Wheeling past disability to rugby

Mr Tan (centre) playing wheelchair rugby at Toa Payoh Stadium yesterday. Tomorrow, he will fly to Jakarta and represent Singapore in the 2016 Tafisa World Games, where his team will battle it out with participants from seven other nations.
Mr Tan (centre) playing wheelchair rugby at Toa Payoh Stadium yesterday. Tomorrow, he will fly to Jakarta and represent Singapore in the 2016 Tafisa World Games, where his team will battle it out with participants from seven other nations.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

51-year-old who lost his limbs in brush with GBS to play for S'pore in wheelchair rugby

For three hours last night, 51-year-old Tan Whee Boon wheeled himself around a basketball court trying to get a volleyball across a finish line. He took bumps from his teammates and ended the night with several fresh bruises and abrasions on his arms.

Tomorrow, he will hop on a flight to Jakarta and represent Singapore in the 2016 Tafisa World Games, where his team will battle it out with participants from seven other nations.

Not an unusual story, except Mr Tan had his four limbs amputated last year after a bout of food poisoning led to medical complications, and he is competing in Singapore's first wheelchair rugby team.

He told The Straits Times he was very excited to be on his first flight since his unfortunate brush with Group B Streptococcus (GBS) in July last year.

He even cracked a joke in Mandarin: "I didn't even think I could go through Customs without my hands and feet. The thought of it is funny - how do I scan my thumbprint?"

  • Once dubbed 'most thrilling and brutal'

  • Wheelchair rugby was originally known as murderball. Fast and aggressive, it was once billed by The Guardian as the the Paralympic Games' "most thrilling and brutal sport".

    It joined the Games in 2000 and is created by and for athletes with disabilities affecting the arms and the legs.

    Played indoors on a hardwood court of the same measurements as a regulation basketball court, each team has up to 12 players but only four per side are allowed on the court at any time.

    It is mixed gender, and the game itself combines elements of basketball, handball and rugby, where players in purpose-built wheelchairs pass a ball between them in a bid to cross the opponents' goal line to score.

    Singapore's current team was formed in June by 54-year-old Raja Singh, managing director of DNR Wheels and vice-president of the Singapore Disability Sports Council. It was a response to a growing interest in wheelchair rugby, as well as a desire to improve the health and wellbeing of the disabled.

    While he is confident Singapore can send a national team to the next Asean Para Games in 2017, Mr Singh feels it is too early to consider the Paralympics. "Let's go step by step," he said. "If we could win a medal in the Asean Para Games, that would be our initial goal."

    Kok Xing Hui

Mr Tan, formerly a technician, came down with vomiting and diarrhoea last July after eating a raw fish dish.

Tests revealed he had severe pneumonia complicated by sepsis. He was given a drug to direct blood flow to his vital organs, which saved his life.

But his hands and feet then turned gangrenous and had to be amputated.

Since then, he has been regaining his independence in little ways. It started with an automatic wheelchair, prosthetic legs that let him walk short distances and elastic cuffs on his arms that can hold on to utensils so that he can feed himself.

Now, he needs help only with showering and using the toilet - tasks his wife Choong Siet Mei, 47, is teaching a caregiver to carry out so she can go back to work.

His story generated vast public support and donations last year.

While Mr Tan and his wife have always been positive about their ordeal, his voice takes on a significantly happier tone and he speaks a little faster when he talks about his newfound passion.

"The game is very exciting," he said. "It's also dangerous, you're allowed to bang into each other. It's like bumper cars, you know?"

His love affair with the sport started in June when he went to replace the tyre of his automatic wheelchair at DNR Wheels and met the founder, Mr Raja Singh, who is also vice-president of the Singapore Disability Sports Council.

Mr Tan was invited to join the team during their practice. He enjoyed it so much that he decided to stick with it.

For him, the best thing about wheelchair rugby is the freedom he feels when he rolls himself in the special manual chair used for the game - where the seats are lower so his arms can reach the wheels. "I felt like a fish back in water!"

Madam Choong, however, would have preferred him to swim instead as wheelchair rugby can be a rough sport.

The couple have been married for 16 years, and have a son in Secondary 3 and a daughter in Secondary 4.

"But he looks so happy on the court, I don't have a choice," she said reluctantly. "I'll just scold him if he comes home injured from practice."

•Additional reporting by Nadia Chevroulet.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2016, with the headline 'Wheeling past disability to rugby'. Print Edition | Subscribe