To walk in my father’s shoes, to make a journey home…

Rohit Brijnath, in The Straits Times this morning.

The grandest treasures of my childish universe lay in my father’s cupboard. It was unlocked and yet forbidden, full of manly secrets not to be shared with a boy. So, of course, when he went to work, I turned burglar. In a small tray, lay a huddle of riches. A half-eaten packet of peppermints. Two quickly swallowed. A one-rupee coin. Purloined. A hankie with “R”. Pocketed. A hotel comb from his travels. Tried. Cuff-links? Now what were these?

I ran my fingers over his shirts, I felt the weight of his faded, corduroy jacket. Touching my father’s world. Discovering him through the hint of cigarette smoke that infused his things. I opened a scarf and wore it across my face like a bandit. I envied his socks – why, I do not know, for my father remains among the planet’s most unfashionably dressed men. Except on Christmas Day when waistcoat, cravat and jacket appear. For an atheist he seems to make an effort on a holy day. But don’t tell him that.

Across from my father’s cupboard in his bedroom, as I moved like a soundless boyish thief across the carpet, was his walk-in closet. In the front rested an old spool tape recorder of more promise than performance, which was taken religiously to a repairman, an angular chap who clucked and squinted and probed with a screwdriver. It wasn’t a careless era where you simply discarded a hiccuping machine and bought another. Anyway, how could these men let it go: the technician because repair was his craft; my father because this machine had once delivered to him an unforgettable music.

In the closet, hanging above the recorder were my mother’s saris, a neat row of cascading colour, but it was below that lay the real prize.

Shoes.

My father is a middle-class man, who arrived from no money and built his life with sweat and intelligence. A man not covetous, not a cheapskate, just cautious. He will proudly claim he has had four shirts stitched for the price of a single, branded ready-made one. We will not discuss the fit and cut. When he visits me in Singapore, and inspects shoes in the shops, he is more calculator than connoisseur. He will convert dollars into rupees ($1 is Rs48) and then rapidly have a series of minor coronaries. He thinks those Use-By dates on sauces are a collective conspiracy by manufacturers to seduce us into throwing away perfectly fine products. I wouldn’t use his tomato sauce if I were you.

And so, for this prudent man, his shoes were few when I was a boy. One pair of sandals. An office pair or two. And two other pairs. The first was old, brown and suede; the second was black, leather with laces. Even boys have Cinderella complexes: I wanted to try them on. Of course, they were too big, in ways I didn’t yet understand.

I asked my father if I could wear them, but he, a man big yet gentle, did not want me to. Not yet. Those shoes were too precious to him, those shoes – the suede and the black leather – were his own father’s. When he looked at them, did he see his father, long gone, standing in them?

We tidy up after the dead but never fully, as if that would erase them completely. Maybe possessions are part of memory. My father cannot explain why he kept my grandfather’s shoes then and he cannot tell me why, at 79, he still has them.

But if I could not wear those shoes, my father offered me something else in return: I could learn how to polish them with him.

No one polishes shoes like men of that age. Love bestowed on leather. It is an affection for old things, it is respect for property, it is meditation with brush. It is craft: a newspaper is laid out, a hand inserted into the shoe, the shoe held at an angle. One brush to apply black Cherry Blossom paste, worked in like a dutiful painter, another brush to shine.

Hurry is banished here. Then, from an old box, a rag, whose smears are reminders of previous labours, appears. It is held taut in two hands and pulled across the shoe in a sawing motion. It is the search for sparkle. When the shoe glimmers, it is in fact being revived. Is more than leather being given life?

The years went by, I grew up into a gangly teenager and one day I must have stutteringly asked again to wear those shoes to a party and my father, lying on his bed, stroking his beard like Gandalf in glasses, agreed.

On came my grandfather’s shoes. Later, for fun, I’d even borrow my father’s shoes.

Something happens when you walk in them, as if you’re abruptly encased in adulthood, as if you’re part of some rite of polished passage. Only later you understand that these shoes cannot quite have the same meaning for you.

These shoes belonged to men born in tougher times, when the framework of a nation was being arranged, who built a life for you from nothing, who cared for their shoes because they couldn’t afford too many. The shoes of these men may have fitted you perfectly, but you, who can buy shoes now without a second thought, can never really fill them.

My father, till two years ago, polished his own shoes. I am not my father for my shoes are grimy and unpolished, but on rare days when I spread open a newspaper and prise open a polish tin and struggle to find that old shine, I smile. There are things fathers leave you which never fade.

