National paddler Jason Chee says he was hyperactive in his younger years, always engaged in some sport, be it javelin, football, swimming and, as we know him for, table tennis.
Even today, he seldom stays still.
The 35-year-old Team Singapore athlete is currently training for the Chiang Mai Para Table Tennis Thailand Open 2018 next month — rigorous three-hour sessions thrice a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
This is in addition to his job as a training specialist at Changi Naval Base, looking after his retired 76-year-old dad, aspiring to add baked goods to his prolific repertoire of home-cooked specialties, going for karaoke sessions with his friends and even volunteering during his free time.
It is a schedule that few of us can keep; and it is all the more awe-inspiring given that Mr Chee lost both legs, left arm and three fingers in a naval ship accident in 2012, and right eye removed due to a rare cancer just last year.
Mr Chee’s voice on the phone is steady and exudes a quiet confidence.
“All along, I have been very positive,” he recalls. “It’s been six years (since the accident) already; if I feel down, if I feel like giving up, I shouldn’t be here already. I always say to myself, ‘Never give up’. I still have to live on, for my future and to take care of my dad.”
His father, a former vegetable seller, would forgo family holidays to concentrate on his work. From him, Mr Chee learnt perseverance.
From his late mother — a no-nonsense woman who started sending her only child for enrichment activities to broaden his horizons when he was just three years old — Mr Chee picked up resilience, uprightness and valuable life skills.
As a boy, he also had to accompany her to cooking classes at the community centre, and her love for whipping up a good meal rubbed off on him as well.
She died from kidney failure in 2011, and it was a big blow to him, but he soldiered on.
Even after the mishap in 2012, he bounced back after 14 months of rehabilitation.
During his stay in Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s (TTSH) Rehabilitation Centre after the accident, Mr Chee did not dwell on his predicament, but instead helped infuse his positivity into other patients.
For instance, in 2013, he paid daily visits to a patient in her late 60s who lost her limbs to diabetes and also suffered from kidney problems.
“Every day, I would visit her in her ward to talk to her, motivate her and buy her food to cheer her up. Eventually, not only were her spirits lifted, but her daughter and her sisters’ as well,” he reminisces.
He continued to visit her even after she was discharged, until her death a year ago.
Last year, he met a young man in his mid-20s, who lost both his legs and fingers to a bacterial infection.
Mr Chee coaxed him to go for his physiotherapy sessions, lifted his spirits and candidly answered all of the young man’s questions. Today, the youth has been discharged from hospital and plays wheelchair rugby.
For Mr Chee too, returning to sports was the perfect panacea.
“It helps me stay positive,” he says. “Sports can improve my personal well-being, both physical and mental.”
Mr Chee, who used to be on his primary school table tennis team, naturally returned to the game competitively, and soon clinched his first win — two gold and one silver — in the 2013 National Disability League, Class1/2 Singles & Doubles (Open/Close), Team.
Two years later, he was representing Singapore — and winning medals — in the Asean Para Games in 2015.
What was amazing was that the former left-hander did it with his right hand.
Not only did he have to train his non-dominant hand, but he also had to find a way to miminise the “dead zone” on his left as he could not turn his wheelchair.
Thanks to the support of his coach and the sports science and biomechanics team, Mr Chee uses an elastic harness that secures him to the wheelchair, allowing him to reach further for the ball.
Mr Chee’s dogged determination and indomitable spirit has always seen him through tough times, even when he lost his right eye just six months before the 2017 Asean Para Games.
His depth perception and field of vision were affected, but he was unfazed. Again, he focused on the task at hand, working on adjusting his play style. The strategy: turning his head to the right to accurately see the ball when executing forehands.
The result: A gold medal in the men's singles Class 2 round robin event at the 2017 Asean Para Games in Kuala Lumpur.
As a member of the TTSH Amputee Support Group since February 2013, Mr Chee helps with its monthly activities that include seminars where he shares his experiences and leads excursions to attractions like Gardens by the Bay. He also organised a table tennis rehabilitation session with volunteers from Catholic High School.
“Our group provides support, motivation and sharing. Most importantly, as a fellow amputee, I lend them my strength,” he says.
He was also part of the pioneer team that kick-started the twice weekly table tennis therapy sessions for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients at Ren Ci Nursing Home.
For his unwavering spirit, selflessness and contribution to society, Mr Chee is one of this year’s recipients of the Singapore Youth Award.
He was nominated for the award by the Singapore Disability Sports Council, and Mr Chee says the accolade was an unexpected but happy surprise.
Happiness is important to him. He says: “Do something that makes you happy, every day.”
Like he does: karaoke sessions, cooking, watching a movie with friends, or just chilling.
For more information on the Singapore Youth Award, visit sya.sg