No more sinking feeling

Bernie cast off fears, disappointment to land Youth Olympic Games gold

It was not smooth sailing initially for Bernie Chin who feared being attacked by a shark, stung by jellyfish or stranded out at sea all alone.
It was not smooth sailing initially for Bernie Chin who feared being attacked by a shark, stung by jellyfish or stranded out at sea all alone. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

IT WAS 4pm on a scorching Tuesday and Singapore sailor Bernie Chin, 15, was aboard his dinghy, practising drills he could do with his eyes closed.

Coach Tracey Tan, looking on from her safety boat, sensed his boredom so she decided to challenge her prodigy.

"720, on two whistle blows," she yelled out, meaning his task was to turn his craft 720 degrees.

It seemed like a routine drill - until a wave crashed in and the dinghy almost capsized.

But Bernie clung on and turned to grin at his coach, as if to say: "Is that all you've got?"

Dealing with adversity is almost second nature to the Raffles Institution student, who missed almost 100 days of class last year owing to national team commitments.

To understand Bernie the "tiger", as Tan calls him, one needs to look beyond the affable, smiling and easy-going teenager, and go back to the beginning.

When he started sailing as a curious nine-year-old, he often lagged behind the fleet.

Said the avid cyclist: "I was very bad and many times I dropped way behind the group."

And when a storm was looming and winds would hammer his sail, Bernie would scream in fear.

He was afraid of being stranded at sea, worried that his boat would go belly-up without anyone noticing, and fearful the boom would suddenly swing and knock him out.

He dreaded getting stung by jellyfish or prickly catfish and, above all, being bitten by a shark.

The struggles continued even after he became a national sailor at 11.

At last year's Byte CII World Championships, he was the leader in one race and the finishing line was in sight.

But he capsized at the death.

By the time he recovered, every competitor had overtaken him.

Still, bit by bit, skill and experience over the years helped him overcome these obstacles.

All these prepared him for the demands of the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) last year.

Well, almost.

Entering the event brimming with confidence, Bernie suffered a disastrous opening day.

His first two race results read: 21st out of 30, and DNF (did not finish).

He said: "I felt I had let down my parents, my coaches, my training partners and everyone who had helped me throughout my career."

Sitting on the banks of Jinniu Lake in Nanjing, China after Race Day One, head in his hands and tears rolling down his cheeks, Bernie, who had to lose 4kg in two weeks to hit the optimal competition weight, allowed himself one moment of weakness.

Then, he responded the only way he knew how to.

"I had nothing to lose. Even if I couldn't win, I wanted to know that I'd given everything to reach the top," he noted.

He ended up in the top five in the remaining six races, including three straight top-two finishes.

With that turnaround, he won the regatta, the YOG gold and a place in Singapore sporting history.

The feat also bagged Bernie a nomination for The Straits Times Athlete of the Year award.

Said the bubbly teenager: "It's my greatest achievement but the YOG is just the first step.

"There are more races to come. I have to keep getting better."

He is now bidding to qualify in the laser (radial) category for the upcoming SEA Games here.

As the day's training wound to an end, he dragged his dinghy on shore.

The skin on his palms was peeling but a gym session awaited him.

Tan asked if he wanted to skip gym. "I'm not tired," he countered.

But that is the essence of Bernie. Even if he does not say it, his gaze in the face of adversity seems to say: "Is that all you've got?"

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