Out Of The Darkness - Laureus World Comeback of the Year

Laureus World Sports Academy Member Seb Coe found himself face-to-face with one of our Nominees for the Laureus World Comeback of the Year Award when all seemed lost. It’s in these moments, he writes as he reveals our shortlist, that true champions are forged…
I was on a long-haul flight recently – the perfect opportunity, I thought, for one of the most difficult tasks of the year. I took out the ballot for the Laureus World Sports Awards. As a founder Member of the Laureus Academy, I know this is a task that deserves special attention. Three hours later, I realised I had done nothing but tinker with my selections. I had changed my mind at least once in every category. And none of them were tougher than the Laureus World Comeback of the Year.  
These athletes have already made sporting history. Each of their stories could make a film script. And as divergent as they are, all of them feature the one characteristic that I believe runs through every great sporting comeback: mental resilience. But only one of our stories allowed me a front-row seat.  
I was standing in the tunnel at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon during the World Athletics Championships last July. The medal ceremony for the men’s 1500m was about to take place and my job as President of World Athletics allowed me this privileged position. Also present: the surprise gold medallist, Jake Wightman, and the favourite he had relegated to the silver-medal position, Jakob Ingebrigtsen.  
As well as my role at World Athletics, and my membership of the Laureus World Sports Academy, I am also Chancellor of Loughborough University. Wightman is a Loughborough graduate, I’ve known him for years and he had just ran the race of his life – I was thrilled for him. But I also know Ingebrigtsen, we’re good friends, and I wanted to speak to him at what I knew would be a painful moment for him. It was only as I reached him in the tunnel that I realised I didn’t know what to say.  
“Great race,” I said, a little awkwardly, shaking his hand.  
“No it wasn’t,” he said, with a steely glare. “I was s---.”  
And in that moment, I was convinced he was going to win gold over 5000m, in five days’ time.  
Sure enough, after that second final, we were in the same location, the difference being Ingebrigtsen was about to receive a gold medal. 
I reminded the great Norwegian of his terse response after defeat over 1500m. He could see the funny side now, but I also had a more serious point to make.  
“That 5000m tells me everything about you as an athlete,” I said. “More than any individual title you will win over 1500m. It tells me you have the mental resilience to process the defeat quickly. You knew you had fallen below what you are capable of and you were never going to let the next chance pass you by.” 
On this subject, I was speaking from experience.  
I went into the 1980 Olympics in Moscow as a favourite to win the 800m, a race in which I held the world record. I lost, to Steve Ovett, who was similarly favoured to win the 1500m, a distance in which he had been undefeated for three years. But in this second final, I took the gold in a race that defined my career.  
I remember two key influences during the days between those two Olympic finals. I am a historian, and by the time I was 19 I had read every biography of every mile world record holder and Olympic champion, be it Jack Lovelock, Michel Jazy, John Walker or Jim Ryun. Ryun had been in great shape in Munich in 1972. He had won silver behind Kip Keino at altitude in 1968. But four years later, the US team entered his mile time, not his 1500m time for the Munich Olympics. As a result of that he was put into a heat where he wasn’t seeded and he got tripped up by an inexperienced athlete. That story flashed back into my mind in the days between the 800m and the 1500m in Moscow. Jim Ryun’s Olympic career was over after that – in 1976 he wasn’t going to be the athlete he was in 72. But I was lucky – I had a second chance at the same Games. I remember thinking, ‘don’t squander this’.  
The second influence was closer to home. My father was also my coach. He started life as a mathematician, then he became an engineer. Numbers came naturally to him. We were sitting together in the days before the 1500m final, and he said to me: “This is so simple. Given the number of mistakes you made, over the distance you ran, and the frequency with which you made them, it is statistically impossible for you to screw up that badly again. That was his team talk – that was the only conversation I had with him!  
The lessons for any athlete faced with adversity? Be a student of the history of your sport – the answers are all there. And have people around you who you trust. When they give you the unvarnished truth, engage with them. Great athletes crave criticism.  
I’m sure that was true of Francesco Bagnaia, who was 91 points adrift in the MotoGP championship before staging the biggest comeback in the history of that competition.  
Our other nominees showed fortitude in recovering not from defeat, but from illness and injury.  
Annemiek Van Vleuten was on the brink of quitting the Tour de France after illness left her unable to eat and languishing over a minute behind the race leader, three stages in. She recovered and made her way through the field to become the first woman to complete the double of Tour de France and Giro d’Italia.  
In February 2021, a car crash resulted in horrific injuries for Tiger Woods, which led to the insertion of a metal rod and plates into one of his legs. A year later, he made the cut at The Masters in one on golf’s most emotional comebacks.    
Klay Thompson was out for even longer, missing two entire seasons of basketball after successive injuries to his knee and Achilles. He returned to steer the Golden State Warriors to a fourth NBA Championship in eight years.  
I still remember watching the Euro 2020 game between Denmark and Finland at the World Athletics offices in Monaco. As the seriousness of Christian Eriksen’s situation became evident, more and more people converged around the screen, as silent as the stadium we were watching. Once the story of Eriksen’s cardiac arrest became known, none of us would have believed that he would be playing in the most physically demanding league in the world a year later.   
There is another characteristic that athletes who comeback share. You have to love your sport. For those athletes who came back from physical adversity, this is certainly the case.  
Between July 1983 and February 1984, I could not train due to an illness that had taken a long time to diagnose. By the time I could run again, the clock was ticking toward the Los Angeles Olympics. I remember returning to my club, Haringey, and running around the perimeter of the track with a group of 14-year-olds. I felt exhausted, and as far away from defending my Olympic 1500m title as I could possibly be.  
I know each of our nominees faced at least one such moment as they made their comeback, and you don’t make it through those tests if your motivation is fame or money or adulation. You have to love your sport, and that’s what make these stories so enthralling.  
Now that I and my fellow Members of the Laureus Academy have voted, we will soon be celebrating these stories at the Laureus World Sports Awards. But that celebration is always about more than even the incredible achievements of our nominees in the Comeback of the Year category. 
We celebrate sport’s power to change the world – the power that drives the Laureus movement. I’ve seen that power in grassroots projects all over the world where our partners are working with vulnerable young people. I’ve seen it in athletes who have used their platform to speak out on social issues, from Tommie Smith and John Carlos to Colin Kaepernick and beyond.  
And I do see that power in these incredible stories of triumph over adversity that make up our nominations for the Laureus World Comeback of the Year Award. If you’re in need of a little bit of inspiration, look no further.  

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