Beach volleyball: Singapore-raised teen charts unique career path

Kilani Daane, 16, who was born and raised in Singapore, has accepted a scholarship to Tulane University in the United States but hopes to don the Republic's colours one day.
Kilani Daane, 16, who was born and raised in Singapore, has accepted a scholarship to Tulane University in the United States but hopes to don the Republic's colours one day.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Singapore-raised student the first to play beach volleyball in NCAA competition

Kilani Daane may not hold a Singapore passport - not yet at least - but this teenager is already set to fly the Republic's flag in one of the world's most competitive collegiate tournaments.

The 16-year-old beach volleyball player, born and raised here, has committed to Tulane University in the United States after earning a scholarship to play for the Green Wave starting next year.

The New Orleans university compete in the top division of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships, making Kilani the first volleyball player from Singapore - indoor or beach - to compete in the prestigious competition.

Top-tier universities typically take in only about 12 to 16 players each year, with most recruits coming from within the United States. Kilani's breakthrough is all the more notable, given that she only made the switch to beach volleyball in late 2015.

Said Kilani, who started playing indoor volleyball when she was 12: "I've always known I wanted to play volleyball at the varsity level, and I made a promise to myself that I would do everything I could to be the best version of myself."

Added Kilani, who father is Dutch and mother is a Canadian of Chinese ethnicity: "I knew I was way behind everyone else and that I needed to work harder than I ever thought I would, to get to where I want to be."

Even if that meant setting up a badminton net in her driveway, practising every day after school, or being in the gym at 9pm on Friday nights.

It bore fruit - the 16-year-old finished in top place at the National Beach Volleyball Series last year, a three-leg Open tournament.

The family gives the Volleyball Association of Singapore, who invited Kilani to train with the national team, much credit for the progress.

Said mother Ursula Pong, a teacher at the Singapore American School (SAS) and who has lived here for close to three decades: "It's the training with the Singapore team that has helped get Kilani where she is. The core of her training has always been here."

It is why the teenager is looking to apply for Singapore citizenship, in the hope of donning national colours for the Republic on the international stage.

She harbours hopes of competing at events like the World Series and the Youth Olympic Games. As her father Marcel put it, she thinks about representing Singapore "every day".

The SAS 11th grade student may speak with an American accent, but in between bites of Cantonese-style polo buns and talk of yong tau foo, she says it is Singapore that she has always seen as home.

"Everything I've done in my life has been here. I consider this home, and it'd be great to be able to represent Singapore," she said.

The family is fully behind Kilani in seeking citizenship here, with her father now in the process of applying for permanent residency so that they can begin applying for citizenship for her.

Said Daane, who works in the fitness industry and has been in Singapore since 1994: "It's such a wonderful place to live in. Why not? We've lived here longer than we've lived anywhere else. It would be her choice - she chooses her home."

Despite the doubts of naysayers who doubted a beach volleyball player from Singapore could make it to the NCAAs, the Daanes hope their experience would rub off on other hopefuls.

Said Kilani: "People kept telling me, 'You're not going to make it. No way you can make Division 1 (in the NCAAs) from Singapore'."

Added her father: "We want other Singaporean kids to know that it's possible. Kilani's had to work really hard (but) you can do it from right here. You just need to have that mindset, that desire.

"I can't describe in words the kind of emotions you go through when it finally pays off, but the greatest learning lesson was that you can achieve anything as long as you work hard enough for it.

"And what a great lesson that was for a 16-year-old."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2017, with the headline 'Teen charts unique career path'. Print Edition | Subscribe