Not brought to his knees

Above: Tan Xiang Tian, with a family friend, in his younger days when he was pudgy and mocked by others. Left: The fighting-fit Tan who won gold at World Wushu Championship last month.
The fighting-fit Tan who won gold at World Wushu Championship last month. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Above: Tan Xiang Tian, with a family friend, in his younger days when he was pudgy and mocked by others. Left: The fighting-fit Tan who won gold at World Wushu Championship last month.
Tan Xiang Tian, with a family friend, in his younger days when he was pudgy and mocked by others. Left: The fighting-fit Tan who won gold at World Wushu Championship last month.PHOTO COURTESY OF TAN XIANG TIAN

Wushu exponent Tan has surgery on both knees and goes on to shine on senior stage

Three years ago, Singapore wushu exponent Tan Xiang Tian found himself at a crossroads. He had just torn his right anterior cruciate ligament in training.

The pain in his knee was excruciating but that was not all.

At the hospital, the specialist found that Tan had also torn the ligament in his left knee. Until now, the 23-year-old has no idea how the damage occurred. But the occasional sharp pains and frequent buckling suddenly made sense.

Back home, his mother pleaded in tears for him to give up wushu. His relatives and friends advised him to take his health seriously.

A ligament can be reconstructed, they said, but what if it happens again? Is it worth it?

Tan, who won a xingyiquan (compulsory) gold medal at the World Wushu Championship last month, recalled: "It was a really difficult period. I was also wondering if I should stop. After all, I had given the sport everything.

"It was worse when I can't even do simple things like going to the toilet by myself, or the times when I saw my mum crying, knowing it's my fault that she's suffering," added Tan, who also clinched a nanquan (compulsory) silver at the world championships in Jakarta.

But, the affable man said, what hurt more than the pain was how things seemed so simple and easy at the start.

When he was 12, Tan's parents advised him to pick up a sport because, as the James Cook University psychology student readily admits, he was way overweight. He candidly shared photos of his pudgy old self with The Sunday Times to vividly illustrate his point.

During physical education lessons, he would run out of breath easily. In pick-up basketball games, he was jokingly called "the ball".

He quipped: "Back then, you couldn't even see my neck!"

He chose wushu. He grew up watching Jet Li's movies and aspired to fight like the action star because "I want to silence the bullies".

A year and a half after he started training, the results started to show. He gained not just a leaner body and an improved self-esteem, but also a love for the sport.

"I learnt wushu partly because I could fight the bullies. But it taught me the opposite, like respect, humility and discipline. It's really like a (new way of life), and I really enjoyed it," said Tan, who won a duilian barehand gold on his SEA Games debut this June.

In 2006, he was drafted into the national youth squad after finishing third in the Schools National Wushu Championships. Two years later, he made the senior team.

But in the next seven years, he only had an Asian Youth Championship bronze to show for his effort.

He dropped out of junior college in 2010 in a bid to compete at that year's World Youth Championships. But he did not make the cut.

Still, he kept plugging away.

Fast forward to 2012, and Tan, with his ravaged knees, needed to decide if he was willing to give up chasing his passion six days a week, two hours each time. He found sagacity in national coach Yang Ning.

He said: "Coach Yang told me injuries are part and parcel of a sportsman's career. I can and will recover. The question was: In a few years' time, will I regret not sticking with the sport because of this setback? That was when I knew I couldn't give up wushu."

So he went under the knife in 2012 for his right knee, and again in 2013 for his left. Three months after each surgery, he was back at the national training centre in Braddell Heights Community Club working on his upper body. He was also employed as a hotel concierge for a year to pay for his operations.

In 2014, he made the SEA Games squad. After enduring a barren spell since 2008 on the senior stage, Tan found success at the SEA Games, and last month, at the world championships.

His parents are now also supporting his dream. Said Tan: "The main takeaway from all these was to persevere and keep an open mind.

"Life is uncertain and there are many things we can't control.

"But what we can do is put in the best effort in everything we do."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 13, 2015, with the headline 'NOT BROUGHT TO HIS KNEES'. Print Edition | Subscribe