This week I fly to India where he waits. To live far from your parents, as many do in this city, has one blessing: the journey home. It is like riding a song; it is as if no plane can fly fast enough; it is the anticipation of the moment when you swing open a bent, clanking metal gate and feel a familiar gravel beneath your shoes; it is the knowledge, not grim but real, that as your parents age you are running out of visits and that one day this journey will end.

I will find my father probably in front of his television. He loves this box of pictures and for 55 years he’s loved my mother: the first whom he yells unprintable stuff at when politicians appear, the second in whose direction he slyly mutters when she complains the volume is too high.

He has five grandchildren, one great-granddaughter, is irritatingly deaf but mostly has his health. He has almost everything and swears he needs nothing. No Christmas present, he bellows. But perhaps from a man I took so much from, and still do, I can at least take him shopping in his cold, noisy town.

You know what for: a pair of shoes, of course

On the loss of a Sporting Life

Rohit Brijnath in The Straits Times this morning on how no sporting loss more profound than loss of a life..

Grizzled writers weep over their laptops. Strangers in Australia place cricket bats outside their homes, leaning there like a salute, as homage to a fallen boy of theirs. The Indian hockey team, from a different geography, in a different sport, lay out their sticks in an act of athletic brotherhood. A tweet of grief comes my way, written by an Australian: “Driving home. On a cricket oval to my left an old man, with a fierce moustache, crying. His son dragging a bat through the grass.”

Phil Hughes, 25, the cricketer, who most of the sporting world had never met, has gone and it has staggered us. I never knew him, yet I mourn.

Loss is not a competition. There is no measuring tool to rate tragedy. For every family, every loss, of any person, of any age, is exquisitely aching. But the death of the young athlete seems different.

Partly because he is famous. We know him as a face on a screen and a voice in interviews. He tells us of his boyish ambition, he scrambles to realise his promise, we ride on his pimpled dreams. Connected by TV and Twitter, we grow up alongside them and with few others do we forge such intimate relationships. No journey is quite like this.

For many of us, irrespective of age, the young athlete represents the defiance of our own failures. Talent and circumstance tripped our greatness, but not with him. Not yet. In a way, he plays for us. Man’s youthful ambassador to some distant, untouchable horizon.

And so he lives among us, hope in sneakers. He is the poster on our walls, the scribble in our autograph book. Of course, we overdo the veneration, ego can blossom, riches can turn a man, but in the beginning, and Hughes was only 25, this much remains true – the young athlete chasing a ball, greatness swirling within his reach, is among mankind’s most innocent images. It speaks of possibility, of the pursuit of perfection, of youth unfettered. Now it has been stolen, like a page abruptly ripped from a book. A story incomplete.

Our heroes should be scientists, teachers, firefighters, social workers. But athletes liberate us in a different way, they let us travel in our own imaginations, they supersede even the Hollywood star. The actor’s flight over buildings is fake, a clever creation of computer graphics; the athlete, soaring past gravity and rivals and history to dunk, is real. He gets no second takes at match point. For that moment, our life stops. As he leaps, we will him further.

But one part of sport is never supposed to be real. It is never real war. It is never real life and death. As Tom Fordyce, who covered this same subject eloquently on the BBC website, noted, these are just exaggerated metaphors. From these sporting conflicts, in stadiums and arenas, he wrote, “everyone walks away to fight another day”. Or are supposed to. These heroes are not supposed to die. They are bruised, then they carry on. Their cars are mangled, then they limp out. They fall, then they stand back up.

But Hughes didn’t rise. Get up, you wanted to shout at the video. Please, get up.

Twenty years ago, Julian Linden, the fine Reuters writer, covered the tragic 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. In a recollection of the day, which he wrote about this April, he described journeying back to Bologna to his hotel at the end of a long day. When he got there, the receptionist was weeping.

“I asked her,” he wrote, “what was wrong but she didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Italian so she pointed to the first edition newspaper that had arrived. The front page simply read: ‘Senna è morto’.”

How can it be, we asked then, as we do today. Invincible, we write in the newspapers about athletes. Immortal, we say. Indestructible, we chant. Of course, we know, this is not true, but the young athlete represents man at his physical zenith. He glistens with health, he can barely walk without wanting to run, he is built of ropes of muscle. In any meeting of inhabitants of this galaxy, he would be our specimen from Earth. To then see Hughes fall is to confirm what we never want to do with athletes. Dear god, he is human. No, they all are.

