Asean Para Games: Navy man Jason Chee plots route to Tokyo

Navy man, buoyed by APG success, eyes qualification for 2020 Paralympic Games

Jason Chee, who won an individual silver at the Asean Para Games, had to learn to play with his right hand after his accident. Formerly a left-hander, he picked up the sport at five.
Jason Chee, who won an individual silver at the Asean Para Games, had to learn to play with his right hand after his accident. Formerly a left-hander, he picked up the sport at five. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Exactly three years to the day after the horrific accident that changed his life, Jason Chee is intent on looking towards the future and not the past.

The horizon, after all, is brimming with possibilities for the para-table tennis player as he aims to build on a historic gold medal at the recently-concluded Asean Para Games (APG).

The 32-year-old led the men's team to victory in the T1-2 class - the first time Singapore had won an APG gold in the sport - before adding an individual silver to cap a memorable showing for the hosts.

It was his greatest sporting achievement and a world away from the trauma suffered three years earlier. It has also galvanised Chee to dream bigger.

"I've set a five-year timeline for myself, which is to qualify for the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

"It's not an easy target but I am not the sort of person who gives up easily," he told The Sunday Times on Thursday - which happened to be Dec 10.

The date is significant to the navy serviceman. On December 10, 2012, he was working on board a Republic of Singapore Navy warship when he was caught between a motorised winch and a berthing rope.

He lost both his legs, left arm and three fingers on his right hand.

His misfortune moved a nation.

Within days, more than 800 people showed up at blood banks to donate O+ blood for his surgery.

More than $370,000 was raised to help him and his family.

The only child of a retired vegetable seller occasionally has flashbacks of the incident but "life goes on", a phrase he repeats many times in the 75-minute interview.

Table tennis has also given Chee renewed purpose in life.

At five, he picked up the sport as he and his neighbours substituted old notebooks for bats and sparred on a solitary table tennis table at a void deck in Shunfu Road,

"We only had one ball, which cost 10 cents, and there were about 20 kids standing around the table hitting the ball to each other."

He would eventually go on to represent Westlake Primary School.

Though he switched to the Boys Brigade while at Guangyang Secondary School, his love for the game remained.

He previously played left-handed and had to re-learn using his right hand, which has only two functioning fingers - his index and middle ones - aided by a prosthetic thumb.

After the various operations, his right arm was so weak that he "didn't even have the strength to hold a cup or my mobile phone up and would drop it", Chee recalled.

Hitting the ball while seated on his motorised wheelchair also proved a challenge.

Said national coach Chia Chong Boon, a four-time SEA Games gold medallist: "He's one of the most hard-working players.

"When training was three times a week, he wanted to come down five times. He's made a lot of progress in a short time."

For a man whose deeds have inspired many, Chee's own source of motivation comes from his fellow para-athletes.

During the months he spent in various hospitals, he watched - on repeat - videos of swimmer Yip Pin Xiu overcoming her muscular dystrophy to win gold at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.

Chee was amazed and the likes of Theresa Goh (swimming), Jovin Tan (sailing), Nurulasyiqah Mohammad Taha and Toh Sze Ning (boccia) were soon added to his YouTube favourites list.

He said: "What they were able to accomplish requires a lot of courage. I told myself one day I wanted to be like them, not to be a champion but just to play sports and overcome my disability."

Childhood friend Steven Boo, who was Chee's classmate in Guangyang Secondary, is not surprised at this resilience.

"Jason was always a determined person. He gives 100 per cent when he has a target he sets for himself."

That drive can also be found in the kitchen of the Housing Board flat Chee shares with his father.

Cooking had always been a pastime he enjoyed, a skill he picked up from his mother, who died of kidney failure in 2011.

He could whip up his favourite curry chicken dish in less than half an hour before his accident but now takes more than twice that.

To prepare the potatoes, he holds them down with a fork he places in his mouth. He grips the peeler with his right hand to strip the vegetable. He adopts the same method when cutting the meat.

"I can also cook seafood hor fun and sweet and sour pork," he said with a chuckle.

"It just takes more time."

Keeping to a schedule is second nature to the training operations supervisor in 191 Squadron, who is pursuing a part-time mathematics degree at SIM University and expects to graduate by 2017.

While his military career remains the main priority, he is also cognisant of his role as an advocate for para-sports in Singapore, particularly after the momentum generated by the Republic hosting the APG for the first time.

"The elderly, especially the ones with disabilities, I hope to show them that it's important to stay positive and not give up on life."

He also hopes that with the seven APG medals (a gold, three silvers and three bronzes) clinched by him and his team-mates, there will be greater financial support for the Table Tennis Association for the Disabled Singapore.

It was set up in 2010 with five players and now boasts a stable of about 50 paddlers.

"It shows we can compete in the region and if we work hard, who knows what we can achieve," Chee said firmly.

Fighting - and fitting - words from a soldier who belongs to a ship named Endeavour.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 13, 2015, with the headline Asean Para Games: Navy man Jason Chee plots route to Tokyo. Subscribe