Singapore's class of 2016: Saiyidah Aisyah

Singapore Olympian Saiyidah Aisyah propelling herself past pain and solitude

The Straits Times profiles some of Singapore's latest Olympians to show how far they have come. The final story in the series of seven focuses on rower Saiyidah Aisyah, who had to conquer her own doubts and hurdles before she qualified for Rio.

Saiyidah Aisyah, bronzed and muscular, opens her slim, long hands, studies her palms and laughs as she helps me count calluses. Right hand, eight. Left hand, nine. Hard, dead skin. Peeling skin. Blistered skin. Her hands may not seem pretty, yet they speak evocatively of every rower's toil. These are not the smooth, creamed, manicured hands of the paper pusher. These are the rough, honest hands of the labourer.

Six days a week she glides across water on an 8.2m carbon-fibre shell. It's a lovely, beguiling picture except what you can't see, especially in races, is the pain. As George Yeoman Pocock, the rowing philosopher, wrote: "Once the race starts there are no time-outs, no substitutions. It calls upon the limits of human endurance."

The 2,000m single-scull race takes her seven brutal minutes and 44 agonising seconds at her best. It requires 240 strokes. By the 40th stroke it will start to hurt. Everything will hurt. But you have to ride the pain and wear it, you have to wake up for it and train for it.

"Rowing is lonely," says the first Singaporean rower at an Olympics. "You're on your own. It's you against yourself. How much do you want to give? You're tired but how much do you want to continue?"

One day on the rowing machine she does a 2km test. While on the water her coach can't tell how hard she's pulling, here he can see the speed, note the power, for here is a "true reflection of your strength". She rows, she hurts, she lies down, she can't even lift her phone. You can do anything, she will learn over the years, but you cannot stop in rowing.

Saiyidah Aisyah was a self-confessed "nerd", used to be immature, is fiercely intense, quite funny and rather passionate. And passion is a beautiful thing, it runs wild, it drives you nuts, it freaks people out, it propels you towards your goal.

 

So she was the straight-A student who wept when she got Bs.The rower who would "throw a tantrum after a poor training run". The competitor who, on being rejected initially for the spexScholarship and Peter Lim scholarship, met officials and wept and asked why, because she wanted it so badly.

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    It is a few minutes' trek along a gravel road to reach the Singapore Rowing Association, tucked away in a secluded spot of the reservoir.

    The walk is a time of reflection for Saiyidah Aisyah, who started rowing 12 years ago, and is usually in the water, training, by daybreak.

    She says: "No one really uses this road so it's very quiet, which is nice because I can be alone with my thoughts and focus on what I want to do when I get into the scull later."

She'll always be emotional but swears she's calmer, a role model, too, especially for those in minority sports. When a woman rugby player thought of opting out, unable to balance work and play, Aisyah wrote to her and said, "You're young, don't be afraid of taking risks".

She knows because she took one herself. Through her uneven travels - gold at the 2013 SEA Games, last at the 2014 Asian Games, bronze at the 2015 SEA Games - she dipped into her savings, even crowdfunded, just to go to Sydney and train without distraction and test herself against finer rowers, all the time challenged by a sign on her mirror which read:

Do You Have What It Takes To Be An Olympian?

In the head of every athlete, voices incessantly argue. You can't. You will. Doubt speaks up. Faith answers. Fear comes calling. Tenacity pushes back. This is the struggle. Not to find the inspirational voice, but sometimes just to discover silence.

Saiyidah Aisyah knows this struggle for she was "very good at training but couldn't translate (that form) in competition". On still waters she was without calm. "I freak out at the start," she says. She'd think about other rowers, think she's never beaten them, think how angry her coach would be if she doesn't do well.

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    • Saiyidah Aisyah (2016, women's single sculls)

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    • Saiyidah Aisyah (single sculls)

    WHEN SHE COMPETES

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It's why on her wall in Sydney she pasted a large sheet of paper whose messages were recommended to her by a mental skills coach in Singapore. It was a banner of faith, a poster of conviction, which read:

I am strong.

I am dedicated.

I am a fighter.

On it went for 35 points, all meant to trigger her confidence. It's one thing to row a boat fast, it's another to race it with conviction.

In Korea, during her Olympic qualification, her anxiety started to dissipate in the early races yet it was still there, slightly suffocating her talent. Till she had one last race, a B final race, a go-to-Rio race, a must-win race, and she needed to shake off the past, wipe away stress and just race - without getting in her own way. And because this is sport, which sometimes makes no sense, on the day that mattered she became a rower who mattered.

 

"I suddenly changed. I didn't have any performance anxiety. I had nothing to lose and I had fun and when I have fun I perform at my best." Her head wasn't completely empty, but it only had a single voice. "Push, push, push." Push from start to end. Push first stroke to last. One unadulterated effort which she calls "the best race I have ever done".

She blocked out everything till she got to the finish and then the adrenaline left and the pain came. "It was excruciating. My legs were numb. I couldn't walk." No, but she could race, and fight, and feel relieved that after 12 years and thousands of kilometres and a million strokes and so many tears that she had found her best self.

She had won, she had made history and she had got it right. But so had her housemate in Sydney, who even before Korea had taken a pen and scratched out the word "DO" on her poster, turning an old question into a proud statement:

You Have What It Takes To Be An Olympian.

Follow the latest Olympics 2016 news here at str.sg/olympics.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2016, with the headline 'Propelling herself past pain and solitude'. Print Edition | Subscribe