The athlete, as he grows, is our endless conversation. We criticise, we lament their silliness, we question their ambition. We can be cruel and they too slothful. We can over-praise and they can cheat. Later the athlete might write a book and wander with slower step among us at airports in his retirement. We never know a man fully till he has lived his life fully. And it is why the amputated story of Hughes haunts us.

Eventually, cricket will resume and writers will wipe their laptops clean. Man has to play on. New heroes will arrive, armed with new dreams. Most never make it to greatness, but it is not about gaining glory, it is about just being given a chance.

To chase potential. To make a career. To be better. To lose form, to find it again. To manage kids and captaincy. To be grey and slower. To live the athletic life.

To just play.

It’s all we wanted for Phillip Hughes. For all of them.

On the Phil Hughes moments

The eeriness of that moment somehow was that it seemed bigger than itself as soon as it happened. A moment which seemed momentous.

As a trader, sitting in office, staring at multiple screens of flashing numbers, scrolling headlines and contorting graphs, you somehow train yourself to be alert for something which could be defining – but mostly it doesn’t happen. Not for days, and even if, only for a few defining submoments before life slips back into exciting ennui.

That day, there was no headline, no sudden change in prices and no graph danced. It was a seemingly innocuous tweet by a cricket writer who was covering some state game. Phil Hughes had been hit by a short ball he said. “Real bad” he said. Or maybe it was “Doesn’t look good”.

Three days later, I’d discuss it with a colleague. We agreed that there was something distressingly, abnormally ominous about every moment since then.

These kind of things aren’t exactly rare.  Sportsmen get injured, accidents happen, injuries pause promising lives and cripple careers. Why then did I message a few people and mail a few others within moments of that happening? Why did this one cloud seem more than just tremulous? Why, at the root of my spreading the word, was this feeling of reaching out for selfish “say it isn’t so” help?

Two days later, in Phil Hughes’ death, that moment assumed an ironical life of its own. Those two days had been spent monitoring markets, stretching time with friends and family, building and meeting expectations, thinking of Thanksgiving, finding meaning in routine – but mostly in waiting for good news. Or wishing for no bad news. Those two days had been spent in hopeful prayer.

For all the two faced monster that Social Media is,  it provided in those two days  (and certainly, though differently, in the moments after), a conduit of expectations. I’d keep searching for news,  grimace at updates, cringe at obits disguised as career recap pieces and marvel at hope.

For the sportsfan, Phil Hughes’ death is bigger than just that. For a few shaping moments, it questions the value of Sports as solace.

Now, as one reads about a promise shattered, watches a captain broken, a sports’ community orphaned of brightness, one tries the most difficult thing of all – to distance oneself from that deluge of grimness.
For a few moments….

On The Inherent Courage of the Athelete

The day after the Phil Hughes tragedy, Rohit Brijnath writes in The Straits Times.

SINGAPORE’S Lim Heem Wei, barefoot, hurtles down the runway of the gymnastic vault. This is a few years ago and she is practising a routine called the Yurchenko. At the end of her sprint, she must first do a hurdle – a sort of hop – to gather speed and power required to execute her move. It is followed by a round-off (a cousin of the cartwheel) wherein she twists and lands backwards on the springboard from where she will arch and explode into her vault.

But Heem Wei can’t do it, she brakes like an over-speeding car at the edge of the springboard, crashes into the vault, hurts her arm. Like a striker pulling out of a tackle, she’s possibly lost her nerve for a second. It’s human. What is inhuman almost is that Heem Wei goes on. Digests fear. Finds composure. Starts again.

“You can’t lose focus (in gymnastics) because it has very serious consequences,” she says. To slip, to err slightly, is damaging. Canada’s Taylor Lindsay-Noel broke her neck attempting a dismount from the uneven bars. World champion Elena Mukhina lived as a quadriplegic because of a training accident. Says Heem Wei: “When I was younger and the difficulty of my moves was increasing, I had sleepless nights. Now I am more aware of the dangers. But if you want to remain in the sport you have to cope.”

Beneath the elegance of gymnastics, lingers risk. Behind the effortless skill of cricket, rests danger. Sport is inherently deceitful. What we see is never the entire truth. Even in the most gentle arenas, athletes fight and conquer the invisible tendrils of fear.

