When athletes produce superhuman performances after personal tragedy

Wednesday March 18 2020
CELTICS_PIX

Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics signals to the crowd during overtime of the Celtics 129-119 win over the Washington Wizards in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Semi-finals at TD Garden on May 2, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. PHOTO | MADDIE MEYER |

By ROY GACHUHI

Joannie Rochette is a six-time Canadian national figure skating champion. Shortly before her event during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, tragedy struck.

Her mother, Therese, who had introduced her to figure skating and shepherded her through every career move, suffered a massive heart attack and died.

“My mum passed away two days before my short programme at the Olympics,” Rochette said. “She had just arrived at Vancouver and I was supposed to have dinner with her that night but I was feeling pretty tired so I pushed it back to the following night. But no matter how much we planned for those Olympics, we could never have planned that my mum would pass away.

“I told my coach and the federation that I would do the competition probably 10 minutes after I heard the news that my mum had passed away. That was probably a little bit quick but to be honest I knew I wanted to try. Before the short programme, I felt as if I was on automatic pilot, I didn’t think about anything.

“When I took my starting position, I had no more legs. I thought: ‘Oh my God, how am I going to do this?’ But then the music started. That’s the great thing about figure skating because it’s easier to focus when we have the music to relate to. My body knew every note of that music and it did the programme by itself because I have no memory of skating that short program.”

The lyrics of the music began with the words “the little parade of endless miseries.” It is an Uruguayan tango, La Cumparsita.

Once the music started and Rochette was on her way, a hushed silence descended on the crowd. They all knew about her tragedy. But when she finished her routine, they erupted in a loud, standing ovation as she dissolved in tears.

Through the most searing psychological pain she had ever endured, Rochette had done what gave her mother happiness. She took the bronze medal in the competition and felt deeply connected with her mother who she was sure was watching her. And so she could even afford a smile on the winners’ podium.

It was one of sport’s most iconic moments: seeing how great athletes play through the pain of having just lost a loved one. To most other people, after the death of a friend or family, grieving is mercifully private. But it is to the misfortune of some of the world’s top athletes that death comes in the full glare of the public spotlight.

How do they cope? Playing through physical pain is bad enough. But what about playing through mental anguish brought about by death with its cruel finality? How does a player feel when someone who was the axis around which his or her universe rotated dies, sometimes without even a hint of notice, in the middle of competition?

Some great players have put on their best performances in their time of grief. It is as if something goes off inside them that cannot be brought out by anything else. It is as if they tap into reserves they have never had to use before.

And so they play like they have never played. Consumed by the thoughts of their loved ones, nothing else in the world matters. They do whatever it takes to win a game exactly as the departed would have wished them to do. That is why at the end of it all, they dedicate their victories with words like, “I did this for you.”

Some go further. Just as the 1988 athletics season began, William Lewis, Carl Lewis’ father and first coach died.

His overachieving son placed the gold medal he won in the 1984 Olympic 100 metre competition in his hand and buried him with it, telling his mother: “Don’t worry. I’ll get another one.” Thereafter, he declared that his single motivating factor for the season was going to be the memory of his father.

In our lives, employers give us time off to grieve when we lose our loved ones. But what about athletes? Some seem to be the psychological pillars of our very existence. We can’t do without their performances, else we lose our minds. That is why, when they lose those closest to them, we are quick to offer our sympathies but withhold permission to take time off.

Remember this? Marc Vivien Foe was the great Cameroon midfielder who collapsed in the middle of the field during the semi-final of the 2003 Fifa Confederations Cup against Colombia.

He was stretchered off just like any other injured player as medical personnel worked feverishly to revive him as the game resumed. But Foe died, the result of a heart attack.

Meanwhile, Cameroon beat Colombia 2-1, the players unaware of the tragedy that had struck them and the football universe. It was only later that team captain Rigobert Song, who had gone to find out how Foe was doing, burst into the dressing room screaming “Marco! Marco! Marco!” that other players learnt of the death.

Cameroon’s then manager, Winfried Schafer, remembered the gut wrenching moment when the seriousness of the situation became clear: “Everyone was shocked and was asking why. All the players were crying. I went out of the dressing room and heard two ladies crying very, very loudly. Then I saw Marco lying there, on a table, with his mother and wife by his side. I touched his leg and I went outside and cried too.”

Many players wanted to surrender their place in the final and go home.

But the world had other ideas. With effusive tributes came the refrain: they should go ahead and play France in the final “just as Marco would have wished.” Some people gave the thoughtful suggestion that the trophy be shared. But few were having any of that.

Fifa President Sepp Blatter and all other heavyweights, including the president of Cameroon, asked the players to play, “as Foe would have wished.” And they did. You just wonder what was going on in the hearts of Marie-Lousie, Foe’s widow, and his family.

Stephany Coakley, a Washington-based sports psychologist who coaches athletes in mental toughness, told the Chicago Tribune: “The general public is expected to take time off to grieve. Almost all employers provide bereavement leave.

“The expectation is that athletes can play and perform through the pain. The expectation probably exists because so many athletes have done so in the past.”

He went on: “When athletes perform at a high level while in the initial stages of grief, it reinforces society’s belief that athletes have something special. But what many elite athletes have is mental toughness, resilience, discipline and support not only from family, but their teammates, the organisation and, yes, us, the adoring general public.”

And they come from all disciplines of sport. Just before a play-off game between Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls, superstar Isaiah Thomas learnt that his sister Chyna, had been killed in a car crash.

His instinct was not just to pull out of the Bulls game, but to quit basketball altogether. But that something that resides only in the guts of the brave and talented, told him no, go ahead and play.

Television cameras captured the poignant moment on the Celtics bench as Thomas kept wiping tears from his blood red eyes and a team mate put a consoling arm around his shoulder. It was almost in vain. The tears streamed down fast. But Thomas willed himself and with shoes branded “I love you, Chyna,” he turned on a stellar performance. And he had yet to bury her.

“I couldn’t have imagined a day where my little sister, Chyna, wouldn’t be here,” Thomas said. “She and my family are everything to me, so the pain I am feeling right now is impossible to put into words. This has been without question the hardest week in my life.”

Great sports stars have played through mental pain which, when you come to think of it, is beyond the comprehension of the rest of us.

Away from the glare of television cameras, they could be nursing a loved one with a terminal illness whom they could yet lose just before a game. Some have lost their children at childbirth. They are in all cases expected to play on and many do.

One critical difference between great athletes and ordinary people is that athletes have a reflexive tendency to do something in circumstances that paralyse many into inaction.

It could be a survival instinct, an urge to defeat this formidable enemy called death as they do with other competitors but they are the ones who best embody the truth that life must go on.

In a passage quoted in the North Carolina Outward Bound Book of Sayings, the English journalist and author, Storm Jameson, says: “I believe that only one person in a thousand knows the trick of really living in the present.

Most of us spend 59 minutes an hour living in the past, with regret for lost joys, or shame for things badly done (both utterly useless and weakening) — or in a future which we either long for or dread.

“Yet the past is gone beyond prayer, and every minute you spend in the vain effort to anticipate the future is a moment lost. There is only one world, the world pressing against you at this minute.

There is only one minute in which you are alive, this minute — here and now. The only way to live is by accepting each minute as an unrepeatable