One of the most touching moments of the Tokyo Games this summer was entirely spontaneous. During the qualifying round of the women’s gymnastics, 46-year-old Oksana Chusovitina took to the podium in her eighth Olympics as she attempted to qualify for the vault finals one last time. Chusovitina, who won her first world championship golds in 1991 and took an Olympic team gold in 1992, had previously announced that Tokyo would mark the end of her illustrious career.

Chusovitina finished 14th in the vault competition that day, missing out on the final after two fine but flawed vaults. In lieu of an audience at the empty Ariake Gymnastics Centre to send her off, her fellow competitors unexpectedly took charge. Across the competition floor, all the other gymnasts gave Chusovitina a standing ovation, a gesture that moved her to tears.

Even as she convincingly explained her intention to move on from the sport and to devote more time to her son, Alisher, she has always been terrible at retiring. She had indicated that she would retire after the 2009 World Championships, aged 34. Three years later, she set London 2012 as the end point of her career. Each time Chusovitina has considered retirement, her sheer passion for the sport and tireless motivation has won out.

It has done so again. When she posted a video of herself working through an uneven bars routine with no grips, the jokes about her “unretirement” began. Last Thursday, within eight weeks of the Olympics ending, Chusovitina announced that she would continue to train with her eyes set on the 2022 Asian Games next September. Chusovitina explained that she left Tokyo unsatisfied by her result and determined to finish her career on a high: “I really want to end my career with a medal for Uzbekistan,” she said to Sputnik. “It will not be the Olympic Games, but the Asian ones, but I really want it. When my heart asks, I have to do it.”

During the same week that Chusovitina announced that she would not be calling time, tennis witnessed a return as Kim Clijsters, the 38-year-old four-times grand slam champion and former world No 1, resumed her comeback attempt with her first match in more than a year. Clijsters’s name is already synonymous with comebacks; she first retired from the sport in 2007 and then gave birth to her first child, Jada, before returning in 2009 and winning the US Open in her third tournament back. After winning two more grand slam titles and a further stint at No 1, Clijsters retired again in 2012.

But she has always struggled to resist the call of tennis. Clijsters returned to competition in Dubai in February 2020, where she faced Garbiñe Muguruza fresh off the Spaniard’s Australian Open final run and played a spectacular second set. She was again competitive against Johanna Konta a few weeks later, but the timing of her comeback was desperate. Two matches into her return, the pandemic struck Indian Wells and the tour shut down.

When tennis resumed last summer, Clijsters resurfaced at the World Team Tennis event in July, she spent her time there battering top-50 opposition that included Sofia Kenin. Although it was only an exhibition in a shortened format, it was difficult not to be impressed. Clijsters has always been a clean, authoritative ball striker but her tremendous athleticism gave her a more balanced style of play. With her movement naturally diminished with age, greater control over points is imperative and she effortlessly injected more pace and weight on her strokes than ever before.

Kim Clijsters made a return at the World Team Tennis event in July.
Kim Clijsters made a return at the World Team Tennis event in July. Photograph: Matt Marton/AP

Luck, however, has not been on her side so far. The Belgian delayed her initial return to the court after suffering a knee injury at the end of 2019, then she struggled with an abdominal injury during the US hard-court season, which hurt her US Open preparation as she lost in three sets to the No 21 seed, Ekaterina Alexandrova, in the first round. She then underwent knee surgery last October and her preparation was further curtailed by catching Covid-19 in January.

As the tour continued, Clijsters did not reappear until last week in Chicago where she faced Hsieh Su-wei, who won 6-3, 5-7, 6-3. Against one of the most unorthodox opponents in the sport, Clijsters oscillated between periods of clean, destructive aggression and elementary strings of errors but she left the court satisfied by her proximity to a top-100 player while she tries to find her way back. She will next play in Indian Wells this week, where she has a wildcard.

The turbulent past few years could have shattered Clijsters’s confidence but her commitment is admirable. Clijsters says that she gets up at 5am to train before her three children wake up and then again during school hours. She has frequently likened her continued participation in tennis to her friends’ aspirations of running marathons before they are 40 years old. This, she says, is her marathon.

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These stories do not come without criticism. Chusovitina said that she has received messages from some who believe that she is taking places from younger gymnasts by continuing to compete: “This is my desire and I, probably, have the right to do what I want,” she says. There are similar sentiments towards Clijsters taking wildcards into tournaments and even just towards her general indecision.

In reality, both athletes capture the essence of sport; the challenge of pushing themselves just to see how far they can go and the tireless motivation that is required to continue working behind the scenes long after they achieved their dreams and even though they could retire tomorrow and live happy, full lives with their families. When they do finally decide to stop for good, they will do so with the satisfaction that their careers played out entirely on their terms.