October 2, 2023
SINGAPORE – There’s no device to gauge the extent of pain in sport, no appliance to measure the ache of heartbreak. Mostly it requires a generous athlete to talk about it. To reach into herself and show you her pain. Like Letitia Sim, in the Asian Games village, sipping coffee and making this writer wince.
When the medal ceremony began for the 100m breaststroke, you know that race, the one where she came fourth by 0.12 of a second, which made her weep so hard that eventually her shaking body “stopped producing tears”, Sim couldn’t watch.
“I just could not look at the screen… I just had to stare at a wall.”
You can’t appreciate the madness of this species, can’t interpret their world, where defeat visits more than triumph, where losing is captured in slow motion, where their love for all this somehow endures, unless you know how much they hurt. And you can’t fathom who Sim is, how bravely she responded, unless you know how she hurt.
Like when she says, when that race was over, she couldn’t even cry. Because there was no time to cry. Because there was a relay in 30-odd minutes and her team to consider and her mind going everywhere.
“Should I cry? What should I do? What just happened? I don’t think I’ve ever felt that before. Because I was like so mad, so angry. I didn’t know what to do. I turned in the best time but it wasn’t fast enough. It was insane.”
And then she went and swam beautifully for Singapore in the relay.
And only then she wept.
“I wanted to be on that podium so badly,” she says with such poignance of the 100m breaststroke. “I was prepared to be on that podium. I brought my shoes, I brought my outfit, I brought my jacket.” Instead all she was left with was replays of the race, watching it once, twice, three times, four, the last time at 1am.
“It was so bad. I was like, how close was I? How close was it that I just lost it?” Her words still carry some hurt. As she watched the replay that night, she remembers her reaction. “I’m filled with anger. Like my body tenses up.”
And then next day, in the 200m, she was second after 50m, second after 100m, second after 150m, and then fourth by 0.02. As if some cruel god wanted to tease her. “I cried a little bit after that event because I was like, ‘Why me? Why again’?”
But this isn’t personal, though it must feel painfully so. This is what sport does to everyone, takes them to places they’ve never been. “During practices,” says Sim, “you’re being pushed and you’re being tested for these limits physically. But these things also test you mentally, which is something you don’t always practise on a regular basis.
“I don’t practise getting fourth.”
Swimmers and gymnasts are impossibly busy, performing frequently, night after night, no time to think, heal, process. Just compete, even though you’ve been bruised 20 minutes ago, because sport keeps asking one profound question.
So what have you got?
And that was the beauty about Sim, she found more. For all her hurt, she gave more. After that 100m fourth place, she kept going faster, in her 200m, in her relays, not letting hurt slow her down but responding to it. Days later coach Gary Tan would say, “She kept getting better in each relay and each swim. Just dropping time every single swim.”
This, in some twisted way, is the compressed, brutal education of Sim. “I told my coaches,” she says “and they would 100 per cent agree with me that if this exact situation happened last year I would have broken down so many times.”
Being kicked around by those bullies, fate and circumstance, feels unfair but there is meaning to all this. How athletes handle defeat is how they can tell how far they’ve travelled emotionally. It’s like earning a higher degree at a stern university – a major Games.
“I kept telling myself,” says Sim, “this whole meet has just been a huge test, for my limits, my patience, my everything that I’ve been working for. And, now that I’m done with it, I’m finally at ease. Now I can push forward towards beyond my limits.”
“I feel like I passed it with flying colors.”
Competition is a constant audition for greatness with no guarantee. A series of fourth places happened when she was 12, it happened now, it’ll happen again. But, fine, bring it on, Sim is ready, she’s competitively all grown up.
“Some people will never understand this type of passion for something that has a lot of downs and very little ups. But, I’m just addicted to it.”
The hurting will always suck, it will return, it will have to be worn. This is the strange life they chose. To use a 20-year-old’s word – Insane.