Cancer could not stop Zhu from coaching Singapore gymnasts to SEA Games glory

Even as she grew weak from cancer, coach Zhu Xiaoping managed to guide Singapore's gymnastics team to a first gold in last year's SEA Games group all-around competition.
Even as she grew weak from cancer, coach Zhu Xiaoping managed to guide Singapore's gymnastics team to a first gold in last year's SEA Games group all-around competition.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

SINGAPORE - Taking pride of place in the living room of a four-room flat in Sengkang are a thousand paper cranes strung and hung over a television.

Painstakingly made three years ago by Singapore's rhythmic gymnasts, the origami cranes were meant for their coach Zhu Xiaoping, or "Zhu lao shi", as she is affectionately known.

Unrelenting in her training, authoritative yet not authoritarian, she is beloved by her gymnasts. The cranes, or senbazuru, have their roots in a Japanese legend that grants a wish from the heavens to one who folds a thousand cranes.

Today, Zhu is unsure if there will even be a tomorrow. Suffering from Stage 4 colon cancer, her doctor could not tell her if she will recover or how much time she has left.

But even as she grew weak from the illness, her dedication and commitment to her sport never wavered as she guided the Singapore team to a first gold in last year's SEA Games group all-around competition.

"I'm not somebody who can tell when my body needs to rest, and I'm very focused, so I find it difficult to slack off. It's as if I've sold my life to the sport," said the 56-year-old in Mandarin, whose hair is thinning from chemotherapy but who still sounded full of energy.

For her selfless dedication, Zhu will be one of two recipients - along with marathoner Ashley Liew - of a special award at the Singapore Sports Awards next Thursday (June 23).

Minister for Social and Family Development and Singapore National Olympic Council president Tan Chuan-Jin visited Zhu at her home Friday (June 17) morning and praised her.

He said: "Coach Zhu Xiaoping put her athletes and Singapore Gymnastics' interests above her own health and served selflessly to help them prepare for the 28th SEA Games. Her dedication to sport is admirable."

When Zhu was first diagnosed with cancer, it had already spread to her liver and lymph nodes. But she felt compelled to help the gymnasts when their coach left abruptly in December 2014 for personal reasons as it was only six months to go before the Games.

Unfazed by the task of preparing the athletes within a short span of time, the Jiangxi native led the girls in training up to six times a week in the lead-up to the Games.

The intensive sessions bore fruit when the historic gold was won and she was given the job permanently.

However, the cancer spread to parts of her womb and stomach lining last July.

"How could I be happy? I felt that my condition had worsened so I was prepared for it. I decided to treat it like the flu. Now I live every day like it's my last," said Zhu.

Ann Sim, who was part of the gold-winning team and had been trained by Zhu since 2007, remembers how the coach tried her best not to let her condition affect her handling of the team.

"Her stamina during training was different, but the standards she demanded from us remained the same," said the 21-year old student.

"Her style and attitude did not change, and she was always very dedicated to the sport and strict with us during training."

Zhu's love of the sport and her athletes is apparent when one walks around the Sengkang flat she shares with husband Lin Zhenqiu and their 28-year-old daughter.

Lining multiple walls of the flat are numerous photographs from her time as a coach, from the beginning of her career in China at the age of 20, to her arrival here in 2007, and to the first Youth Olympic Games in 2010, when she led Singapore to a fifth-place finish in the group all-around event.

Lin was the national coach of Singapore's men's artistic gymnastics team, but his contract was not renewed upon expiring last month.

"It pains me to see him at home without anything to do, because he was doing a fine job coaching the men's team and they won five medals at last year's SEA Games. Now we have no income so we have to rely on our savings," she lamented.

Choy Kah Kin, the president of Singapore Gymnastics, said the association is "exploring job opportunities" for Lin to assist the couple as they "have contributed a lot".

Zhu will be undergoing a more intensive round of chemotherapy in two weeks.

To pass her time, she plays with her neighbours' children every morning while occasionally knitting plush toys. Despite not coaching them any more, she also meets her gymnasts for meals.

She said: "It's difficult for me now that I cannot work, and my days are probably numbered.

"For us coaches, the sport is always the most important. But at the end of the day, there's nothing you can do without a healthy body. All your dreams will be meaningless without it."