Everyone loves a comeback story of someone who scaled the heights then hit the skids, but regained his or her past glory through superhuman effort. A sports comeback can be defined as “an athlete’s return to the sport in which he or she has formerly been successful.”


The world of sports has many comebacks. Who hasn’t enjoyed those dramatic returns to athletic peaks made by boxers Robinson, Ali, and Foreman, hockey star Lemieux, tennis player Seles, and swimmer Torres? Closer to home, weightlifters will remember the many comebacks made by the aging Schemansky who, after seemingly impossible odds, improved with age.


What About the Average Athlete?

What we don’t often hear about are the comebacks made by average, unheralded athletes who are in it just for fun. Can we also rise from the athletic dead? After our younger, serious attempts at glory, many of us continue to labor in the trenches. We hope one day we might defeat the odds and achieve at least some of our once hoped-for glory.


Your age will determine how well your comeback is going to go.


But the demands of education, jobs, and families have a way of taking priority. And that is probably how it should be for almost all of us. But at the same time, we don’t give up. Later on we find that life’s demands are not quite so depressing as we once believed, and we get back into training. We might end up yo-yoing like this for years. The result is that many athletes from their mid-twenties and beyond are in almost constant comeback mode.


What advice can I give you, the athlete making your return? Several questions have to be considered in order to tackle the job intelligently.


How Old Are You Now?

Your age will determine how well your comeback is going to go. Quite bluntly, the older you are, the tougher a comeback is going to be. Compare Michael Jordan and George Foreman. Big George was 38 and had been gone from boxing for ten years when he started his comeback. It took him several years just to get back into the swing of things. By contrast, Jordan was much younger and had only been off the court for two seasons. And don’t forget, he was playing baseball during his layoff (although that’s not quite as vigorous as basketball.) When Jordan finally did return to the Bulls, he was able to pick up right where he left off.


"A sports comeback can be defined as 'an athlete’s return to the sport in which he or she has formerly been successful.'"

If you’re a young lifter, you may be able to get back in the sport relatively easily. Those masters age returnees with two decades of inactivity are going to have to take things a little easier and adjust their ambitions, since they simply do not have the unused athletic potential anymore.


What Was Your Level of Fitness?

Elite level competitors will have a tougher row to hoe than weekend warriors. Your condition was at a higher and therefore less stable level. Even a short layoff at that level will dramatically affect your condition. But for the dilettante the change will be less significant, since you have less to lose and therefore less to regain to get to your former level. Of course, to get beyond your former level you will have just as much work as anyone else.


How Long Did the Layoff Last?

The longer you have been out of action, the longer it will take to get it back. This has to be taken into consideration when planning a return to competition. You cannot usually enter serious competition right after a long layoff. You need a certain amount of time just to get your physical qualities back up to par.


Your age will determine how well your comeback is going to go.


The good news is that those long-neglected motor pathways can be more quickly reactivated in people who used to exercise than those who have never been in shape at all. This is what the gym rats call muscle memory. It can even be seen in sixty-year-old adults who have not ridden a bike in decades. The first few cranks of the pedals will be embarrassing, but somewhere after the hundred-foot mark they will be pedaling as if they never stopped riding.


What is Your Current Condition?

If you have been doing at least some vigorous physical activity, you will be better prepared for your comeback than if you have been sitting on your duff the whole time. In my own case, I remember having to leave the weights for my summer job in the bush of northern Canada. The work entailed a certain amount of walking and lifting heavy objects. When it was time to return to school and regular weightlifting, my snatch technique did suffer a little bit until muscle memory kicked in. However, I faced no such problem physically. Even though my work activities did not resemble the movements of Olympic lifting, my physical infrastructure was in fine shape, and I did not experience shock.


What Qualities Does Your Sport Require?

The type of physcial qualities your sport requires can also influence your comeback. For example, absolute strength can be relatively easy to reacquire depending on the length of absence and level of conditioning.


"Use your head and keep your expectations realistic, and you might recapture some of your old magic."

For speed strength, on the other hand, it may take a little longer to get the nervous system back up to par. This is especially true for aging athletes. The ability to express speed strength remains fairly stable until the late thirties or early forties. Sometime around then you can expect it to deteriorate, and there’s not a bloody thing you can do about it. I remember when I hit my forties I was still very strong, having made a 300kg squat at age 46. But I just couldn’t move the barbell very fast in the clean anymore. That ability was gone, and no matter how much I cranked up the training it was not coming back. So you may have to readjust your expectations depending on your age.


Keep Perspective

Keep these factors in mind when considering a return to the weights or any other vigorous sport. Use your head and keep your expectations realistic, and you might recapture some of your old magic.


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Photos courtesy of Jorge Huerta Photography.