Unyielding

Asean Para Games: Sailing brings second wind in fresh chapter

Sailing has given polio victim and cancer survivor Anthony Teo joy and freedom, while letting him push the limits of his disability.
Sailing has given polio victim and cancer survivor Anthony Teo joy and freedom, while letting him push the limits of his disability.PHOTO: SPORT SINGAPORE

After defying the odds again, Anthony Teo, 71, will partner 2-time Paralympian Jovin Tan

Anthony Teo has more than one reason to rue the hand that life has dealt him; in fact, he has a lifetime of misfortune to make a case.

He had barely taken his first steps when polio robbed him of the ability to ever walk or run without the aid of a burdensome brace fastened to his right leg.

Growing up in a single-parent family meant the absence of a father to shelter him from childhood bullies who ridiculed his disability.

  • SAILING

  • GOLD MEDALS: 4

    TEAM SINGAPORE:

    Men's Hansa 2.3

    Aaron Per

    Women's Hansa 2.3

    Yap Qian Yin

    Hansa 303

    Desiree Lim, Ng Xiu Zhen, Glen Tan, Jovin Tan, Anthony Teo

    LAST APG: The sport has featured only once, at Malaysia 2009, when Singapore won one gold and one bronze.

    ABOUT THE SPORT: Sailing became part of the Paralympic programme at Sydney 2000. Like their able-bodied counterparts, disabled sailors race on various courses. Boats are fitted with assistive devices to help the disabled and others with impairments manoeuvre their boats.

    CLASSIFICATION: Based on their functional limitations on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being the most functional.

Last year, just as he began to bask in the bliss of being a grandfather, doctors diagnosed him with colon cancer.

But survey the 71-year-old sailor - the oldest athlete in Singapore's Asean Para Games (APG) contingent - and one fails to find the slightest tinge of resentment.

"Those were challenging times," Teo recalled of his youth. But with a doting grandmother, he never lacked affection.

"For me, it's been a full life," he said. "Of course, it would've been a different life if I didn't have a disability. I grew up with this, so I accept it. I don't harbour any bitterness."

Instead of being just a symbol of his disability, the caliper that supported his leg for more than half a century was what gave him mobility.

When old age caused a fast-deteriorating left knee, slowed his movement and brought unbearable pain, it was a wheelchair that reinstated his independence. On it, he wheeled himself to church, explored parks and the neighbourhood around his Bishan home.

Having spent his career toiling in the financial markets, Teo endured decades of high-tension days and sleepless nights. It is why, on retirement nine years ago, he was ready for rest.

But his idea of the "retirement life" was not what those around him had in mind. A close friend sent a mahjong set Teo's way - it lasted just two sessions before the tiles and table it came with were given away.

Because "sitting back" was not his style, the father of two tried bowling but found it "too comfortable".

At 68, Teo discovered sailing.

He said: "I wanted something that would make me push myself physically.

"The hardest part of sailing, when you get strong winds and waves, is also what is most enjoyable. You're out at sea with unknowns. The wind, the sun, the sea, the waves - I got hooked."

So not even surgery in March last year to remove a cancerous tumour, and eight rounds of chemotherapy, could keep him away from the water.

"Sailing has given me joy, freedom, something that I can do," said Teo, who was given a clean bill of health last month.

At the APG, he will sail the double-handed Hansa 303 with 29-year-old two-time Paralympian Jovin Tan, a pairing Teo jokingly describes as a partnership between a "young veteran" and an "old novice", but one that has "synergy".

The self-declared introvert has never trumpeted his sailing feats but now finds his face plastered across billboards down the street from his home.

Is that really you, curious neighbours have rung to ask. His children, understandably hesitant, have asked: Dad, are you sure you can sail?

Phyllis, his wife of 35 years, will likely be among spectators in the stands to "see if this old man can really do it or not".

When he sails around Marina Bay this weekend, Teo will compete for country and family, but also for a specific audience - those defeated by disability.

"You must get out of your comfort zone, especially physically disabled people," he urged. "Age and disability should not be an impediment to anything. Push yourself to the limit of your disability. If you just sit back, you will never know what you can do.

"If I didn't persevere, I think I wouldn't have enjoyed my life so much. I made the best use of what I have and I'm quite proud of it."

Life, as Teo has shown, is not a matter of holding good cards - but having the ability to play a poor hand well.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2015, with the headline 'Sailing brings second wind in fresh chapter'. Print Edition | Subscribe