2016 Paralympic Games: 4 days to go

Paralympics: Not afraid to get the ball rolling

Nurul learns Korean because of boccia and is first Singaporean Paralympian in the sport

Singapore is sending 13 athletes to the Sept 7-18 Rio Paralympics. The Straits Times takes a look at several of these representatives - how they manage to rise above their disabilities and how they train to compete with fellow Paralympians, as well as their hopes and aspirations

Boccia (pronounced 'bot-cha') player Nurulasyiqah Taha - known to her friends as Nurul - methodically lists the limits of her "weak arms" in a matter-of-fact manner.

She cannot lift her arms fully. She cannot make elaborate hand gestures - the extent of her arm strength is confined to making limited movements with her wrists. She cannot hold up, much less throw, a ball.

Born with spinal muscular atrophy, a disease which gradually steals a human being's physical strength, the 31-year-old is wheelchair-bound.

But despite those "weak arms", Nurul has managed to master boccia and empower herself. And even learn a new language along the way.

Speaking to The Straits Times on the sidelines of a training session at the OCBC Arena, Nurul revealed the reason behind her decision to learn Korean was boccia.

Recalling her regional debut at the 2009 Asia & South Pacific Boccia Championships in Hong Kong, she said: "That was when I first encountered the Koreans, and I realised they were the Asian powerhouses in my category.

  • FACTS ON THE SPORT

    All players compete in wheelchairs. Players must throw or roll coloured balls onto a smooth, flat surface. The coloured balls must land as close as possible to a white target ball known as a jack. The player, pair or team with the most balls near the jack is the winner.


    Team Singapore at the Rio

    Paralympics: Nurulasyiqah Taha, Toh Sze Ning

    Category: BC3 (Sept 10-16) There are four sport classes in boccia from BC1 to BC4. Those competing in the BC3 category have significantly limited limb function and poor or no trunk control. Athletes in this class use a ramp and other assistive devices to roll the ball.

"Because of my weak arms, I can only make limited gestures; I can't use much body language, so I thought I'd better learn the language so I can communicate with them and pick up tips.

"And it worked, because we managed to arrange a training camp with the Korean team in 2014."

At the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, South Korea's Choi Ye Jin and Jeong Ho Won bagged the gold and silver medals respectively in the individual BC3 category, which is Nurul's event.

It was after Nurul clinched a silver in the individual BC3 category at the 2009 Asia & South Pacific Boccia Championships that the thought of competing at the Paralympic Games first occurred to her.

And when she won a bronze medal during her first international competition at the boccia world championships in Portugal the following year, "that's when the dream became a bit more real".

That dream materialised two years later, when she became the first Singaporean boccia representative at the 2012 Games. There, she competed in the individual BC3 category.

STRONGER THROUGH SPORT

Because of my weak arms, I can't even hold up a ball. But with the help of the assistive devices and the sports assistants, who help me execute my shots, I'm empowered to make my own decisions.

NURULASYIQAH TAHA, Singapore boccia para-athlete, on how boccia has changed her.

The BC3 sport class is for athletes with significantly limited function in their limbs, with poor or no trunk control. Those competing in this category use a ramp and other assistive devices to roll the ball onto the court.

Now, the tax auditor, who is currently on a sabbatical, is entering her second Paralympic Games from Sept 7 to 18 in Rio de Janeiro.

At this year's Games, she will not only compete in both the individual and pairs BC3 categories with partner Toh Sze Ning, but also run for a place on the International Paralympic Committee Athletes' Council. The elections take place from Sept 5 to 16.

Nurul is the only Singaporean and only boccia player among the 22 candidates, and she hopes to raise the council's awareness of para-athletes who need more support.

"Athletes like boccia players and those who are visually impaired have high support needs, because they have competition partners," she said.

"They also require a lot of assistance with daily activities, and this is a unique group of athletes whom I feel can be better represented on the council."

It has been a long journey for Nurul, who first picked up the sport in 2004. She never imagined she would compete at such high levels, adding that boccia had initially piqued her interest as it was a sport she could play.

She said: "Through boccia, the first thing I felt was the intense empowerment. Because of my weak arms, I can't even hold up a ball.

"But with the help of the assistive devices and the sports assistants, who help me execute my shots, I'm empowered to make my own decisions."

Even with her "weak arms", Nurul has propelled herself across the world and, apart from empowering herself, also inspired others.

She volunteers at the Muscular Dystrophy Association Singapore, and hopes her stories of travelling to compete continue to inspire the children there.

"They get quite excited when I share my experiences with them," said Nurul. "When they see that I can play sports and travel, I think that's something they also want to experience for themselves.

"So I hope that through the sharing of my experiences, the kids become more open to options and are more willing to try new things."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2016, with the headline 'Not afraid to get the ball rolling'. Print Edition | Subscribe