It requires guts. Heem Wei has it. So did a young cricketer, only 25, whose death yesterday morning has shaken sport. Phil Hughes, the Australian batsman, fatally struck by a ball on Tuesday, is our latest reminder of the perils confronting athletes. And of how they meet them every day with a courage that is quietly concealed.

Some athletes appear obviously brave. The boxer, his life pledged to trafficking in pain, often uses conceit to hide fear. As Chuck Wepner once said: “If I survived the Marines, I can survive Ali.” Racing, in every form, is a pushing of the human envelope till it tears. In October, three jockeys died in a single week and Julies Bianchi crashed his F1 car and now fights to live. It is tragic and yet it is their chosen life.

In cricket, courage is more unspoken. But it is there. For even as bodies don’t collide, the ball has forever been aimed at bodies. A leather ball, five-and-a-half ounces, flying across 22 yards sometimes at 150kmh; a ball that has extracted teeth, fractured skulls, broken jaws. Only those who haven’t confronted such skill at speed will laugh at tailenders who flinch.

Courage rests in sport where we don’t always acknowledge it. Everywhere you might look, fear is being confronted, worn, swallowed. Divers, those talented topplers into water from three-storeys high, are cloaked in conviction. They must attempt more complex dives, of extreme difficulty, whose failure leads to pain and often lesions on the retina.

Whether an aerial skier or surfer, the pursuit of dazzle is dangerous. High art comes at a cost. A Discovery Science programme on the ice skaters’ triple axel routine reveals that they rise roughly 23 inches – almost as high as a dunking NBA player – rotate thrice but land only on the tiny “edge of one blade”. Hard ice awaits the fallen in practice. Under glittering sequins lies solid backbone.

No one traps the athlete into performing. He is daring by choice, carrying grit in his kit bag. In an ancient time, hockey goalkeepers wore no mask, batsmen wore no helmets and boxers, absent of mouthguards, fought bare-knuckle till a man fell.

Now, wise to sports’ perils, boxing gloves are bigger and cricketers have guards for chest, arm, abdomen. It is prudent and professional but never faultless. As an athlete once noted: “To have total safety I think is absolutely impossible to call, in any part of life.” His name is Michael Schumacher.

Schumacher, like all great athletes, was a cold calculator of percentages. Skill was his protection. He managed risk with practice and chance with preparation. So did Hughes. He, helmet on, was probably not even thinking of getting hurt that day, only of pulling the ball for four which he had done so often. But there is no protection against the freakish.

In July, a ball squeezed past Craig Kieswetter’s helmet grille and bloodily rearranged his nose and eye socket. Here, the ball hit Hughes on the side of the neck, compressing an artery, in an area almost impossible to protect. To watch video of his collapse is to sink within.

Tragedy visits sport more often than we think. This year, Australian rugby league player Alex McKinnon, 22, was left in a wheelchair. Reports speak of three high school footballers in the US who recently died. So did Singapore boxer Shahril Salim yesterday, only 23. Each time we are stunned, for sport, more than anything else, celebrates the vitality of life, not a threatening of it.

Now a young cricketer has gone and only the familiar words of A.E. Housman’s poem, To An Athlete Dying Young, resonate:

The time you won your town the race

We chaired you through the market-place;

Man and boy stood cheering by,

And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

And set you at your threshold down,

Townsman of a stiller town.

Always sport will have its dangers. Athletes accept them, for it is who they are. Today another bouncer will be bowled somewhere in cricket and cyclists will dash down slick slopes on thin tyres. We cannot stop them or, alas, sometimes save them. But we can at least respect the bravery and acknowledge the gallantry of those like Hughes who strive in arenas for our pleasure.

On the Ice Buck Challenge and Lou Gehrig…

Last week, Rohit Brijnath responded to my Ice Bucket Challenge. This, was his piece on Sunday in The Straits Times on ALS, the challenge and Lou Gehrig.

 

“There is,” said the film-maker Alfred Hitchcock, whose generous figure suggested a man unfamiliar with anything athletic, “no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” And so the idea of being doused with cold water is far grimmer than its reality and the only way I can steel myself for the Ice Bucket Challenge is to utter the perceptive words of the Canadian comic, Russell Peters:

Be A Man.

A friend nominated me. He posted a video where he spoke of a motorcyle accident he had as a foolhardy young man which left him with facial paralysis and hearing issues. The accident was a cure for his silliness, but there is none for ALS, the disease which has sparked the Ice Bucket Challenge.

