How many times have you seen an athlete celebrating his victory? You can see his joy, his smile, his excitement. Have you ever stopped to think what runs inside his head the moments before crossing the finish line?
I had the pleasure and the honour to translate the following train of thoughts from Italian. The author is one of the greatest Italian sprinters of all times, Pierfrancesco Pavoni, two times European Indoor silver medallist and one time European silver medallist. Pavoni has been the holder of the Italian 4x100 record along with Pietro Mennea, Carlo Simionato and Stefano Tilli for 27 years.
Pavoni tells what happened that evening of the 1982 in Athens, while he was attending the 100m European Championships final. If you have ever run a race you will easily re-experience the same sensations... well, pretty much.
Athens, end of summer 1982
I took a breath in, slowly, as slow as everything that was happening around me... the sounds, the audience, my opponents.
While my eyes were stuck on somewhere, without looking where the lanes converged, a movie was playing in my mind . A film with images, movements, smells, sensations and sounds, which I was recalling in order to recreate that neuromotoric programme. All to be triggered after the fire.
You cannot think when you are running at 40 km/h. When you reach that speed with your body thanks to your limbs, you must not think. You must only feel, perceive and carry out that movie you have already watched, heard, breathed.
Whilst leaping up in my tracks to keep my state of mind alert, the starter called us.
"On your marks."
I went on my blocks with determination, slightly forward. I squatted and placed my hands on the ground, sliding my legs obliquely behind the blocks. I placed my left foot on the anterior block at first, then my right foot on the back one. I slightly pressed my feet on both blocks, while moving my chest backwards. I was charging myself like a human spring.
In unison all my thoughts did the same thing, they started loading the spring: all my aches and unresolved pain got squeezed into my soul, into that part of my soul where love and suffering burn.
The images of my father, my mother, my professor and myself - all with their own special meanings - got compressed into my chest, like the gunpowder about to be shot.
Weaving my shoulders in a delicate dance and pointing my eyes on the tartan, I breathed out my last breath of warm air, slowly. I focused all my energies to unleash my thoughts only after the starter's shot, while waiting for his "Set".
An absolute silence surrounded us all. It was interrupted only by the starter.
"Set," he said.
I slowly lifted myself up: all my tendons and muscles stretched ahead. Once my pelvis reached its highest point and my shoulders - already onwards - were in a perfect balance, I waited the shot, motionless.
At the 169th millisecond, four milliseconds later than Frank (Emmelmann, Ed.) on the first lane, I slipped out of my blocks. I was already the last of the eight finalists. I kept my eyes on the ground while my claws, confidently light, were pushing my body into acceleration. My mind was ordering not to express my whole strength and power yet. My soul was telling me not to set my anger free.
Cameron and Marian (Sharp and Woronin, Ed.), at my opposite sides, overtook me right away. After 30 metres of race I already could see their backs.
The movie I had been obsessively watching, hearing and breathing until a moment before had now been triggered. While everyone was convulsively wiggling to reach the finish line, my perception of the correct cyclical movement, now triggered, was loud and clear.
My eyes were now watching my opponents' backs running away before me. Yes, my eyes told me they were strong, however my soul didn't care about it. My bouncing on the ground and the recall of my heels under my gluteus muscles were already yielding benefits. It was a vortex of perfectly coordinated drives and retrieves.
Cameron and Marian's backs were not so distant from me anymore. They stopped running ahead, my upswing had started. It was six seconds before the finish line.
Surprised and aware of my speed and my motoric efficiency, I slightly lowered my head and shoulders - without feeling any panic - almost as if trying to lean forward and sneak into the holes between my adversaries ahead of me.
Then, I attacked them like a tiger, I knew I had them. My running dynamic was impressive: my drive on the ground was like a bull, but expressed with the lightness of a butterfly.
I reached them in less than one second before the finish line. Within five tenths of a second I overtook them both, arriving on the finish line like a feline. I have never crossed the finish line that way.
The last white square pictured on the ground, one metre before the finish line, gave me the definitive certainty: I had won the challenge against Cameron and Marian. No one was on my left, apart from Frank who was way too far from me. I raised my arms to the sky, unconsciously repeating the very same gesture Pietro (Mennea, Ed.) did in Moscow two years before.
I woke up from the great silence which was surrounding my dilated reality. I had been awaken by the shouting audience during my slowing down phase, while a swarm of photographers was chasing us to immortalise the moment.
I gradually turned to my left and, bouncing, went back to Frank. I thought I had won the challenge against my two lane neighbours, but probably not against him.
He lifted his hands up to greet me, meeting mine. He looked at me with a surprised smile; his blue eyes seemed so sad, maybe because of that freedom he could experience only while running.
Although Frank won the 100m 1982 European Championships in Athens that day, I was happy to arrive second. I had almost won that final, and I was only a junior athlete. I was only nineteen and the wind was -1m/s. I ran in 10 seconds after a slow start and an unforgettable upswing. Another metre and I would have probably won.
To me it was a victory, no matter what.
What I remind myself every day, from that glorious day, is the feeling of deep joy I experienced after having fought with all my energies, all my tears and silent distress which I physically and mentally conveyed during the trainings and the race. I did all of this only to reach that finish line.
I was the fastest young man of the European continent, and maybe of the world at that time. I discovered my real reward one night along the black Piraeus sea, enlightened by a silver moon and my mother's immense smile: it was a unique moment of real peace, far from my torments.