Singapore's 1st Olympic rower Saiyidah overcomes tough conditions to advance to quarter-finals

Six days a week, Saiyidah Aisyah wakes up at 4.30am and cannot wait for the pain that lies ahead. Training is gruelling work seen by no one and felt only through sore muscles. Find out what drives Singapore's first Olympic rower.
Singapore rower Saiyidah Aisyah competing in the singles sculls yesterday. Her time of 8min 44.71sec allowed her to place third in her heat and qualify for the quarter- finals on Tuesday.
Singapore rower Saiyidah Aisyah competing in the singles sculls yesterday. Her time of 8min 44.71sec allowed her to place third in her heat and qualify for the quarter- finals on Tuesday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Saiyidah overcomes tough conditions in heat to finish third and advance to quarter-finals

Faced with choppy waters she had never competed in before, Saiyidah Aisyah had to improvise, adapt and most of all, row like she had never done before.

The Singaporean was already the country's first Olympic rower and the trailblazer continued her remarkable journey by reaching the quarter-finals of the women's singles sculls at the Rio Games.

Her time of 8min 44.71sec might have been almost a minute slower than her personal best but the only number that mattered was three, the position she finished in heat 4 under the scorching sun at Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas in Copacabana.

It was good enough to see her join the heat winner, China's Duan Jingli (8:18.57), and Swiss Jeanine Gmelin (8:28.10) in the quarter-finals where the top three from the six heats will square off on Tuesday.

Saiyidah, who dropped her hands in exhaustion and looked skywards after crossing the finishing line of the 2,000m race, said: "This was one of the toughest races of my life. The water was so choppy, especially at the halfway mark. I had to row using only one side to make sure I didn't cross into the other lane on my left."

WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT

He told me I've come this far and there's no reason why I can't finish in the top three. I kept repeating that to myself throughout the race.

SAIYIDAH AISYAH, Singapore national rower, on the advice given by her coach Alan Bennett for the race.

The waters were so rough that she even had to think out of the box and use her spare socks to remove water from her craft - soaking up the water and squeezing it on the side - minutes before her race.

The sight of capsized Serbian men's pair Milos Vasic and Nenad Bedik in a later race further illustrated the testing circumstances.

She clung to the last-minute words of encouragement from her Australian coach Alan Bennett, particularly in the final 500m when Chinese Taipei's Huang Yi-ting was threatening to overtake her.

 

She said: "He told me I've come this far and there's no reason why I can't finish in the top three. I kept repeating that to myself throughout the race."

The 2013 SEA Games champion is used to adversity. Her form dipped in 2014 and she moved to Sydney last year to train full time with faint hopes of qualifying for the Games.

The 28-year-old, who left her job as a Student Development Officer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic in August last year, even took to crowd-funding earlier this year to fund her training expenses after using up most of her life savings.

Flashing the widest of grins, she told The Sunday Times: "It's been an amazing experience and I'm so proud to represent Singapore and I really hope this (her participation in the Olympics) will inspire others."

She was equally pleased about beating the other two participants in her heat, Huang (8:51.74) and Kazak Svetlana Germanovich (9:34.15).

Saiyidah had lost to both women at April's Asia and Oceania Continental Olympic Qualification Regatta but earned her Olympic spot after winning the B final.

She remains on track for her goal in Brazil, a top-24 ranking among 32 participants. She has progressed to the next round as the 16th fastest competitor.

The top three from the four quarter-finals will advance to the semi-final while the rest proceed to the C and D division alongside winners from the repechage stage to decide the rankings from 13-24th.

Such complex permutations will have to wait though. Sayidah had attended Friday's opening ceremony and returned to the Games Village only at 1am. Her bus to the rowing venue left five hours later.

She said with a chuckle: "I'll return to training tomorrow morning and get myself ready for the next race. But all I want to do now is go back and sleep."

After a performance like that, it is a richly deserved nap. And chances are, the dreams would be especially sweet.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 07, 2016, with the headline 'Calm in choppy waters'. Print Edition | Subscribe