It felt like she was staring through you, beyond you, into a vast nothingness. It had been just a few minutes since Sushila Devi Likmabam had lost her 49kg judo final at the 2022 Commonwealth Games on Monday night and she was already in front of a couple of journalists answering questions.
There were no smiles, no happiness. A nod and a polite thank you when congratulated. When asked if she was happy with the silver: "No". Then: "It's only silver."
Even as Sushila was completing the first round of her media interactions, Vijay Kumar Yadav walked off the mat having won bronze by executing a superb ippon to win 10-0, the match lasting less than a minute.
"I'm not satisfied," he said. "It's not gold."
Losing hurts, and losing in a clutch match - or losing out on a gold - in a high-profile event like the CWG hurts even more. However much we, the media, try and accentuate the positive, however much teammates, support staff and the watching fans back home try and commiserate, sometimes you just have to let out the disappointment and hurt and reveal the cold, hard fact - we lost, it's not a gold - for what it is.
Sushila answered every question asked of her, and came back for more media interaction after the medal ceremony. She spoke about her family, about the hardships she faced pre-Olympics where she had to sell the first car she ever bought to finance the trip to Tokyo. She spoke about following her brother into the sport of judo. She spoke about the support she was receiving now and how much she appreciated it.
At no point while talking about these things, though, did it feel like she was fully present there. At times it felt like a disembodied voice was speaking. This wasn't her being disrespectful -- the fact that she was doing these interactions itself proves otherwise - just displaying her real emotions.
The one time it all came together was when she spoke about the 2014 silver. That was only, though, to seemingly emphasise the point she was making without really saying it: 'I already have one of these, what's another one worth?' Over and over she spoke quietly about how that gold should have been hers. How that's the only thing that mattered. How that's what she had trained for.
- She won her first CWG medal in 2014
- She nearly gave up judo four years later
- Before Tokyo 2020, she had to sell her Alto to fund her expenses
Despite all the struggles, Shushila Devi fought on, and is now a two-time CWG medallist �� pic.twitter.com/PEwzTbEQ38
- ESPN India (@ESPNIndia) August 1, 2022
Her match had been an intense, closely fought affair and she'd lost only on golden points after the regulation four minutes. It had been taken a brutal physical toll. She'd show her bandaged feet, where she'd suffered a 'small' fracture (in pre-CWG training). She'd talk about how her shoulders and back were in pain. She'd also dismiss all those as the occupational hazards of a judoka. "Maybe if I was 100%, that gold..." her voice trailed off before a shake of the head and a big sigh. "It's only silver," she went.
Vijay would go through the same drill as Sushila, speaking about how his father is a welder who's been home since the lockdown, how his brother is in the Indian Army, how hard he'd worked ahead of the tournament to get into peak shape, how his next target was the Asian Championships.
When pressed for a soundbite, he said with a resigned sigh, "Yes, this is the biggest medal I've ever won". The yes was for the cameras, the papers. At that moment, though, it felt like he believed he might as well have gone empty handed.
When asked if it didn't feel happy that he had won that biggest match of his life in such spectacular fashion, he responded with a faint smile: "I didn't get gold, did I? Then what happiness?"
This is not something that is immediately understandable for the majority of us, those who aren't the most elite of athletes. A CWG silver! A CWG bronze! These are some major achievements, so why aren't they smiling about it? Why can't they spend some time talking about it?
There's a reason why so many athletes hate the common press-usage of the terms "assured medal" and "settled for silver/bronze." No elite athlete ever enters a final thinking ah, yes, at least I'll get silver.
It's gold, or nothing. It's win or lose. That's a very simple, binary equation. Assurance of silver means nothing. And no one "settles" for a loss.
At the Tokyo Olympics last year, the wrestler Ravi Dahiya came for the media interaction after winning silver. There was no smile on his face. When one of the reporters asked to see his medal, he pulled it out of his pocket and handed it over to the reporter. The reporter asked Ravi to wear it, but the response was swift: "Tayyari toh gold ke liye kiya tha." I was prepared for a gold.
In top-flight football, a loser's medal in the World Cup of Champions League final is deemed worthless, usually hidden out of sight as a bad dream or on display as a reminder of what went wrong. It usually has no value of its own.
Athletes who don't win gold, or achieve whatever targets they've set, in this edition of the CWG will have to wait four years for another shot. Sushila Devi and Vijay Kumar Yadav know this intimately.
Both were keen to stress that they were grateful for what they had achieved, and to thank the usual suspects, but the overpowering emotion remained 'what could have been'.
A sigh. A brief glance heavenward. A shake of the head. "It's not gold, is it?"