On his travels, patience is the greatest weapon

There are no short cuts in life or in sport for Eric Ting, a wheelchair racer who has since turned to table tennis. "When you don't have a choice, you learn the hard way," he says of his physical limitations.
There are no short cuts in life or in sport for Eric Ting, a wheelchair racer who has since turned to table tennis. "When you don't have a choice, you learn the hard way," he says of his physical limitations.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

A journey of pain and gain: An athlete's life encompasses sacrifice, sweat and overcoming obstacles. For many of the 157 who will represent Singapore at next month's 8th Asean Para Games, even their daily commute is a challenge. To kick off The Straits Times/The Sunday Times' build-up, we explore the literal and metaphorical journeys of five para athletes as they traverse the island to train, in pursuit of their sporting dreams

Eric Ting, 43, table tennis

Spinal cord injury

Out of the lift of a nondescript building emerges the bespectacled, ordinary man. Just like you. And yet, extraordinarily, nothing like you. He's an F1-watching, football-addicted, tennis-viewing, cricket-interested sports junkie. Used to race around a track. Now smacks table tennis balls with felicity and fury. Just another athlete on this island.

Except Eric Ting, 43, is in a wheelchair. Sure, go ahead, look. Just keep a lid on the pity.

 
 
 
 

It's 5pm, Wednesday, Ang Mo Kio. The Asean Para Games are two weeks away and he's off to practice at the Sports Hub, a journey which will take more than 45 minutes and encompass seven lift rides, sundry slopes, two trains, one road crossed. He doesn't need your help but he'll nudge you into good manners. "If someone's in their own world in the train," he grins, "I'll knock their heels with my chair to make them give way."

His chair is his chariot and once it used to have wings. Hunched over, hands pounding at the wheel, he ate up the earth as a wheelchair racer. He won multiple Asean Para Games medals and qualified for the 2008 Paralympics and now he misses the "intensity" and "the brute strength" of raw racing. But at these Games, with fewer races, he's opted to compete in table tennis. Here only the ball spins, not wheels.

Evening is falling slowly and he moves unhurriedly, snaking through side lanes, sliding through AMK Hub, up onto the platform, grateful for improved infrastructure which allows for mainly unobstructed travel. On some days, on a slope, people simply push him up without asking. This day, some people stare but others smile. "They've seen me around," says the part-time trader. Just one of them.

His fingers are disobedient, some of them stiff, some gnarled and twisted like the branches of a Joshua tree. Slowly he hooks a finger into a zip, unzips his bag, frees his MRT pass. It takes roughly 30 seconds. Everything in life takes time because he works to his own clock. Thirty minutes for a bath. Two hours to get ready. Patience is his pal. Or as he laughs: "When you don't have a choice, you learn the hard way."

The train rumbles into the station, the doors open, he rolls in, turns his chair, reverses and parks more fluently than many Singaporeans. He faces the crowd as calmly as he has learnt to confront life. Before him down the tracks is his destination, Stadium station, behind him is a journey that 18 years ago careened abruptly off the rails.

A long Australian night in 1997. A tired Ting at the wheel. His eyes close, a car rolls, an expedition ends, a life alters. One moment he is a snake-skinning, roller-blading commando, next morning he awakes to a life at a standstill. He is a tetraplegic with no sensation from the chest down. His four friends are hurt but will walk and only his mode of transport will forever be a chair on wheels.

In Shakespeare's Othello, Iago says: "What wound did ever heal but by degrees." Ting repairs himself slowly and sport is part of his glue. A local physiotherapist recommends the playing fields and they are the ideal place to find challenge, healing and purpose. "I was competing, interacting, setting goals and travelling. I never thought I'd get to the Paralympics (in 2008). I never thought I'd be in the stands to watch Yip Pin Xiu win gold and hear the Singaporean anthem in Beijing."

Ting sits erect in the train, hands on lap but never letting go of optimism and humour. Some days people will converse with him, other days kids will ask "what happened?" and mothers will go "shush". But he, happy to engage, sometimes teases: "I'm just too lazy to walk."

Singaporeans swirl around him and, like us, he is a collector of experiences. One day, he daydreams as he exits the carriage, forgets to raise his wheels while crossing the gap, hits it, tilts forward and falls, the chair inside, he outside, and people gather to assist him. Another time he waits with a lady from Canada who is pushing a pram and people board without any concern for them and, left outside, she shakes her head and tells him: "This would never happen back home."

As the train gently rocks, it is balance he craves from his fellow citizens. "Even if you don't make way for me, I am not concerned," he says. He is one of us, not more, not less. He doesn't crave special treatment though he would not mind courtesy. On this day, he finds it. People are conscious of him, they arrange space, he glides out of Stadium, into Kallang Wave Mall, slaloming past the tables of the food court where the old ladies know him and sometimes bring him his food.

He can't hold a spoon like you, he cradles it in a unstable arch formed by three fingers. He can't pick up a plate, he nudges it towards him. Life blocks him, he finds a way; the world obstructs him, he improvises. At the table tennis table, his legs are bound to the chair so he doesn't fall, he uses his teeth to pull on a glove, then a racket is tied with a velcro band to his hand.

Practice will begin at 7pm and last till 10pm and he waits for these Games which are a test, a celebration, a meeting place, a perspective finder. He talks of a Japanese athlete without arms who holds his tray and feeds himself with his feet. He speaks with awe of the Federeresque grace of Thai wheelchair racers. He mentions the predicament of severely disabled athletes from families with little means and says with great distress: "What will happen when their families are gone?"

Outside, a silent darkness; inside, a brightly lit room in the Singapore Sports Institute where a sports scientist is lecturing the table tennis team on psychology. Toughness may be a redundant subject for these folk. Ting anyway listens, he engages. Much of his body cannot move and yet he is a man of so many engaging parts. All day he has negotiated malls, traversed stations, hit balls, an adventurer meeting life in a wheelchair. It is only his means of locomotion, but never his prison.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 22, 2015, with the headline 'On his travels, patience is the greatest weapon'. Print Edition | Subscribe