Rowing: Victorious Saiyidah wins berth for Rio

National rower Saiyidah Aisyah with her gold medal after winning the B final of the 2,000m women's single sculls at the Fisa Asia and Oceania Olympic Qualification Regatta to secure her Olympics berth.
National rower Saiyidah Aisyah with her gold medal after winning the B final of the 2,000m women's single sculls at the Fisa Asia and Oceania Olympic Qualification Regatta to secure her Olympics berth. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SAIYIDAH AISYAH

Resilience pays off after she sweeps B final to become first S'pore rower to make Olympics

When Saiyidah Aisyah crossed the finish line there was no raised fist, gleaming smile or whoops of celebration. She had just finished the 2,000m women's single sculls B final at the 2016 Fisa Asia and Oceania Continental Olympic Qualification Regatta in first place.

But it was not only the eight minutes she took to finish the race that drained her; the past eight months had taken such a toll on her she did not have the energy to even think about what she had accomplished.

It was only when the rescue boat crew told her about her first-place finish that she began to understand she had just created history by becoming the first Singaporean rower to qualify for the Olympics.

Her time of 7min 53.13sec was just 1.09sec ahead of Thailand's Phuttharaksa Neegree-Rodenburg.

"My first thought when I found out I had qualified was 'finally'," she told The Straits Times over the phone from Tangeum Lake in Chungju, South Korea where the regatta was held. "All the years of training, all the pain, it's so worth it. I'm so relieved."

PUSHING HER LIMITS

I was really tired in the middle of the race, but I kept telling myself to sprint, to go faster. My coach said it was one of the most consistent races I have done.

SAIYIDAH AISYAH, Singapore national rower, on her single sculls B final race at the 2016 Fisa Asia and Oceania Continental Olympic Qualification Regatta.

Of the seven Rio berths available at the regatta, six went to rowers from Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Taipei and Vietnam, who qualified via the A final. In order to seal the last qualifying spot, Saiyidah had to win the B final.

She rose to the occasion. In fact, she has only ever gone faster once, in the regatta heats last Friday. In the first repechage, she clocked over eight minutes. Her final time was 20 seconds quicker than her semi-final time of 8min 13.13sec.

In the final, Saiyidah built up a healthy 4.49sec lead over the other five finalists in the first 500m.

"I wasn't expecting to be in the lead at the start, as the other rowers in the field had fast starts in the previous rounds," she said.

Said Saiyidah, whose Facebook page was flooded with congratulatory messages from the public after the race: "I was really tired in the middle of the race, but I kept telling myself to sprint, to go faster.

"My coach said it was one of the most consistent races I have done."

It has been a long road for Saiyidah. She moved to Sydney in August last year to train full-time. She also had to turn to crowdfunding earlier this year after depleting her life savings to pursue rowing.

But she will no longer need to rely on the goodwill of the public to fund her sporting dreams. She was recently awarded the Sports Excellence Scholarship, under which athletes receive a monthly stipend between $1,200 and $8,400. Athletes under the programme also receive assistance in areas such as competition, training and equipment.

This will provide Saiyidah with a welcome boost as she looks to compete in other rowing events in the run-up to Rio, such as the World Rowing Cup held in Poland from June 17-19 this year.

Razemin Omar, head of training and development at the Singapore Rowing Association, said: "This is a milestone for Singapore rowing. We now hope to work with Sport Singapore to help her gain exposure in Europe. We want her to do her best at the Olympics and set a mark for Singapore."

For now, Saiyidah's immediate priority is recovery.

"I want to rest for a while before I sit down with my coach and talk about what happens next," she said. "It's really amazing, qualifying for the Olympics."

After the long journey she has taken to reach this point, it is little wonder she needs more time to fully comprehend what she has done.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2016, with the headline 'Victorious Saiyidah wins berth for Rio'. Print Edition | Subscribe