The (not so) big comeback

Okay, it wasn’t as big as Tiger Woods winning his fifth Masters. But I’ve also made my own sporting comeback this year.

Way back in the mists of time – when years started with a ’19’ – I played a sport called korfball. Never heard of it? You’re not alone. It is the only sport that is mixed gender by design: eight-a-side, four male, four female. Imagine a hybrid of basketball and netball where the ‘goal’ is, quite literally, a basket – ‘korf’ is the Dutch word for basket – sitting atop an 11-foot pole.

Korfball is common in universities but I was one of the early members of the Oxford City club when it was set up in 1992.

Oxford holds an annual tournament every summer, attracting university and city teams from both Oxfordshire and beyond. To celebrate Oxford City’s 25-year anniversary in 2017, we entered a veterans’ team of former players, branded the Oxford Old Farts. (OOF seemed like quite an appropriate acronym!) It was a bit like Avengers Assemble meets Cocoon.

Heather played in 2017 and 2018, while I turned up to catch up with old friends. I would definitely not have been fit enough to play at that point. But just being there made me want to get into shape to play this year.

And so I did just that. If you read this blog or follow me on social media, you’ll know that I’ve lost 50 pounds (23 kg) and have been working on my fitness. I’m now actually lighter and fitter than ever.

And so on Saturday, exactly 20 years to the month since my last game, I took to the pitch once more.

The big comeback

At this point, any resemblance to Tiger Woods’ comeback abruptly ended.

Predictably, I wasn’t very good. I was never one of Oxford City’s star players. At best, I was a decent defender and a somewhat erratic long-range goalscorer. If I excelled at anything, it was my unofficial role as the most unfit person at the club.

Nonetheless, the muscle memory kicked back in surprisingly quickly. Although, as part of a team with an average age of 45-plus – double that of several of the teams we played – I certainly felt my age. Even in my younger days, I was always someone who played more with my head than my legs. I could rarely beat an opponent physically, so I had to rely on outsmarting them. That was definitely the case here: maximise results, minimise fatigue.

I started reasonably well and carefully paced myself through the day. But by our final match, I was running on fumes. One of my teammates on the sideline mentioned afterwards that I looked shattered. He was too kind. I wasn’t overly tired but I was undeniably stiff, aching and feeling every one of my nearly 49 years. I could barely accelerate and couldn’t jump at all.

In earlier games I’d averaged close to 2,000 steps; in our last match I registered barely 600. In fact, I was just about to signal for a substitution when the final whistle went. I’ve never heard such a wonderful sound in my entire life.

The aftermath

48 hours later, I’ve assessed the physical toll more thoroughly. Going in, my recently sprained and heavily strapped left ankle was my biggest concern. But, as it turned out, it held up fine. My knee ligaments, quads and thighs are all in bad shape – I can barely walk up the stairs – but nothing that another day or two’s rest won’t fix.

Other than that, my pride is the only thing that got injured. I had hoped to contribute a bit more but I guess fantasy comebacks only happen in comic books or if you’re Tiger Woods. Not embarrassing myself and registering a hat-trick of assists was as much as I could reasonably hope for, I suppose.

All told, I really enjoyed the day. Sure, it’s frustrating that my body can’t function at the same level it used to – but the ageing process is what it is. And it did feel good to discover that I could successfully deploy my tactical experience to counter the physical advantage enjoyed by younger, faster and taller opponents.

Most importantly, it was great to reconnect with old friends. It’s completely different when you’re part of a team again, rather than just cheering from the sidelines.

What now? I’ve made mental notes about how I can be in better shape physically. Endurance is no problem but I’m lacking in the explosiveness required to sprint around the pitch in short, sharp bursts. I can fix that.

It’s 52 weeks until next year’s tournament. Start the clock. As a certain cybernetic film character once said: I’ll be back.


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