The obsessive persistence with which competitors pursue their goals, often in defiance of logic or reality – and sometimes even of perceived ability – is an object of admiration and inspiration.
So seeing Steph Twell named yesterday in Great Britain's team for this month's World cross country championships brought a lump to my throat.
Twell followed a unique three consecutive European junior cross country titles with world junior 1500m gold before her 19th birthday. She was hailed as the new Paula Radcliffe, and Commonwealth bronze for Scotland followed. But 25 months ago today, while leading an international cross country field in Belgium, she broke an ankle. Widespread public speculation that she might not run again was not calculated to boost confidence.
Despite having metal screws and a plate put in the ankle, Twell was undaunted. She had worn a London 2012 badge every day since 2005, a mark of her aspiration, yet pursued a seemingly receding dream through months of rehabilitation. There were tears during physio sessions as scar tissue was massaged, and frustration as she endured recurrent defeat by rivals whom she previously had run away from.
Yet there were no tantrums and, last spring, she became the first Scottish athlete to achieve Olympic qualification, only for the ankle to break down again. Charles Van Commenee, the UK head coach, insisted she prove her fitness at the European championships: not one of his better decisions.
The Olympic dream really was over, with more surgery needed to extract the ironmongery. Then, as she began the slow rehab process all over again, she was told lottery support had been cut. This is Twell's first GB world selection in three years, and her first as a senior. She is still just 23. It's premature to expect a fairy-tale ending in Poland a week on Sunday, but not too soon to salute her remarkable tenacity, or to wonder whence it came.
Coaches, parents, training partners are all part of the equation. So we should acknowledge Mick Woods, Twell's coach, whose stable includes Emelia Gorecka and Scotland's Beth Potter and Lenny Waite. Woods has been one of Britain's most successful endurance coaches of recent years, and he hopes Gorecka, also named in the world team, can go one better than the silver she won last year.
Gorecka may be younger than Twell, but has been a role model to her elder. Gorecka suffers, by her own admission, from scoliosis, "a fairly spectacular curvature of the spine". It was so acute that, by the age of 14, curves of 27 and 34 degrees in a distorted S shape made normal movement – even just swinging arms freely – difficult. It did not prevent her from winning the English Schools track and cross country titles for her age group.
Gorecka had to wear a body brace for three years up to 23 hours daily. Her release from the fibreglass corset increased her love of running, she said, but it was embarrassing to have her mum tying shoe laces because she could not bend down, and a struggle to find clothes that would look even half decent over her body brace.
Last year, Gorecka defied the myth of African supremacy by winning 3000m bronze at the World Junior Championships. Victory in Bydgoszcz would be the first by a Briton since Radcliffe in Boston 21 years ago.
Radcliffe, of course, defied critics to pursue her own dream and, despite recurrent track failure, eventually fulfilled them as marathon world record-holder.
Sport is replete with courage which goes beyond rugby forwards trying to batter their way over the line from five metres, or footballers flinging the head at a cross despite the flying boots of defenders.
Karoly Takacs was a member of the Hungarian world champion free pistol-shooting team in 1938. He then shattered his right hand with a grenade. After having taught himself to shoot left-handed, he returned, aged 38, to win rapid-fire gold at the 1948 Olympics. But perhaps my favourite is being privileged to see a Parkinsons-ravaged Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic flame in 1996.
Did Takacs win because of his injury, or despite it? Did Ali become the fighter he ultimately was because of the morally courageous stance he took over refusing to fight in Vietnam? Does adversity help forge successful competitors, and keep the flame burning, perhaps even more intensely?
This weekend, Hayley Haining runs the Alloa half-marathon. Mother of a two-year-old son, she celebrated her 41st birthday this month. Haining won 800m silver in the WAAA under-15 championships 27 years ago. She had already been in the sport for three years, but her athletics career has been repeatedly stalled by injury and, on her one hope of Olympic representation, as reserve to Radcliffe in 2008, she was left in limbo.
A full-time academic in veterinary medicine, Kilbarchan's Haining runs the Virgin London Marathon next month. Her coach, Derek Parker, confirms she is chasing the Glasgow 2014 standard of 2hr 40min. That does not seem outrageous for a woman who ran 2:29 in 2008, and rivals even Liz McColgan for career durability.
Alloa will confirm whether 2014 selection is realistic. What is perhaps as important is that this superb role model is still chasing the dream.
We should applaud her like.
The UK media persists in giving disproportionate column space and air-time to a sport at which we are notably worse than second rate, one too often populated by thuggish and greedy individuals. It's overdue the media struck a balance.