Preparing to fly

Away from the cameras and fans, athletes chase greatness in the anonymity of a practice arena. In the third part of a four-part series, we travel to the Home of Athletics with high jumper Michelle Sng as she challenges her vertical limit on a lonely, hot day.

On a morning when the sky looks like a still blue sea there is only a single witness to Michelle Sng's dispute with gravity. He's a foreign worker holding a steel bar, she's just trying to leap over one. He is captivated because she, a high jumper, is having a private altercation with science: how high can she fly before she must return to earth.

It's hot at the field known as the Home of Athletics, it's muggy, it's empty, it's lonely. It doesn't matter. It's a classic sporting morning: Sng versus herself. A dreamer versus the bar. An athlete versus her limits.

Her body is high-jumper long, all lean, lanky, dynamic legs -- she can quarter-squat 140kg -- and slim torso, with enough skin to fit six tattoos. It's the easiest way to carry inspiration around and one of them is a line from Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken about the path "less travelled". Indeed. People move forward, she moves upwards.

No fans in sight as Sng trains on a muggy day.
No fans in sight as Sng trains on a muggy day. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Sng is a 30-year-old smiling wanderer who fancies train travel and has undertaken interesting journeys through sport. She was a rhythmic gymnast who became a jumper at 13, hurt her shin in 2007, didn't fully recover from the surgery, retired at 2011, was told by a former coach in 2014 that Singapore needed a jumper for its home SEA Games in 2015, didn't really want to compete, thought of skipping her first meet, tried it anyway, won bronze at the Games.

Yup. That's talent.

Now there's another SEA Games coming, another Asian Championships, and it's why she stands, bent over, hands on knees, left ankle carefully taped, freckled with sweat, visualising a jump. This is what her life is, a continuous ascent which is measured in centimetres. Some people climb Everest, 8,848m, but her peak is 1.84m, which you better not sneer at for it's a Singapore record and means she could sail over your fridge, your bookcase and probably your head.

Training is a solitary pursuit where an athlete's goals must serve as sufficient company. No team is analysing Sng this day, no coach watches, just a phone  -- that will eventually overheat and freeze -- which she balances against a water bottle to film herself. What we will see later on the phone is beauty; what she will look for are errors in a sport of many technical components.

Sng adjusts the camera on her phone to film herself while jumping.
Sng adjusts the camera on her phone to film herself while jumping. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

"Am I too close to the bar? My hips too low? Did I cut the corner during my run? Am I reaching too much during my last step? Is my timing off? Did my free leg (the one she hasn't taken off with) not swing up enough?"

Sometimes on her journey to the bar she will just know that an error has already been made but she's learnt,  she must still jump, must make every attempt count. "Sometimes you fight to clear the bar and it shakes but it stays".

Sometimes everything comes together. "A perfect jump on a perfect day and you feel you can soar forever. You just feel a sense of freedom when up in the air. You want to remember that feeling, you're always trying to find that feeling".

The one where she becomes birdwoman.

Singaporean high jumper, Michelle Sng.

The high jumper thinks vertically but her morning begins horizontal on the ground.

In a small room filled with old shoes, discoloured balls, starting blocks and an advertisement on the wall which shouts "the strongest muscle is a heart on fire", Sng is warming up. For the onlooker it is an exercise in humility. Think of her as a human elastic band being stretched. She is 172cm but can fold her body till her head rests on her knee or can stretch her leg straight up like a dancer. It is at once stylish and painful to watch.

Then she wanders outside, under an unfriendly sun, and starts to bounce. She hops forwards, then sideways, then backwards, on two feet and then one foot, as if loosening the coiled springs that have been substituted for bones in her legs. She is no ordinary person it is clear, but the child of Aether, Greek god of the upper air.

The supple Sng stretches before her jumps.
The supple Sng stretches before her jumps. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Anyone can tell she's an athlete by the knots of muscle that embroider her stomach. She needs this strength, for first she must strip the heavy tarpaulin off the landing bag and then carry out the two posts and the crossbar. No one is here to help because no one is here except two discus throwers who are playing loud music nearby. Her elegant art deserves a more agreeable accompaniment.

Watching the high jumper limber up is akin to watching a dancer in spikes. A series of cones are laid out in an arc and she starts to rehearse her run-up. She runs rhythmically, she kicks out her legs, she leaps, she reaches her arm up as if trying to grab the sky.

To sharpen her explosiveness she places three hurdles in a row, each 91.4cm high, and bounds over them barefoot, one after the other, as if using an invisible trampoline. Then she practises the art of smooth flight over a bar. She steps on a small platform near the pit, stands on her toes, and does what is ostensibly a back dive over the bar. You almost want to give her points for artistry.

Each exercise is unhurried, methodical, precise: athletes in training remind me of masons gradually laying the bricks for a great and future construction. Now one last calculation is left. Using her feet as a measuring tool, she makes a series of marks with chalk on the ground. Eleven feet: The turning point of her run. Thirty one feet: Her five-step approach. Forty-six feet: Her seven-step approach. Fifty-nine feet: Her nine-step approach. She's got an event in two days, she's been struggling with her rhythm on the long run-up, so she's experimenting.

She's ready.

She visualises.

She twiddles her fingers.

She lopes in, first running straight, then in a semi-circle, a ponytail-flapping, springy-striding human rocket who has physics on her mind: She's trying to find a perfect mix of posture, speed, rhythm, lean and then convert her sprinting energy into lift-off.

Only surfacing whales find a graceful kinship with high jumpers, for who else rises upwards and backwards? Sng runs forward, explodes off her left foot, turn her back to the bar at the last instant, rises, arches, and then lands on her upper back. Her style is called the Fosbury Flop and as its inventor Dick Fosbury, the 1968 Olympic gold medallist, once told an English writer: "Intuitively I liked the contradiction: a flop that could be a success." A flop that is also a fabulous flight.

Sng lands and rolls over. The bar shakes, then stills, and stays.

On hard days she does 15 jumps, but today it's less because she has a competition in two days. She bends and scribbles the height she's conquered on the ground with chalk, she returns to her mark, she breathes, she stares at the bar.

It was 1.60m. Then 1.65m. Now. 1.70m.

For Michelle Sng, on this empty field, under a watching sun, an old idiom is her daily truth. The bar is always set higher.

Sng uses cones to practise her semi-circular run-up.
Sng uses cones to practise her semi-circular run-up. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN