If the divine and distinguished Vera Caslavska were still alive, she'd tell locked-down, quarantined, home-bound athletes, just be calm. Just find a way. Just be ready.
In 1968, weeks before the Mexico Olympics, Caslavska, the Czech gymnast, had to flee to the mountains because she protested against the Soviet invasion of her nation. In 1990 she told the Los Angeles Times that she practised her floor exercises in the meadows and built callouses on her hands by shovelling coal. A wooden log became her balance beam, a sack of potatoes her weight machine.
If there's anything athletes know, it's how to adapt. Equipment malfunctions, bodies rebel, coaches get ill, luggage gets lost, yet they manage. In 1964, US sprinter Bob Hayes won the 100m Olympic gold with borrowed shoes.
Even here, athletes who have had to abandon practice, are adjusting. Commonwealth Games shooting champion Martina Veloso can wear her heavy shooting jacket at home, get into position, hold her stance and practise technique and stillness. Fencer Amita Berthier is deep into Grit, the book by Angela Duckworth, and is watching videos of how underdog fencers "deal with stressful situations".
Athletes aren't whining because people are suffering, instead they're remodelling their lives, maybe even dribbling a basketball at home so that fingers don't lose their relationship with leather.
Without practice, feel gets lost and confidence ebbs. Basketballer Ng Han Bin says "muscle memory doesn't go away" but after a gap it takes a little while to recover it perfectly. Athletes are used to the taste of competitive juices but now only have a mirror as rival.
Berthier can practise her footwork at home, advancing and retreating, but she'll tell you that without a partner to spar with, "one thing I can't check is the distance". How close she needs to be to strike, how much precisely to go forward or back to position herself, how to know when it's time to attack, this is a sensation, a feeling, and if she can't practise it then she's scared she might temporarily lose it.
Equally intriguing for athletes is a life without matchplay, absent of that jolt of competitive electricity that arrives when the arena lights come on. Their calm, their improvement, their control, their problem-solving, everything is tested only when an umpire calls "play". You can't tell someone's heart for a fight when no one is scrapping. "In a competition setting," says Veloso, "things are different, no matter how well you do at training."
Experienced athletes might wear a lockdown better, less given to panic and smarter at refinding their rhythm. Others might be optimists who've never been in a tunnel where they've not quickly seen a light. Athletes, over the years, lose form, get injured, are dropped from teams and perhaps they tell themselves, we wore that and we can manage this.
Right now, even while they're doing sit-ups in front of the TV, this battle must seem psychological, a test of staying focused even while they're not tangibly achieving anything. Berthier, intense but buoyant, says of her quiet time, "it's an opportunity to look at your mistakes". She's been influenced recently by the late Kobe Bryant and now spends time digging into his mamba mentality. "In certain ways I can relate to it," she says, "and there's so much I have learnt."
With time on her hands during the shutdown, Martina Veloso, sixth in the 2018 Asiad 10m air rifle, has changed the way she cradles her weapon. ST FILE PHOTO
Time off allows bodies to heal and plans to be drawn. In the panicky rush of sport sometimes it's hard to think straight. Shooters can be so immersed in competitions that there's no space to fit in a change to a stance or a grip.
"To make these changes," says Veloso, "you have to be careful because sometimes you don't have enough time to master it between competitions". Now she has time and already she's introduced a change - in the way she holds her rifle with her left arm - which she'd planned to make only after the Olympics.
Sport might be irrelevant now on a distressed planet, but for athletes it's their livelihood, their identity, and so they wait like snorting horses at a starting gate that won't open. To not compete is to lose something, an edge perhaps, but as Veloso says, "You think, will you be able to shoot the same, but everyone is facing the same thing".
When sport returns there will be a desperation to it, an athletic army all equally hungry to recover lost time. The one who shines, says Veloso, might be the one "who made best use of this time off".
Like Vera Caslavska.
After three weeks of isolation, tumbling in the meadows in 1968, she won four Olympic golds.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction
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