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The Straits Times Athlete of the Year 2016

ST Athlete of the Year: A day when sporting feats were frozen in memory

Ceremony primarily a celebration of world-level titles and inspirational athletes and notionally a contest, with Schooling winning

It was a day, before anything else, of sporting style. As noon approached yesterday, some of Singapore's finest sportspeople congregated happily at a Little India hotel. They wore no airs and their achievements very lightly. Most nominees for The Straits Times Athlete of the Year award arrived on foot and one, Yip Pin Xiu, came coolly on wheels. They looked like ordinary folk, in black jackets and off-shoulder dresses, but they were there because they were extraordinary.

In the room - if you count Joseph Schooling on Skype from Texas - was more Olympic gold than India (population of 1.3 billion) won in 2016 and as many Paralympic golds from Yip (two) as Japan, Sweden and Argentina together won in Rio. This wasn't just athletes who deserved to take a bow, but Singapore itself. As the dignified Tan Eng Liang, once Olympic water polo player and later chef de mission said: "In high performance we've definitely gone up."

It was a day of validation for local sport because everyone present - the swimmers plus billiards player Peter Gilchrist, silat exponent Sheik Farhan Sheik Ala'uddin and bowler New Hui Fen - had a world-level title. Authentic talents. Hefty CVs. Schooling, who eventually won the award a second time, was only a first among equals.

It was the sort of day which gives sport a shine for it was inclusive: Two women, three men, four different sports. In fact, in the nine years of this award, athletes from five sports have won, swimmers have triumphed five times, Paralympians twice and this is only the third time a man has won. Try and keep up, guys.

But it's not merely the range of sports which impressed but the spread of ages. Out there on the planet they're raving about chaps named Roger Federer, 35, and Tom Brady, 39, which is all very nice except our Gilchrist, five-time world billiards champion, was 49 last Saturday. Yes, we know he walks around a table with a stick, but try concentrating for 10 hours which is roughly how long it took him to win his semis and final. He's cool. And Farhan, 19, would agree.

 

Gilchrist says of 2016, "I realised I still want to win", and he's not the only one who is still learning. All of them made their own discoveries last year for in the furnace of competition is forged and found so much of the self. Farhan yesterday confessed he found he was "actually stronger than I thought I am". Yip, who last won a swimming Paralympic gold in 2008, was nervous after an eight-year wait but learned again to "trust" her skills.

  • The panel of nine judges who decided on the winner

    •ST sports editor Lee Yulin

    •ST assistant sports editor Rohit Brijnath

    •ST assistant sports editor Chia Han Keong

    •ST correspondent Wang Meng Meng

    •ST correspondent Jonathan Wong

    •Singapore National Olympic Council vice-president Tan Eng Liang

    •Singapore Disability Sports Council vice-president Raja Singh

    •Rugby coach Wang Shao-Ing

    •Rio Olympic windsurfer Audrey Yong

Between them these five athletes have fought muscular dystrophy, a mother's death, separation from their parents, depression, injury, expectation. And yes, Michael Phelps, too. It is something.

New, the bowler, simply figured out that if "I set my mind to do something, I can do it". Last week was evidence. A therapy session for her knee injury was "super painful" and she initially wanted to stop. Instead she paused, pulled out a handkerchief, bit into it and continued.

Yesterday was a day that was only notionally a contest but primarily a celebration. One person would win but in fact no one would lose. It is why none of the nominees wore a grim game face but only smiles as they shook hands, met readers and kids and posed for photos. It was a rest day. Well, kind of. Schooling, in Texas, had just finished a relaxed 3,500 metres. Seventy lengths. Apparently a light day.

It was a day when everything was sporting. Including a minister, Grace Fu, who did a mannequin challenge. Families beamed and officials looked pleased. Parents have seen their children try, lose, cry and one even wanted her child to quit. Officials have watched plans fail and funding come to nothing. But this day was proof that it sometimes does work. Effort pays.

It was, finally, a day of humility, for here before us were some of the spirited of this city. Between them these five athletes have fought muscular dystrophy, a mother's death, separation from their parents, depression, injury, expectation. And yes, Michael Phelps, too. It is something.

This Straits Times award doesn't meaningfully change lives but it recognises lives lived meaningfully. It salutes grit, it honours ambition, and it acknowledges that these athletic travellers have journeyed to places where they or this nation have never been. They make us feel a little better. Proud actually. Inspired often. And so yesterday was simply their day. Today they will resume chasing their triumphant tomorrows.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2017, with the headline 'A day when sporting feats were frozen in memory'. Print Edition | Subscribe