Asian Games: Joan Poh keeps rowing against the tide

Joan Poh’s bags are packed and she’s ready to row for the Asian Games – ready for Tokyo 2020 even, looking ahead to the Olympics as the ultimate goal.
Joan Poh’s bags are packed and she’s ready to row for the Asian Games – ready for Tokyo 2020 even, looking ahead to the Olympics as the ultimate goal.PHOTO: COURTESY OF JOAN POH

JAKARTA - Forget win, lose, placing. Forget wind, form, rival. Forget what you can't predict. In heat 1, lane 2, at JSC Lake in Palembang this morning, rower Joan Poh knows there is only one guarantee in her 2,000m single scull heat.

Pain.

Pain like you'll never meet. Pain from repetitious movements that only cross-country skiers would know. Pain that's sustained and screaming and which starts around the 50th stroke of a race that lasts 240 to 250 strokes. "In the last 250m," says Poh on Saturday (Aug 19), "you have to sprint and it's excruciating but it's just mental. You switch on a different engine.

"The mind has to tell the legs it is taking over. These may be cliches but I will say to myself, 'pain is temporary'. I will say, 'embrace the pain'."

Welcome to the Asian Games. Say good morning to struggle. Say hello to suffering. And let's also say it's rather useful that Poh is a nurse. What she's going through in the water is nothing compared to what she's seen in a ward.

All Games are a multi-nationality, magnificent mishmash of feats, failure, creativity, errors but at their heart lie personal stories. Of humans trying to run their own race. Trying to finish what they began as kids, trying to race from an unknown village to a famous podium, trying to chase down not just Asia but their elusive best self.

But no athlete embarks on a single race and neither does Joan Poh. She rows against pain, against rivals and towards a finish line not just 2,000m away but 5,622km away in Tokyo in 2020. "The Olympics is the ultimate goal," she says. "Everyone has a chance."

Even her. Or maybe especially her.

This 27-year-old who started with dragon-boating, shifted to sailing and settled finally on sculling. This child of struggle, who tells you, matter-of-factly, "You know the tale".

The one where her parents got divorced early and she lived for a while with her grandparents. The one where she says "we struggled to put food on the table". The one where she explains "we could choose either tuition or swim class and the choice is evident". The one which, she says, "makes you more resilient. You don't take things for granted and you appreciate what you have".

This is also her race. The brave one against the tide.

After a year of squeezing in training between shifts at the renal unit of Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Poh took unpaid leave and temporarily trained full time. Under the spexGlow scheme she is entitled to be reimbursed for some lost earnings, but still devotion has come with debt.

Loans for her university studies, loans from friends who she says "I am fortunate to have", loans that she plans to pay off by returning to nursing after these Games. People can debate her choices but can't fault the determination of her drive.

Athletes are powered not just by muscle but by causes, by improbable missions and ambitious quests, by history they must make and hardship they must defeat. It's an urgent race to prove a point. To the critic, to their tribe or just themselves.

And so Poh races to be fast but also to send an inspirational message: That sport in Singapore is not merely for the privileged and that even those without resources have the same dreams and deserve support. "I am trying to show you can do it even if life is not easy and unfair. And that even if you don't have a good start you can finish strong."

As athletes this fortnight scrap and bleed, fly and fail, one thing is clear: they are exercising a choice. Poh tells me this repeatedly. "I do not see the struggle as sacrifice," she says. "I am not complaining because this is my choice," she adds.

Her story is not about pity but about pride and purpose, not about sympathy but about strength, not about barriers but about breaching them.

"There's a quote I relate to which says: 'What you are going through right now is preparing you for what you asked for.' And I asked for the Olympics." And for the pain that comes to her alone on the water.

She is the only Singapore rower who made it here and her "sense of satisfaction and pride" is like a light wind behind her. Sport has always tested her and pushed her but it has also embraced her. "It has empowered me as a person. It has changed me, it has showed me the world."

Some races, you see, Joan Poh has already won.