Rio Olympics 2016: 9 days to go : Singapore's class of 2016: Leonard Ong

Olympics: Self-belief conquers waves of uncertainty

Leonard Ong manoeuvres his sail between tables at the East Coast Lagoon Food Village. His Olympic awareness was initiated by Norwegian three-time Olympian Jannicke Stalstrom, who challenged him to pursue bolder dreams when she worked with young Singaporea
Leonard Ong manoeuvres his sail between tables at the East Coast Lagoon Food Village. His Olympic awareness was initiated by Norwegian three-time Olympian Jannicke Stalstrom, who challenged him to pursue bolder dreams when she worked with young Singaporean windsurfers in 2009. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

The Straits Times profiles some of Singapore's 2016 Olympians to show how far they have come. The fourth story in the series of seven focuses on windsurfer Leonard Ong, who once struggled to believe he had what was needed to become an Olympian.

To have faith is to hope for something and be assured that aspiration will become reality.

The first part of that equation never troubled Leonard Ong. Like most athletes, he is driven by an appetite for more and has spent countless hours at sea because he harboured hopes of accomplishment.

But when it came to self-belief, it was in short supply.

The records show that the 23-year-old windsurfer campaigned twice to qualify for the Olympics, achieving success on his second attempt. But on each occasion, truth be told, he did not feel worthy of becoming the Olympian others thought he could be.

It is perhaps unsurprising that it was another Olympian who first seeded the idea of the Games in Ong. Norwegian windsurfer Jannicke Stalstrom, who competed in three editions from 2004 to 2012, challenged him to pursue bolder dreams when she worked with the Republic's young windsurfers in 2009.

"She saw it as a possibility for us," recalled Ong. "But to us, the Olympics have always just been a dream that we aimed for and wanted, but never really thought was possible."

QUELLING THOUGHTS OF FAILURE

I wanted to try too, but your mind will question you: 'Is it realistic? Are the Olympics really something I can attain?' I was afraid to fail.

LEONARD ONG, Singapore's first Olympic windsurfer since the late Kelly Chan in 1984.

He rationalised this disbelief. Singapore has a credible reputation as a sailing nation - but in dinghies. Windsurfing's heyday goes back to the 1980s, when the likes of Kelly Chan, a former world No. 1 and a 1984 Olympian, reigned.

Said Ong, the first windsurfer since the late Chan to qualify for the quadrennial event: "We're Singapore. Which windsurfer has qualified for the Olympics? I wasn't even born in 1984. It didn't feel possible."

  • SAILING

  • FIRST OLYMPICS

    • Jack Snowden (1956, Finn, finished 14/20) • Edward Holiday, Kenneth Golding, Robert Ho (1956, Dragon, 16/16)


    BEST PERFORMANCE

    • Colin Cheng (2012, men's Laser, 15/49)


    A HISTORY

    • Singapore was represented even before Independence.

    • Most of the representatives have been dinghy sailors, with the exception being the late Kelly Chan, former world No. 1 windsurfer, competing in the windglider in Los Angeles 1984.

    • Colin Cheng achieved a breakthrough result in London 2012 when he finished 15th out of 49 in a Laser fleet that is widely considered one of the most competitive classes.

    • This is the biggest sailing squad Singapore is fielding at the Olympics.


    TEAM SINGAPORE

    Men

    • Colin Cheng (Laser)

    • Leonard Ong (Men's RS:X)

    • Justin Liu (Nacra 17)


    Women

    • Amanda Ng (Women's 470)

    • Jovina Choo (Women's 470)

    • Denise Lim (Nacra 17)

    • Elizabeth Yin (Laser Radial)

    • Audrey Yong (Women's RS:X)

    • Griselda Khng (49er FX)

    • Sara Tan (49er FX)

But athletes strive and sweat in silence without a guarantee of when or if progress will come, so he gave it a shot anyway. Tried, travelled to qualifiers, and allowed himself to trust - just a little - that he could make the cut for London in 2012.

But instead of celebration, results told him point-blank that he had fallen short.

Reality hit hard. Ong enlisted for national service next and did not sail competitively for almost two years, limiting his involvement in the sport to teaching others the ropes.

He said: "It was more of self-awareness. You know where you stand. After you go through one cycle, you know there's more that needs to be done."

But Ong could not resist the thrill of competing on home soil, and so picked up his board again in 2014 to prepare for the SEA Games.

He was forced to labour in his comeback, for by then, the sail seemed as heavy as lumber. But the athlete does not do things half-heartedly, so he deferred business school at Nanyang Technological University for a year and immersed himself in training.

  • MY SPECIAL PLACE: EAST COAST LAGOON FOOD VILLAGE

    440000

    POSTAL CODE

    It may be a food centre and not a sailing centre, but the East Coast Lagoon Food Village symbolises many sailing firsts for Leonard Ong.

    It was in that area where he had his first training camp and also where he competed in both his first local and international regatta.

    The coffee lover has also enjoyed many a cuppa there, digging into hearty meals with team-mates after training.
    He said: ''We often go there for lunch and dinner. It's just something that's been a constant.

    Leonard Ong manoeuvres his sail between tables at the East Coast Lagoon Food Village. His Olympic awareness was initiated by Norwegian three-time Olympian Jannicke Stalstrom, who challenged him to pursue bolder dreams when she worked with young Singaporean windsurfers in 2009.

    ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

What began as a campaign for a regional event evolved into a push for the Olympics when again, someone else - this time coach Sakda Sakulfaeng - saw potential in his pupil.

"Coach was really the one who saw a chance," said Ong. "I wanted to try too, but your mind will question you: 'Is it realistic? Are the Olympics really something I can attain?' I was afraid to fail."

Fear and doubt were compounded by the fact that by the end of last year's SEA Games, it was a silver medal that constantly reminded Ong he was at best, second-best.

But what he lacked from not sailing at the elite level for two years was compensated for by the experience he gained from helping others learn the sport during this time.

He said: "I came back (to the sport) different - a more mature person and a better sailor. I learnt that if I wanted something, I had to do something about it.

"Teaching others taught me how to structure my own training and how to motivate myself."

The Asian Championships in Abu Dhabi were a last-chance saloon for Ong's Rio hopes; make or heartbreak yet again. It should have been when he hungered most for that ticket to the Olympics - and it was - but it was also when he was least burdened by what was at stake.

In teaching himself to just enjoy the regatta, he earned bragging rights after securing one of two qualification berths, becoming Singapore's first male Olympic windsurfer since Chan.

Not that these labels change much for Ong, who said: "It all sounds very nice. But I just want to live my own dream, to just go to the Olympics, and be there.

"It doesn't matter if it was 32 years ago or four years ago that someone else did it."

Among the precious lessons windsurfing has imparted to Ong, the education in self-belief remains the most valuable.

He said: "I know that I've made it to the Olympics not by luck - but by hard work, by merit, by counting on the people who believed in me rather than those who doubted."

By leaning not on the limitations of his own doubt and instead learning to trust, Ong's impossible path is now his reality.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2016, with the headline 'Self-belief conquers waves of uncertainty'. Print Edition | Subscribe