Olympics: Joan Poh still rowing miles in search of her distant Games dream

The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics by a year merely means that Singapore rower Joan Poh's finish line has been extended. For her, life and training will go on.
The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics by a year merely means that Singapore rower Joan Poh's finish line has been extended. For her, life and training will go on.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

SINGAPORE - Out in the unfriendly sun, no one is training with her but Joan Poh is pushing. No one is timing her but she presses on. "Keep looking for more pain," a coach once told her and she is searching for it on Wednesday (March 25) morning. It does not matter if her mood is gloomy, her intensity cannot afford to dip. So she pulls at her oars, skimming across the surface like a giant water strider.

It is the day after the 2020 Olympics are postponed and Poh is already chasing the 2021 Games. Someone has shifted her finish line but she does not know how to stop. Qualifying consumes her. Qualifying has led her to empty her savings, buy her own boat for $18,000, travel to multiple nations, hunt for coaches and cycle 30 minutes to training in the depressing wet and cold of Vancouver.

Rowing is not just a sport for Joan Poh, it is far more complicated. The boat is escape, joy, refuge and a vehicle to validation. This was a young girl who couldn't afford the food she wanted and later struggled with weight issues because she "ate for revenge". This was a kid who lived in a one-room flat with her two sisters, mother and stepfather.

Rowing mattered because rowing made her somebody. "I used sport as a means to fill a void," she says. "I had self-esteem issues and rowing gave me an avenue to get validation."

Poh, who has the rich tan of an outdoor athlete, does not know when the Games will be, but she has to find a way to get there. The Olympic qualifiers for 2020 were cancelled and there was talk, she said, they would go on past results. But now when will the qualifiers be? Now what method will they use?

"When will this virus clear?" she wonders. "Three months? Six? It's like there's no finish line but you're still running." Athletes design their lives according to set dates but this is a planet gripped by uncertainty.

Poh, 28, is a thinker, who chews on her answers before they emerge in long sentences. When we are almost done talking, I ask what inspires her and she says she will reply later. Next morning there is a 820-word document on "love" and "kindness" waiting for me.

She has the hard-working hands of a sporting labourer, pockmarked with calluses, and she laughs and says when she rubs her face it "feels like I'm giving myself a facial scrub". These hands do not just help to propel her - rowing, she asserts, is "60 per cent lower body, 30 per cent upper body, 10 per cent arms" - but they have also built opportunity.

There is no single route to an Olympics but hers has been a pot-holed road, to the point where a senior Singapore sports official has a single word for her: "Brave". A few athletes are lucky to have a steady coach, sponsors, ideal training partners, but others like her must battle for every inch of opportunity.

"Whenever I had a problem," she says quietly, "I looked for a solution. You find it in yourself to be more resilient, to be grittier." To understand what the Olympics mean to her is to consider the letters she has written, kilometres she has flown, miles she has rowed and trials she has embraced.

After the 2018 Asian Games, her Irish coach returned home and she trained in Hong Kong, then China, wrote to Fisa (rowing's world governing body), which arranged for her to train with the Greek national team and coach Giovanni Postiglione. Can she speak Greek? "I can be polite in it," she replies.

Postiglione charged nothing but loneliness has its own cost. There were flights, room rentals and a new boat, but there is no complaint, only a smile: "I always joke about how I have no house, no car, nothing, but I have a boat."

She got $3,000 a month through the spexGlow scheme - a grant for a loss of wages - but money dries fast under the sun. She returned to Singapore in May-June last year to work with a Thai coach but returned to Greece after "we both concurred that having a training partner and a structured training environment would be truly beneficial".

At the world championships last August, she met Canadian coach Laryssa Biesenthal, who agreed to tutor her in Vancouver for $500 a week. It was a hard step because the Canadian cold had a depressing sting but help came in the strangest of forms: A whole series of diagrams, drawn by her partner, which she stuck to her walls.

The drawings were of clock faces, which told a homesick woman the time difference between Vancouver and Singapore for every hour in the day. They were her connection to home, her link to her land. "It's the furthest I've been away from my family, but we knew I had to do it, no matter. I was able to look up at the wall and very quickly know what time it was in Singapore."

Struggle in sport is like a river that can't be dammed, it just keeps coming, and athletes have to stay afloat through pluck and enterprise. And so when Biesenthal, sadly, had health issues, Poh was again coach-less, again writing to Fisa, again asking about training possibilities.

She crowdfunded, raised $5,000 and in December journeyed to Melbourne. Another immigration stamp, another coach. He, David Ochert, did not charge and, even if living was steep in the city, at least she was learning. Then the virus invaded and this month she had to leave.

This beautiful, impossible voyage of hers to the Olympics, will it ever end? Will she ever get there? After all, she has loans to repay, is not sure if the spexGlow funding will continue and has no idea who will coach her. "Every time," she says, "it's like you're at a crossroads to decide if you will continue. The harder it gets, the deeper you have to dig."

You'd think she should keep rowing because a hard journey that has gone such a distance deserves completion. You'd think she should endure because battling on symbolises the optimism this beleaguered planet needs right now. You'd think she should finish her mission as thanks to those who helped her and as an example to those like her, who didn't have much but still tried.

But there's another complication, a call from her conscience, because she's a "front line-trained" renal nurse who says: "In this particular Covid situation I feel very compelled to go back to work. There is a shortage of nurses and I would think that it will be helpful to have an extra pair of hands."

At such a time, she wonders, how does she even ask her extremely supportive employers, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, for another year's leave? The choices of Joan Poh's challenging life have never been easy.

It is a strange time on Earth, with so few happy stories, and no one knows where this tale will go. But till she can, Poh will keep returning to the water and listening for perfection. Just by the sounds she hears - the cutting of the oars into and out of the water - she can tell if she is timing it correctly. On her best days, this is still her favourite music.