Shooter Jasmine Ser's search for perfection

To Singapore shooter Jasmine Ser, winning a medal in a competition without the score to match is not the same thing. It is victory imperfect and unsatisfying. She admits, without fuss or drama, that the hardest thing for her is 'to be satisfied'.

SINGAPORE - In July this year, in the Russian city of Kazan, Jasmine Ser put her Singaporean eye to a gun-sight, balanced her frame, collected her focus, breathed out gently and put a bullet through history.

Her 587/600 in the 50m three-position rifle at the World University Games broke the event record. This was in the qualification; in the final, she finished eighth. In the same month, at a World Cup in Granada, she finished seventh. From a nation with a slight sporting history and in a sport with 54 women competing with her at the World Cup, all this was worth praise.

Except from Ser herself, who is short in height and pithy in her use of vocabulary. "OK" is her word for her performance. "I am of course happy that I set the record. But I didn't win a medal, I just got to a final. So I am not entirely satisfied."

Then she looks away, pauses, picks a thought from the hundreds littering her brain, and says generally about the idea of victory: "Even if I win I may not be satisfied."

It might sound like a confusing answer but then this is a strange species. For folk whose reputation is based on accuracy, nothing is straightforward with shooters. They are the academics of the physical world, its introspecting professors, who rarely stand out even as they stand completely still.

But Ser has a subtle point about satisfaction that can get overlooked in the chase for trophies. "I am chasing a performance (i.e. score) that can win me a medal," she says. But sometimes, she says, you can win the medal without that score and it is not the same thing. It is victory imperfect and unsatisfying.

And so she says, without fuss or drama, "the hardest thing for me is to be satisfied". Satisfaction for this winner of four medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games is a sin, it hints of complacency, it suggests smugness, it is dangerous. Strive, strive, strive is the uncontrollable war cry in her head.

This heightened search for perfection is an unsettling endeavour that can push an athlete towards superstition, depression, neurosis. But the search for perfection is also a privilege - it's a chance to push the limits of human excellence - it makes sport meaningful, it fulfils athletes and triggers improvement.

"It's a good thing , it drives you to work harder," Ser says over lunch. Weeks later she restates the point: "My expectations are higher. I don't want to be a normal athlete. I want to be good."

Only good, I tease.

"Great," she laughs.

Being unsatisfied should be an athletic staple but with Ser it's an act of faith. If she wins a medal, like at the Commonwealth Games, she's satisfied for a day. Next day she has to be better. And because she's a shooter, a complicated tribe, satisfaction is not just a matter of the score but also of feeling.

The 10, for instance, is a perfect number in sport, it is the shirt number of Pele, the once-flawless score in gymnastics and the maximum wickets a bowler can take in an innings. But for shooters like Ser even a 10 can be imperfect because it feels imperfect. It's the right score with the wrong sensation.

Every shot is a feat of fine engineering: posture, balance, breathing, triggering, every precious part slotted together. And even as the 10 might appear a perfect shot to the outsider, only the shooter can feel the tiny flaw of technique that has crept into a shot. It is akin to a player hitting a perfect cross-court passing shot even when the feet are not perfectly in position.

As Ser says: "People only see the result, lost or won, but I know me. I know when my body is listening to me, or if I have lost focus or concentration, or when my minute coordination is good."

Only the shooter can feel perfection and only the shooter like Ser can have categories of satisfaction in her head: there's the best day she won a medal and the best day she shot well.

It is a fascinating, rewarding life which the intelligent Ser has to be gently careful of because all compulsive behaviour comes with a side effect. Being unsatisfied constantly, she admits, "is to not give myself any credit sometimes". So she acknowledges when she has a fine season or competition because what is sport without pleasure.

Excellence can't be forced, it is the sweaty child of slow, daily labour. Ser knows this. "I have to take it a step at a time." She also knows that to be eventually satisfied, to win a major medal perhaps, demands not just patience but joy.

The tired cliche about athletes enjoying their journey is most valid when it concerns the intense. Amid all their concentrated aspiring for greatness, they cannot lose the thrill of what they do.

Ser knows that thrill for she is devoted to shooting and enchanted by its mysteries. It is her first thought every morning. "I want more," she says, yet she is cautious about wanting too much. She has to find the equilibrium to walk this tightrope, but that's not really a problem for her. She's a shooter, after all. Balance is her business.

rohitb@sph.com.sg


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