I am not overly keen on challenges. Partly because I am instinctively a coward. Mostly because challenges can be gimmicky and self-righteous all at once, rocketing across social media like a dazzling yet rapidly burning out firework. Once celebrities finish posting self-congratulatory videos of their drenched selves, we move swiftly on. To another Kardashian episode.

But this is idle cynicism. In truth, if people just figure out what ALS stands for – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – it’s a start. It might make them read on disease or contemplate charity or travel to YouTube for new videos.

The Challenge provokes journeys. And mine has taken me to 1939, to a baseball stadium and to a moment which always reminds me why I love sport: A speech by a dying man named Lou Gehrig.

All sports fulfil a need and fill a cultural space. As a boy I always had cricket, so I never needed baseball. But the writer’s inquisitiveness is his constant ally and in my assorted reading years ago, I somehow stumbled upon Gehrig, the legendary New York Yankee.

I discovered his evocative nickname, the Iron Horse; I found out he had ALS and that he made it famous, which is why it’s also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

And I read about the speech.

By 37, you see, Gehrig had gone; but at 36, ailing, he came to Yankee Stadium to speak to fans through an echoing microphone.

In a world whose ideas are often condensed to 140 characters, the speech has become old-fashioned. No one remembers them any more. In sport, we only hear them in movies, where Denzel Washington barks the scriptwriter’s words in Remember The Titans. But that is dazzling fiction; Gehrig was heartbreaking reality.

In front of over 62,000 people, who had only recently discovered he had ALS, he started by saying:

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky.”

Gehrig spoke, gratefully, of his team manager and of his parents. He said of his rivals, “When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift, that’s something.” He said of the Yankees, “When everybody down to the groundskeepers… remember you with trophies, that’s something.”

No, actually, Gehrig was something.

He was doing what athletes, especially now, rarely do. Not moaning, but counting his blessings in public. Not whining, but reminding us of how he felt privileged. Not telling us what he wanted from life, but what he had got and was grateful for. The old-fashioned hero is not a myth: There were indeed men like this.

I’m not always enamoured of modern sport and its obsession with money and triviality (“Wawrinka tells fan to shut up” becomes a headline these days). It’s why I like to return to Gehrig’s speech now and then. Just to reassure myself that sport is not merely an athletic enterprise but also a noble exercise. Just to remember that courage is not the player facing the 100mph fastball, but a young man confronting a finish line that had abruptly come to find him.

Last month, on the 75th anniversary of Gehrig’s address, a video was made which involved players from every Major League Baseball team reading out a line from the speech. It was appropriate, for in a time of biters and match-fixers, sport needs to preserve and honour the better parts of itself.

And so, as we douse ourselves, maybe the real Challenge is not the cold of the ice or the emptying of a wallet, but something far more profound. To reflect on a young man we never knew. Who was dying that day at 36, yet in fact was telling us a little about how to live.

 

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My Own ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and its plea 

Running Against The Odds..

A feature from Rohit Brijnath in The Straits Times last Sunday. Carried now in asiaone.

The runner lies in bed as the darkness quietly gives way to light. Soon, just like you, she’ll slip on her Asics, tug on an old T-shirt and drip sweat onto the uneven road before her. But first, unlike you, she has this conversation with herself:

“Eyes clear. No double vision.”

Good.

“Ear fine. No deafness.”

Good.

“No disorientation as I rise.”

Good.

I’m OK. I can run. I better run. It’s what helps me feel OK.

Today, the runner is fine. Today, disease hasn’t come calling.

The runner, 46, is my friend, who has spent 20 years huffing down paths, 20 years hectoring herself (“You’re too slow. Go home.”), 20 years examining herself with infinite optimism on weighing scales, 20 years chasing the minute hand of a watch.

She presumed, just as we do, that she understood Personal Best, this notion of meeting challenge by rummaging through your brain for unknown and extraordinary parts of yourself. Like a climber perched on a rock face, running allows for an insight into faith, an observation into courage, an appreciation of our limits.

We’re never quite sure who we are, or what we have, and the road is our stern instructor. Yet there is no teacher nor any journey as awfully demanding as disease, for it brutally asks: What fight have you got left? How much faith do you own?

My friend the runner knows this for she has multiple sclerosis.

