The high jumper thinks vertically but her morning begins horizontal on the ground.
In a small room filled with old shoes, discoloured balls, starting blocks and an advertisement on the wall which shouts “the strongest muscle is a heart on fire”, Sng is warming up. For the onlooker it is an exercise in humility. Think of her as a human elastic band being stretched. She is 172cm but can fold her body till her head rests on her knee or can stretch her leg straight up like a dancer. It is at once stylish and painful to watch.
Then she wanders outside, under an unfriendly sun, and starts to bounce. She hops forwards, then sideways, then backwards, on two feet and then one foot, as if loosening the coiled springs that have been substituted for bones in her legs. She is no ordinary person it is clear, but the child of Aether, Greek god of the upper air.
The supple Sng stretches before her jumps. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
Anyone can tell she’s an athlete by the knots of muscle that embroider her stomach. She needs this strength, for first she must strip the heavy tarpaulin off the landing bag and then carry out the two posts and the crossbar. No one is here to help because no one is here except two discus throwers who are playing loud music nearby. Her elegant art deserves a more agreeable accompaniment.
Watching the high jumper limber up is akin to watching a dancer in spikes. A series of cones are laid out in an arc and she starts to rehearse her run-up. She runs rhythmically, she kicks out her legs, she leaps, she reaches her arm up as if trying to grab the sky.
To sharpen her explosiveness she places three hurdles in a row, each 91.4cm high, and bounds over them barefoot, one after the other, as if using an invisible trampoline. Then she practises the art of smooth flight over a bar. She steps on a small platform near the pit, stands on her toes, and does what is ostensibly a back dive over the bar. You almost want to give her points for artistry.
Each exercise is unhurried, methodical, precise: athletes in training remind me of masons gradually laying the bricks for a great and future construction. Now one last calculation is left. Using her feet as a measuring tool, she makes a series of marks with chalk on the ground. Eleven feet: The turning point of her run. Thirty one feet: Her five-step approach. Forty-six feet: Her seven-step approach. Fifty-nine feet: Her nine-step approach. She’s got an event in two days, she’s been struggling with her rhythm on the long run-up, so she’s experimenting.
She twiddles her fingers.
She lopes in, first running straight, then in a semi-circle, a ponytail-flapping, springy-striding human rocket who has physics on her mind: She’s trying to find a perfect mix of posture, speed, rhythm, lean and then convert her sprinting energy into lift-off.
Only surfacing whales find a graceful kinship with high jumpers, for who else rises upwards and backwards? Sng runs forward, explodes off her left foot, turn her back to the bar at the last instant, rises, arches, and then lands on her upper back. Her style is called the Fosbury Flop and as its inventor Dick Fosbury, the 1968 Olympic gold medallist, once told an English writer: “Intuitively I liked the contradiction: a flop that could be a success.” A flop that is also a fabulous flight.
Sng lands and rolls over. The bar shakes, then stills, and stays.
On hard days she does 15 jumps, but today it’s less because she has a competition in two days. She bends and scribbles the height she’s conquered on the ground with chalk, she returns to her mark, she breathes, she stares at the bar.
It was 1.60m. Then 1.65m. Now. 1.70m.
For Michelle Sng, on this empty field, under a watching sun, an old idiom is her daily truth. The bar is always set higher.
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