Olympics: No pain, no gain for rower Joan Poh

Joan Poh finished in a time of 8min 31.12sec in the women's single sculls (2,000m) at the Tokyo Olympics, on July 23, 2021.
Joan Poh finished in a time of 8min 31.12sec in the women's single sculls (2,000m) at the Tokyo Olympics, on July 23, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO – It is uncomfortable on Friday at the Games and this is even before the suffering begins. Before Joan Poh is tested in her boat on her first Olympic outing. Before her head fills with a chatter she has to find a way to rise above.

So what do the voices say?

“(That) it hurts. But then you go, ‘I can take more’.”

But how much? For how long? From the runner who feels he has nothing left to the weightlifter who is staggering under a load, this is going to be every athlete’s challenge at these Games.

The Sea Forest Waterway, site of the rowing, is artfully named but is a testing place because it’s hot. Burning, sapping, irritating hot. Some distance away at the archery, Russian competitor Svetlana Gomboeva faints. Here, the stands shine and the water glitters. Outdoor sport can be mean and rowers must sneer at the regulated temperature of badminton halls.

And the real hurt has not even begun yet.

Joan Poh is rowing in Heat 2, Lane 4, at 9.40am on her first day at any Olympics and of course she is in pain. This is not new but it is just that rowers are an unusually smooth class of masochists. When a race is over, they might lie back exhausted or fold in two, but as they glide their faces show little.

In Singapore a few weeks ago, Laryssa Beisenthal, Poh’s Canadian coach who has a neat haul of Olympic and world championship medals, has a sweet answer when asked about what people don’t know about rowing. She likens it to swans and ducks. Legs working so hard, yet all you see is the grace.

In a tent near the water, rowers are cycling in two tidy rows. Warming up in the heat. To be very polite their thighs remind you of a small forest of miniature tree trunks. But then they need to be tough because this repetitious sport constantly asks for it.

Baron de Coubertin, the father of this athletic celebration, once famously said: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part.” Yes, but it is also about going to the edge and sometimes over. It is about no regret. It is about leaving everything out there.

Vomit, for instance. Or other things from within.

Before the 1964 Games in this city, Robbie Brightwell, a 400m runner, tells Sports Illustrated that all he knows is that “on a certain day in mid-October I am going to run my bloody guts out”. He did. He came fourth. By .10 of a second.

You cannot see the build-up of lactic acid and so you have to imagine what athletes go through. You might see brilliant things at these Games and it will be mostly because athletes push past pain. They do not negotiate with it, they just wear it and accept it and fight through it. As Biesenthal, neatly explaining what it is all about, says: “Who finds more within. You got to be a little crazy on race day.”

So, and this is hardly a criticism of Poh – who has soldiered for years, sacrificed, rowed and nursed a dreamed, travelled and tried – but maybe she was not crazy enough on her first day at the Olympics. 

The race plan on Friday is for her to have a negative split (second half of the race faster than the first) or at least be even, but – to be fair there is a headwind – she cannot sustain it. Her first 1,000m is 4:07.72, her second is 4:23.40. There is no need to tell her about the numbers because she felt it.

Later, Poh responds with a clear honesty when I ask what the lesson of her first Olympic day is.

“Sometimes, the pain we perceive does not necessarily translate to the speed that we want. There’s a certain speed I’m chasing and with the pain that I was experiencing I was not able to get it. So in order to get the speed I want I need to be able to put up with more (pain). Be able to push for more. And that’s what I will try to do in subsequent races.”

Poh is doing exactly what nations wish for from their athletes. Learning. Gathering experience. Collecting information. When our chat is over she points to a plastic folder filled with papers which she is holding. Homework, she says.

Early on Saturday she gets to row again in the repechage and she’ll want to do what every athlete does with a second chance. Be better. Get faster. Find that negative split. Wear the agony longer.

The first race was not perfect, but that is human and that is the past. Let us just call it the growing pains of a first-time Olympian.