themselves with sweat and if they find form they purr. It sounds all very mechanical, except that the process hurts.

Jasmine Ser fires 130 pellets a day in the 10m air rifle. Saiyidah Aisyah rows between 20 and 24 km on tough days. There's nothing pretty to this, nothing but repetition, nothing but pain. From this monkish, monotonous life, they presume, will arrive salvation one day.

Lim-Prasad, 25, takes off as cars hiss by, a tall woman as lean as a reed and as tough as a cable. "Taller, taller, taller," shouts Cunha about her posture. He's tracking her as she gets her footing wrong and clatters into a hurdle again.

"Why you panting?" the genial Cunha teases.

The crowd thins, the wind lifts, darkness falls, Dipna Lim Prasad runs. To watch an athlete practise is to comprehend tenacity: What else is repetition but commitment. To see such labour is to witness a human's search for her best self. It is obsession and yet also joy: The kid who loved running in the playground has become the adult who runs in arenas.

Lim-Prasad is recovering from six days of a respiratory tract infection but it's hard to rest for too long when everyone else is running. Part of excellence includes insecurity, a recurring fear of not being fast enough. This week starts her Australian adventure where she will run in the Queensland State Championships and then the Australian Athletic Championships. It will be her first time in hurdles competition since she ripped a ligament off the bone in her ankle while training in December 2015 and anxiety tags along.

"It's frustrating and scary (going to Australia)," she says. "I have a high expectation of myself. People don't care if you had the flu, they want results. But even with me, it's a perfection thing. Even if I am a bit off today, I still have to do well."

It's closing in on 8pm and she's been here since 5pm and one thing is clear: Excellence is not just an exhausting business but a crowded one. Scores of kids pelt down the track, rugby players arrive, a solitary female discus thrower contemplates technique and evening joggers go puffing by.

Roger Federer might find concentration easier in his secluded court, but here there is no privacy. Once, in the single lane she uses, Lim-Prasad finds someone else's starting blocks between her hurdles. Perfection must be pursued amid pandemonium.

Thirteen months ago she was wearing a cast and walking so slowly that one day at a mall she hitched a ride on her Paralympian pal Theresa Goh's wheelchair. Now she's running and wants to slice seconds off her personal best of 59.24 seconds in the hurdles. Maybe get to 58 or 57 this year; maybe 56 next year for the Asian Games. Step by small step.

The crowd thins, the wind lifts, darkness falls, she runs. To watch an athlete practise is to comprehend tenacity: What else is repetition but commitment. To see such labour is to witness a human's search for her best self. It is obsession and yet also joy: The kid who loved running in the playground has become the adult who runs in arenas.

"It comes naturally to me," she says. "I can't imagine life without it. I like overcoming stuff, the feeling of lungs burning and everything hurting and pushing through barriers. I find it empowering, that I can overcome this. A case of mind over matter."

She craves what all athletes do, an injury-free year, a chance to chase a goal uninterrupted. This evening at least has been undisturbed but one last set remains. Like a leaf scuttling across the track, she blows down her lane, her yellow spikes cutting through the night as the rain sweeps like a thin curtain across the floodlights.

She clears every hurdle but now she has to stack them and store them. I have to leave and my abiding memory is of her, tired, wet from the rain and sweat, crossing the track while holding a hurdle. No one is looking at her. No one cares. In a busy field, Dipna Lim-Prasad carries a lonely dream.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 21, 2017, with the headline 'On a crowded track, a lonely athlete labours in search of her best self'. Print Edition | Subscribe