What is that mysterious force that once enabled Jack Youngblood to play football on a broken leg? That allowed Jan Stephenson to tune out the world and sink the putt that won the 1983 Lady Keystone Open? That pushed Alberto Salazar over Heartbreak Hill and through the tape in the 1982 Boston Marathon?
Ken Atchity, a professor of comparative literature at Occidental College, has produced the pilot for a proposed television show called "BreakThrough" that attempts to answer those questions and explain what makes the contemporary athletic champion tick.
"Our show is for a whole new generation," Atchity pointed out. "Not only of television watchers who are more aware of psychology than ever before, but also a whole new generation of athletes who are aware of all this."
Stephenson, who hosted the pilot episode with former Oakland Raiders wide receiver Bob Chandler, thinks there is room for an educational talk show focusing on the athletic community.
"For some reason there's a thin line between why one athlete is better than the other," she said, "and I think it would be good to document that and see if we could learn something from it. There are so many athletes with great personalities and they have something to offer."
The program transcends the standard interview-and-highlights format of the garden-variety sports shows and dispenses with the usual obnoxious byplay between host and guest. Although the discussion centers around sports, its high-brow content may not necessarily appeal to the six-pack-a-day set.
"It's not for a jock audience, the kind of thing that people watch in a bar," warned Atchity, the show's executive producer. "It's too intellectual a show for that. But the didactic factor is not what comes across. All the education is done low-key. What comes across is excitement and inspiration. There's never a dull moment."
Atchity, who has spent several years studying the creative process, teaches creative writing and journalism at Occidental. The idea for the show came to him two and a half years ago after an eclectic campus discussion about Darwinian evolution, sports technology and psychology.
"I always thought it was ironic that the people who debate about the pros and cons of evolution don't ever notice something that's right under their noses," he said.
"In the world of sports, there's evidence that ever since records have been kept, records have been broken. And every time a record is broken, we all evolve. But we evolve not in a regular, steady, gradual way. We evolve in a breakthrough, when one single individual on the cutting edge breaks across that cutting edge."
He points especially to swimmers and runners, who have regularly shattered records as technique and training methods have evolved.
Atchity says a record-breaking athlete always prepares mentally for a performance.
"He imagines the process, in his mind, of doing it. Then, if he does it, it is no longer a question of can it be done. The question for the rest of the generation suddenly becomes: How did he do it?
"Then we go back and study the videotapes to see how he did it and then, within a year, other people are matching his record because we know it can be done. But he's the one who made the breakthrough. He's the one who took the risk, imagined that it could be done without knowing for sure."
"Breakthrough" is defined in Webster's New World Dictionary as (a) a strikingly important advance or discovery and (b) the act or result of breaking through against resistance.
Atchity, who co-wrote the pilot with Maury Green, sees the act as a process of 12 steps that starts with a dream and ends with applause.
"What the show is really about is that moment of breakthrough, at which an individual is for one brief moment at the pinnacle of human potential," Atchity said.
"He's standing up there completely alone for the only time in his life, doing this thing that no one has ever done before. And that's what motivates not only the great athlete, but people in all walks of life, to achieve."
The program is one of 50 television and literary projects produced at L/A House Productions, a company Atchity started in 1982. He and associate producer Steve Hochman have interviewed about 80 professional and amateur champions and record-breakers, including Youngblood, Stevenson, Chandler, Salazar, former Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench, Lakers guard Magic Johnson, middle-distance runner Mary Decker Slaney, former hockey great Gordie Howe and former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson.
The producers were excited by a number of revelations during their research.
One was that Youngblood, who continued playing in a Rams-Dallas game after sustaining a hairline fracture in his leg, and Stephenson, who once contemplated quitting because her putting game was suffering, used similar psychological methods to overcome their deficiencies.