MS, which afflicts more than 2.3 million people worldwide, is an untrustworthy mongrel of a disease, which attacks the central nervous system. It is a stripping away of myelin, the substance which protects nerve fibres and helps messages travel smoothly between the brain and the body. The result is messages that come slower, are distorted or never reach.

It is not fatal yet is absent of cure. Its severity is varied yet it can leave you later in a wheelchair as it did with Betty Cuthbert, the four-time Olympic gold medallist in sprinting from the 1950s-60s.

MS – more prevalent among women – came to my friend in 2005 with the stealth of a sudden invader, stripping her of her Asics, wrapping her in a hospital gown, and sliding her 10 times into MRI machines which snarl and scan her brain. Regular runner has turned wounded walker.

The disease manifests itself in no single ugly way. One attack leaves her head feeling like a plank of wood – as if in an act of cruel magic, it has separated from the rest of her body – and her feet feel as if she is walking on a floor of cotton wool. Another time, her skin pulls painfully tight, as if it is shrinking and, she says: “It’s like my fingers are trying to burst.” She knows how to pick up a glass yet now she has to consciously tell herself how to grip it.

She’s a writer, typing furiously in intelligent, delightful sweeps, but one attack – she has had six – causes her to lose minor motor control and her fingers turn disobedient and clumsy. She is enchanted by music, yet she once couldn’t hear clearly for the disease draped one ear with an invisible purdah. She’s an ardent speaker, yet a combination of MS and steroids – used to combat it – once left her speaking with the slow slur of a drunk.

Some days, this is not a body but a machine of faulty wiring and misfiring connections. It is a terrifying loss of the self as she knows it, a breaking up of her being into uncertain, unworking parts.

It brings fury yet also fear: “That I won’t be able to live this life I have lived before. Not this fully functional life.” That the next attack will be too much.

It is why she has to run again.

To run is to feel whole, to find evidence of normality. To put foot after foot on a trail is “a reminder I can still do it”. To run again for 30 straight minutes is proof of life as she remembers it.

And this is where her Personal Best differs from ours. Because before she can think about going further or faster than she did before, she has to first get back to where she was before. Because once she’s finished with MRIs and medications and hospitals, she – who has been running 6km – is empty. Her tank bare. Forced to relearn how to run those miles again. So she starts from nothing. From zero.

It takes two months or more after an attack before she can lace up her Asics again, and she’s like a child finding her first steps as she begins: 90 seconds walking, 60 seconds running. It is a life lived in perfect obedience to the Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa’s haiku:

O snail

Climb Mount Fuji,

But slowly, slowly!

My friend adores sports and so she’s familiar with runner Wilma Rudolph’s tussle with polio and swimmer Eric Shanteau’s battle with cancer. She knows these stories, but it’s different when it’s your own story. Adversity can be imagined, yet you can’t know your response to it until it is there, before you, asking, questioning.

Irritation comes, anger arrives, but she knows that running, and sweating, and challenging, promises more than sitting at home wrapped in depression. “I get up every day. I tell myself I am going to be better. Even if they’re fractional improvements.”

She pauses.

“You have to give yourself the best chance to fight this disease.”

Bravery is mostly an anonymous tale, played out privately every day across the planet by extraordinary people whose names we just don’t know. My friend is just one of this vast tribe, whose heroism lies in a stubborn reclaiming of their bodies. After an illness, they get up and walk again. One step, then a mile. After an accident, they rise and cycle again. They take back life, they seize it. And only they can understand how exquisite the reward is.

Because one day, after two months of early morning runs, after two months of rising, checking her hearing, checking her vision, my friend gets there again. To her 20 minutes of running. Then 30 minutes. “Yahoo!” she shouts triumphantly into the morning. Madly, she texts her friends. They understand, for this is victory of its own curious, courageous sort in a race with no end.

She loves running, my bespectacled friend. Loves the humming feet of the long-distance runners and how their impassive faces suddenly crumple and twist in effort as a race ends. Loves running in Ethiopia and listening to locals grin and chant “run, run” as she jogs downhill. Loves silencing smart alecs who mutter “old woman is running” and then go quiet after they watch her do another round of the park and then another. Loves how she can sense the returning strength of her body and its capacity to rebuild itself.

Running isn’t really restoring my friend, her spirit does that, but running is her route to revival. Disease will always lurk on the periphery, but she’s not looking back, only ahead. Looking down the road. Looking at a number.

