Anatomy of a comeback

Americans love comeback stories. Tales of cranky, washed up, fallen from grace athletes have been Hollywood fodder for years (my favorite is “The Champ”, the first movie that made me cry. And, how cute was Ricky Schroeder). What constitutes a comeback? Athletes suffer injuries regularly. I think it must be written in the preamble of the Athlete’s Constitution: If you train you will pay the consequences with some type of bodily harm. Since injuries are implicit, returning to the field after something mundane, such as a muscle tear or stress fracture, does not comprise a comeback.

A comeback requires premature retirement, prolonged absence due to illness, a slump followed by success, return from childbirth, overcoming a potentially career ending injury, or in the case of Tiger, overcoming humiliation. Michael Jordan’s comeback was closely followed in the 90’s, Lance Armstrong made headlines in 2009 when he announced his return to the Tour de France and that is separate from his famed comeback from cancer and Brett Favre only retired for a few months before coming back at the young old age of 40. The bottom line, athletes hate being on the sideline.

Comebacks are difficult and necessitate more than putting down the donuts and announcing to the world that you are back. Or in the case of triathlon, announcing it to your inner circle, because really, triathlon just resides in the shadow of all other sports (even professional bowling garners more TV time). Returning to action after an absence entails months of hard work, patience, set backs, self-doubt and naysayers. Most importantly, a comeback depends on a strong, committed team.

Ultimately, a successful comeback depends on the athlete’s perseverance. It is no easy task returning to previous form after a break or injury. The work is harder than ever, the pain is worse, and the potential for failure high. People inquire why anyone would put themselves through such a regimen. In the case of triathlon, we are not making comebacks for fame and fortune. But, I imagine that athletes in the mainstream sports are not coming back for those reasons either. The allure of the comeback is many-fold, but the single most important reason is: the love of the sport. Unquestionably, disappointments and unachieved goals exist, but athletes who persist for long periods of time in their sport focus on the highs, the friendships, the games won, challenging their bodies to achieve more. If you see a crotchety old athlete with a beer belly at the bar, do not be surprised if they are throwing touchdowns, winning races, or dunking baskets on national TV in the near future.

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