Home in focus: Beyond winning, DB Hearts dragon boat challenge promotes social inclusiveness

DB Hearts dragon boat challenge promotes social inclusiveness through water sports

"Are you ready? Attention... Go!" With the blast of an air horn, Team DragonSail GoGoGo paddled furiously down the waters of Marina Bay in the 22-man dragon boat competing in the DB Hearts Challenge 2019.

Freelance massage therapist Benson Loo's mind was blank as he shouted out the strokes, focused on listening to the sound of the drum, feeling the water and keeping to the paddling rhythm.

Mr Loo, 39, saw just a white glare and a moving blur of objects and shadows. Out of breath and arms strained, someone suddenly shouted that they had finished the 200m race.

"Huh? Finished already?" Mr Loo exclaimed, as he let out a whoop and pounded his side of the boat.

Next to him, his partner Bernard Chew, 49, asked: "How did we do? Where's the boat?"

What the pair did not know then was that the team had won its heats, setting a personal best time of 57.20sec. They were two of the eight visually impaired members of Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH) who teamed up with 14 able-bodied volunteers from the organisation and DB Hearts.

They went on to win two gold medals - in the "DB22 Adaptive Open" and "DB12 Inter-generation Open" - but to Mr Loo, winning was a bonus.

"Even though I could not see, my heart was already smiling because I knew by counting the strokes that we achieved our aim of going below a minute for the first time," said Mr Loo, who had trained since July for last month's competition.

Mr Loo was diagnosed with Usher syndrome 10 years ago, a condition characterised by partial or total hearing and vision loss that worsens over time. His eyesight and hearing started deteriorating rapidly in 2016.


A former systems engineer, he was invited to join the dragon boating team last year by a friend after volunteering at SAVH, where he is now chairman of the sports and wellness committee.

DB Hearts Challenge began in 2017 and aims to allow all social groups, including those with disabilities, to enjoy water sports.

Other organisations that competed included Society Staples, the Breast Cancer Foundation and corporate teams from Ernst & Young and Decathlon, among others. An estimated 350 participants across 26 teams competed across five race categories, with more than 30 who are differently abled.

PAssion WaVe joined the event as a co-organiser for the first time, as it is committed to providing opportunities for inclusive water sports through various programmes and events such as the Let's Play series, which fosters greater social inclusiveness through waterfront lifestyle programmes.

Mr Loo was grateful for the chance to participate, challenge his physical limits and prove that paddlers with disabilities are as good as able-bodied ones.

"Even when I was sighted, I loved water sports, just that I did not get to experience dragon boating. I like fast-tempo sprints and the thrill of the sport. I imagine that it's like racing in an F1 car," he said with a laugh.

It was almost poetic that as the team crossed the line first, even though he could not see, it was against the backdrop of the skyline and Formula One paddock that says "Singapore. Home of F1 Night Racing".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2019, with the headline 'Beyond winning'. Print Edition | Subscribe