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Bowling wunderkind striking out on his own

Cheah Ray Han, 16, is the youngest champion of the national Open, and the first to hold both senior and youth titles at the same time.
Cheah Ray Han, 16, is the youngest champion of the national Open, and the first to hold both senior and youth titles at the same time.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Each time national bowler Cheah Ray Han steps onto a lane, his eyes are trained on the small space between the No. 1 and No. 3 pins, his mind willing his right hand to hook his 15-pound ball into that strike pocket.

Do it with the right amount of strength, at a precise speed and angle, and 10 pins will fall.

Perfection.

The 16-year-old is no perfectionist, but willed himself to find this sweet spot enough times over the last fortnight to make history.

He first became the youngest men's winner at the National Bowling Championship, before claiming the national youth title last Friday. He is the first bowler to hold both titles concurrently in the 47-year history of both competitions.

ROAD LESS TRAVELLED

It's not what typical 16-year-olds or most of my friends do, but I consider what I do unique. I don't want to be the same as everyone else.

CHEAH RAY HAN, national bowler, on choosing the path less taken, that of an athlete.

For someone who started off at age six finding the gutters at Orchid Bowl, the national title is something Ray Han has dreamt of claiming since he found himself drawn by the kick of competition at 10.

But rising to the top, in a sport with no shortage of talent in Singapore, would involve work, sacrifice and perhaps most crucially, time.

The Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) student certainly did not expect to edge out older, more experienced team-mates in only his second year as a national bowler, and certainly not after he had taken a two-month break from training to focus on preparing for his O-Level examinations.

"The national championship is a prestigious title," said Ray Han, who sat for his final paper a day before the event final. "When you stop training for an extended period of time, you can lose your feel and your physical game can suffer."

SingaporeBowling's home base at Temasek Club is familiar territory, but the environment felt different this time. After all, he has been more acquainted with exam stress than the nerves of competition recently. He said: "I'm usually quite comfortable going into competitions but it just felt a bit foreign this time."

Ray Han reckoned avoiding giving himself undue pressure - while keeping the belief that despite his youth, he has what it takes to contend - that was key to the best fortnight of his budding bowling career so far.

Fittingly so, given his challenging year of balancing the strain of elite sports and studies.

There were raised eyebrows and scepticism when he continued participating in overseas tournaments, spending as long as three weeks at a time preparing for major events like the World Youth Championships in Nebraska. His mid-year examinations results suffered, and he even missed his preliminary examinations.

"It was really difficult," recalled Ray Han, who often can only start on homework when he reaches home after training around 10pm.

"It's not what typical 16-year-olds or most of my friends do, but I consider what I do unique. I don't want to be the same as everyone else."

Little wonder, then, that Ray Han counts Jason Belmonte as his favourite bowler. The Australian found his way to the top of the bowling world, including winning the World Masters Championships in 2007, using the rare two-handed technique, despite countless attempts by others to convert him to the "normal" way of bowling.

Ray Han said: "Bowling is something that's been my passion since I was young and I really don't mind taking a different route from my friends.

"I also have close friends in the national squad so I'm not really missing out on anything."

His eyes are trained on the lanes because he has a bigger goal in mind, one that he knows will take more work, sacrifice and even more time.

Each time he strides up to the lanes aiming to find that pocket, it is a step towards the ultimate target - becoming a world champion.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2016, with the headline 'Bowling wunderkind striking out on his own'. Print Edition | Subscribe