Column | Invincible resilience of Rafa, Sachin and other icons

Column | Invincible resilience of Rafa, Sachin and other icons
Sachin Tendulkar, Wilma Rudolph and Rafael Nadal. Photo: Tobias Schwarz/EPU/Adrian Dennis/AFP

Mueller–Weiss syndrome is defined in textbooks of medicine as a condition of unknown origin wherein necrosis of navicular bone of the foot occurs. It is an extremely painful disease and is more commonly seen in women aged 40 to 60. Navicle is an important bone that plays a critical role in maintaining the arch of the foot as it connects the ankle to the bones of the foot. In Mueller–Weiss syndrome, the blood supply to this bone decreases progressively thus causing its destruction. This, in turn, causes severe pain, particularly around the midfoot, which is often the presenting symptom of the patient.

This little-known medical condition gained infamy when it came to be known that Rafael Nadal was suffering from it. Nadal, the winner of 22 grand slam championships in tennis, informed the world after winning his 14th French Open crown that he was a victim of this disease, which forced him to take pain-numbing injections to block his nerve before each game. Though this eased out the pain, this had the effect of making him play without experiencing any sensation in his left foot, which was giving him trouble. "The foot was asleep and that was why I was able to play", was how Nadal put it! After lifting the trophy, he informed the media that his participation in Wimbledon was dependent on the success of a procedure that he was planning to undergo in this regard.

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal reacts during an interview after winning the French Open title. Photo: Reuters/Benoit Tessier

The latest news reports in this regard indicate that the "radio frequency ablation" treatment that Nadal had undergone after French Open was successful, giving him a fair chance of playing at the famed grass courts of All England Lawn Tennis Club to attempt a third title win there. Grass has never been a favourite surface of Nadal and this is reflected in his success at Wimbledon, where he has won the title only twice – in 2008 and 2010. The decision of Nadal to rush through the treatment process and gain fitness levels for taking part in this year's Wimbledon stands as testimony to his grit and determination to fight heavy odds and emerge the winner.

What could be the factors that drive Nadal to bear such pain and keep playing? As stated earlier, he has under his belt 22 grand slam titles, the most by any male player in the history of the game. The income he earned from prize money alone stands at $130.68 million, making him the second-highest in this list of top earners in the tennis circuit, after Novak Djokovic. In addition to this are the huge sums he earns from endorsing various products. Celebrity Newswatch put his net worth at around $200 million. Besides becoming the youngest man to win all grand slam titles in a row, a feat he achieved in 2009-10, Nadal has won two Olympic gold medals and led Spain, his nation, to five Davis Cup titles. He has won innumerable awards and been universally acknowledged as one of the all-time greats of the game.

Rafael Nadal
Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates with the trophy after winning against Norway's Casper Ruud in the men's singles final at the Court Philippe-Chatrier in Paris on Sunday. Photo: AFP/ Thomas Samson

The above details will make it clear that Nadal is not playing for creating new records or making more money. He has conquered all the peaks that the world of tennis has to offer and does not have to prove anything to anyone. However, he keeps playing, bearing severe pain and physical discomfort every time he steps on a tennis court. This is the hallmark of a true champion who learns to condition his body and mind to overcome the obstacles placed in his path through injuries and illnesses. In management terms, players like Nadal can be considered to have risen above the stage of self-actualisation and reached the level of self-transcendence, where he does not compete with others but with himself and finds joy when he surpasses his own efforts. It is this constant striving for excellence through breaking the barriers placed by body and mind that provides happiness and satisfaction to performers like Nadal.

Sachin Tendulkar
Sachin Tendulkar poses on the red carpet prior to the 2020 Laureus World Sports Awards ceremony in Berlin on February 17, 2020. Photo: Tobias Schwarz/AFP

A sporting great from India who successfully overcame the barriers posed by severe pain to achieve greatness was Sachin Tendulkar. In an international career that spanned close to 23 years, Tendulkar went under the scalpel not less than three times – for problems ranging from tennis elbow to shoulder injury to the broken knee. But he did not allow the discomfort and anguish caused by these issues to deter him from his goal of continuing to play cricket and score mountains of runs at the highest level. It should be remembered that each of these issues also brought a period of an enforced break from the game and a phase of rehabilitation to recover from the effects of surgeries. Tendulkar took these in his stride and worked himself back into peak physical condition within the shortest time possible.

The history of sports is replete with stories of athletes and sportspersons who conquered the challenges posed by debilitating illnesses and severe injuries. Lance Armstrong, one of the greatest cyclists ever who won the Tour De France seven consecutive times from 1999 to 2005, was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996. With the disease having spread from its origin to other parts of the body such as lungs, brain and abdomen, doctors rated his chances of survival as almost "nil". However, Armstrong surprised them all by recovering completely from this malady after surviving an intense course of chemotherapy, which alone could have left severe after-effects on an ordinary person. He returned to active cycling in 1998 and commenced his winning streak from 1999 onwards. The rest is history!

Wilma Rudolph
Nicknamed 'the black gazelle', US champion Wilma Rudolph (C), who have just won the Olympic 200m event, pose between German Jutta Heine (R), who finished 2nd and British Dorothy Hyman, who finished 3rd, 06 September 1960 in Rome where she captured three gold medals: 100m, 200m and 4x100m. Photo: EPU/AFP

Wilma Rudolph shot into fame by winning gold medals in 100 metres and 200 metres race for women in the 1960 Olympics held at Rome. She also anchored the 400 metres relay team to the pole position thus winning a third gold medal. Wilma was only 20 years old when she achieved this distinction. She was born in an impoverished family of African Americans in Tennessee as the twentieth of 22 children sired by her father in two marriages. Her childhood was marked by a string of infectious diseases, the most severe of which was polio that she contracted at the age of five. This left her with paralysis of the left leg and she was forced to wear leg braces till the age of 12. Once she regained full strength of her foot, Wilma started playing basketball when she was spotted by coach Ed Temple, who took her under his wings. Under his tutelage, Wilma flowered as an athlete and was selected to be a part of the US 400 metres relay team for the 1956 Olympics where she won a bronze medal. She took this as the first step and trained hard and reached the pinnacle of glory in Rome four years later.

It is an accepted fact that athletes and sportspersons are prone to injuries. This is an occupational hazard that most of them face at some point or other in their career, despite taking care to maintain high levels of physical fitness. The propensity for such injuries is more in events that involve physical contact such as Boxing, Basket Ball, Foot Ball etc. However, most of the top performers can surmount the difficulties caused by such injuries and return to the arena within a short period.

The instances referred to earlier are different from the run-of-the-mill injuries suffered by sportspersons in that they are disorders of the chronic type and more debilitating. Further, they also warrant intervention through surgical procedures and a prolonged period of rest and rehabilitation. Taking on and vanquishing the diseases detailed above required courage, determination, fortitude, tenacity and an infinite capacity for bearing hardship, all of which these champions possessed in ample measures. It is through surviving such trials by fire that they were elevated to the status of legends in their lifetime.

The difference between being good and becoming great is a lot of hard work. The lives of these illustrious sportspersons teach us that inexhaustible mental strength to bear the pain and extraordinary levels of resilience to bounce back from setbacks are absolute requirements for those striving to attain greatness.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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