She runs 6km these days, but wants to reach 10km by next year. I hope she gets there, but in a sense it doesn’t matter. Her eyes are clear. Her ear is OK. Her balance is fine. My friend is running and it is wonderful for it only means she is repaired.

 

On Understanding Talent…

Rohit Brijnath, in The Straits Times.

 

BUY a postcard. Type a tweet. Write an e-mail. Send it to Roger Federer and Michael Phelps. Don’t have to be profound, don’t have to go all gooey. Just say this: Thank you.

Thank you for reminding us that even as we watch sports, compare records, decipher tactics, we only think we understand talent. In truth, we don’t. Not its range, not its ferocity, not its meaning.

Phelps – about to compete in the Pan Pacific Championships – doesn’t race for 20 months, his muscles go limp, his technique dulls, and then he records among the fastest times of the year. It’s like those guys in school, who partied, never slogged, and then turned up at the exams and aced them. It’s freakish, it’s incomprehensible, and it makes you reconsider the entire notion of sporting prediction.

Federer is cut from a similarly mysterious cloth. Last year, people cried retire, now he’s US Open favourite; last year he had 45 wins all year; this year he leads the tour with 49; last year his record was one title, twice finalist, now it’s three titles, five-times finalist.

Watching these men is akin to attending a class in appreciating genius at a sporting university. We learn that rapidly rating players in some mythical “greatest ever” list is foolhardy, for we haven’t yet witnessed their body of work. When Federer first won Wimbledon in 2003, Milos Raonic, whom he beat this week, was 12; when Phelps first won Pan Pacific gold in 2002, Chad le Clos, who is the 100m butterfly world champion, was 10. Yet they push on.

We learn that their talent exceeds our belief, their idea of challenge always eclipses ours. If we had 58 golds like Phelps (18 Olympics, 27 world championships, 13 Pan Pacific) we’d happily quit; but it’s because Phelps has 58 golds that he believes in 59. Their lives are a mad pursuit of the impossible and a celebration of it.

We learn that this athletic twilight, where both men stand, tells us as much about talent as their prime did. Then, as they performed with an effortless genius, we thought, Dear God, what talent. But it’s now, really, when skill flows as if from a spluttering tap and still they compete, that we understand how staggering their talent is, how they’ve managed to nurture it and reshape it.

“Earlier,” said Federer, after he’d won Wimbledon in 2012, “it (winning) just comes”. Later, he added, you have “more respect for the game”. Because you have to reinvent it.

At breakfast last week in Singapore, Martina Navratilova, asked if she judges players solely on grand slam titles, firmly replied: “No.” Everything matters, she said. Tour wins through the year, No.1 ranking, head-to-head, how they play the game, consistency, but one more thing: How they adapt.

Phelps, 29, can’t replicate the workouts of his youth so he has to train smarter. But only the exceptional can reconfigure their rusty sporting machines, tuning them to find one more fast lap, discovering themselves how far they can stretch this rubber band of talent.

Federer’s 33-year-old legs have run more than most, not just in tournaments played but in how deep he reaches into every tournament. You can’t measure him, for instance, just with Andy Murray’s age, 27, but in matches: Federer has played 1,196, Murray 601.

So he’s slower and his press conferences are littered with words like “tired” and “rest”. But he compensates with idea, with tactic, with net play, with a new racquet. This transition is a talent.

So he’s patchy in matches, rhythm gone walkabout, break points frittered, yet he’ll steal a set from nowhere, as if the only glue he has is his joy and will. And this is a talent, too.

Federer always had a juggler’s feel for the ball and Phelps a mermaid’s affinity for water. But talent, they’re telling us, is more complex than hand-to-eye skill and arrangement of feet. Hard work is a talent. Recalibrating goals is a talent. Deafness to a cynical world is a talent. Stubborness is a talent.

But perhaps the most beautiful talent is hunger. That nothing is enough, no stroke, no shot, no cup. That when it is finally done, racquet and swimsuit packed away, there is no regret. Because talent, every last ounce of it, hasn’t been wasted, only exhausted.

And so Phelps may not win gold at the Pan Pacs this week. And Federer, currently riding the fortune of an injured Nadal, a confused Djokovic, an inconsistent Murray, may not win the US Open across seven five-set matches.

Just don’t tell them that.

Just don’t tell them they’re “almost back to their best” for it is meaningless. For there is no going back any more, only forward. Travelling to the extremities of their beaten-up and brilliant selves to find the very best they can be now. And occasionally even finding it. That is a talent.