It’s a huff of breath, a grunt of pain, a burn of muscle, a pull of joint. It’s the repeating of a mantra, the image of a podium, the sight of an opening, the call for an option. It’s the visual of an empty field, grass dewy; or a hardwood floor, boards waxed. It’s the countless halftime oranges, the many hours spent passionately shouted at, the innumerable sweaty huddles and those anthem verses that are veritably etched into the back of your brain. It’s the culmination of a thousand one-percenters, too many old pairs of runners to count, team jerseys literally falling apart at the seams, and a team effort so monumental that victory is merely a bonus.
I had an old waterpolo coach once tell me, as a twelve-year-old, that ability was the least important of her ‘Three A Attributes’ – ‘Ability, Aptitude, Application’, that she used to bark at us from the side of the pool. The most important comes last. For us, this normally came at the three-minute mark of our gruelling strength tests, where even the most competent of swimmers were considering ‘drowning’ just to get out of the exercises. Muscles floppy, heads bobbing under the choppy water, she would rant about how even one training missed constituted failure. Striding up and down the poolside, she waxed lyrical about the travesty that was ever sleeping through a 6am start. She impelled us to train as hard as she used to train; my coach was an ex-Olympian, so this was greeted with death stares and some plaintive groans.
But you know what? While my eardrums may never have fully recovered, nor my shin muscles, nor, actually, my dignity (someone snapped a candid of me in my hideous chequered cap), we won the interschool competition that year. There were three state swimmers on the opposition side, but in extra time, those hours of dunking and getting dunked finally paid off. We had been united by the offensiveness of being asked to wear our school bathers without bikini bottoms underneath, and the camaraderie that came from all agreeing to pretend we had to leave class earlier than we really did (rebellious, we were). I’d never played waterpolo before that season, and it’s been years now since I quit. But that particular premiership remains one of my most treasured from any season of school sport.
In terms of being inspired by sport, you don’t have to look far to find athletes of an almost hero-worshipped status to admire. We’ve all heard of Mohammed Ali, Cathy Freeman, Lionel Messi et al. – they’re amazing, brilliant, fantastic. We are defined to an extraordinary degree by those we choose as our idols and our role models. Seriously, the official Olympic Facebook account publishes regular videos so inspiring that I periodically consider abandoning everything to become a rhythmic gymnast… before suddenly remembering that I am neither Russian nor prepubescent (the apparent criteria for any sort of gymnastic success).
The moments that inspire me the most, however, are those that I see regularly. Noticing little extra efforts on the sporting field or seeing others achieving their own personal triumphs is heartening, and speaks at a more fundamental level than professional greatness. Sure, Olympic and world-class sportspeople are (literally) in a league of their own, and their athleticism and sheer achievement is incredibly to watch.
But it’s the have-to-be-there-moments that you are there for that really define sport at a personal level. It’s all very well and good to see the veteran reach a milestone in their hundredth national cap, but having a newcomer get down to the first training and be an integral part of the team by the last match of the season is what it’s all about. It’s that individual manifestation of what we see in our sporting heroes that unites people through their own sporting endeavours. It’s the sense of camaraderie, of unity and of common purpose that we derive from setting a team goal and seeing each other achieve their steps towards the overall journey.
I’ve seen friends walk over 80km on torn ligaments and broken bones just to avoid the disappointment of missing the finish. Nobody would blame them for pulling out, but it’s the determination and pride, the tenacity and the nerve that keeps them putting one foot in front of the other. I’ve seen friends running beach sprints on holidays so that they don’t fall behind in their cross country training. Would anyone have noticed one missed session? Surely not. I’ve seen others brave the risk of reinjuring themselves when they’ve come back too early, the pain of missing a game far outweighing anything that they might physically feel.
I’ve played into a football team where an expected second-last placing transformed into a grand final appearance. We exceeded even our own self-belief and, trust me, we had a fairly healthy dose of self-appreciation. I’ve also seen people act like bloody idiots by trying to keep playing with concussions or similarly dangerous afflictions, but that’s so not the point. It’s the self-imposed standards, the competing against yourself and the strength of character required to put yourself through respiratory hell time and time again, that makes sport so special.
Now, I am quite evidently a sport fanatic. I love the roar of the crowd and the squeak of shoes on an indoor court, the weight of tackling someone to the ground or the breathless relief when you stop running at the final siren. I live for that adrenaline rush, that almost palpable energy that courses through an entire team when the clock is draining and one last push is required. But I think anyone who has ever played sport can, to some extent, appreciate the rawness and the vitality that any sportsperson draws on, craves, and is, in all likelihood, utterly addicted to. It’s what keeps us waking up at ungodly hours to get to yet another waterpolo training, or putting in that extra mile in a finals game when you’re so close to achieving what you’ve worked so hard for.
What makes sport so significant to me is watching those efforts, feeling the passion for myself and experiencing the elation that comes when your hard work yields results. There’s something really fundamental about sport that unites those who play it together, or watch it, or talk about it. It’s reaching the point where there’s nothing left to give but everything that you see really special displays. It is the displays of courage, of tenaciousness, of commitment and of nerve that make sport something more than just running around on a field like a headless chook. It makes it something meaningful – I just can’t get enough.