phoe·nix/ˈfēniks/: It’s described as a bird with a colorful plumage and a tail of gold and scarlet. It has a 1000 year life-cycle, near the end of which it builds itself a nest of twigs that then ignites. Both nest and bird burn fiercely and are reduced to ashes, from which a new young phoenix arises, reborn anew to live again…
Sportsmen can perhaps connect to their mortality better than most others. Even on the most glorious days of their career, they are silently aware that should strength fail or form abandon, it could mean the end of everything that they have believed in. They know in a competition that is now taken over by younger limbs, they will have no place. They realize sport is unforgiving, once done, always done. Very much like life.
But ever so rarely there is defiance. A possibility that goes beyond the realms of sports comparison to reality. When the sportsman ousted by the arena chooses to return again. The comeback.
Comebacks have always intrigued me. So constantly are barriers being reset, so rapidly does new talent arrive and the game improvised that the athlete who does not adapt is left behind in utter daze. So what of a retired professional now taken in by the comforts that follow a sporting career, whose equipment is stored away and wake up alarm stilled to allow for a late breakfast in bed? What chance does he have? How does he even believe he has a chance?
Yet they come, the defiant, resolute lot. Kim Clijsters, Michael Jordan, Michael Schumacher, Ian Thorpe. A look at sporting history and you will soon realize most comebacks die in the corners of a sporting column. I used to wonder, aren’t these champions worried about their legacy till Ian Thorpe answered me “People forget athletes were once kids who love what they do. I am finding that love again. I am prepared to sacrifice my legacy for that love.”
Exceptional athletes defy the natural course of things, operate in an area called extraordinary and the concept of comeback certainly belongs here. Few things are celebrated in sport as much as a successful comeback. We love a comeback perhaps because of the same reason why we hung on to seven volumes of Harry Potter, why the mention of Phoenix brings warmth to our youthful hearts; it’s an expression of what’s believed to be impossible. But more than the fairy tale ending and classic literature for sporting discussions, a comeback is a sign of eternal hope. Here’s how.
You would think a man who had just survived a brush with death and whose calling is one of the world’s most demanding events – the Tour de France – would hold back a little when he has time for some recovery. But when Lance Armstrong was at home just after the chemo, he would hike through the bushes in his native Texas to a waterfall named Dead man’s hole set among limestone hills. There he would stand on the rim and launch himself the 45 feet through the air into freezing green waters. He would train for stamina. He was a given a less than 40% chance of survival after his first surgery, but he fought. Fought against his illness, fought against every man who stood by the racing track and suggested it wasn’t possible. He came back from cancer in 1999 to compete at the tour and won it every single year till 2005.
Mike Grisenthwaite, founder of Cyclists fighting Cancer and now responsible for the recovery of hundreds of kids with cancer, was diagnosed with a non operable kind of cancer when he was 37. He writes “I had this gut feeling that if I stayed fit and healthy I would be in a better position to fight whatever came along. Having an example of someone who could go to those depths and come back – not only to ride the Tour de France but win it – was a massive boost. I am not saying I carried it around my arm, quoting verbatim, but Lance’s book was the seed for everything that I have done since”. As much gratifying it is for the athlete, a comeback is a story of inspiration that millions will cling on to.
Since the last time she won Wimbledon in 2010, Serena Williams endured 2 foot operations, emergency treatment for blood clots in her lungs, a 11 month absence from the tour, torn ligaments in an Australian Open warm up tournament and her earliest exit from a Grand Slam event in the first round at the French Open. Eminent journalists and eager critics had written her career off. When she came back and won the Wimbledon women’s singles and doubles championship, that was inspiration for every athlete, every common man not doing something cause he could always say “My injury, can’t do it anymore.”
As I write this piece on comebacks, here back home is an exceptional athlete of our own, who has just won his battle with cancer and attempting to make it back to the league of 11 best Indians who can play the sport. He has proven himself a fighter when he used to wake up on those lonely nights during the world cup, coughing blood and yet give his absolute best on the field during the day. He was the ‘Man of the Tournament’. The day he walks out again in national colors is sure to inspire millions to better lives. In a nation which worships its crickets, his story will be an epic. Here’s wishing him the very best.