Sporting Life

Pair of trailblazers share historic links to Olympic firsts

If Cheyenne Goh is feeling a trifle nervous about tussling with the world next year in South Korea as Singapore's first Winter Olympian, she should give Tang Pui Wah a call. Ask her out for lunch. Listen to her story. Find encouragement and solidarity in the tale of Singapore's first female Summer Olympian who this year was celebrated in an outstanding documentary.

Is it possible for an 83-year-old and an 18-year-old to find commonality? Sure it is. First, they're part of a sisterhood of speed: Tang hurdled her way to an 80m bronze at the 1954 Asian Games while Goh skates in smooth, soundless circles around a 111.12m rink for 1,500m. When I asked the latter if she likes to go fast, she could have been speaking for Tang.

"Yeah," she said emphatically, with a grin as wide as a rink.

Second, these women belong to a rare tribe of trailblazers who know that sometimes to be the first is harder than just coming first.


Above: Short track speed skater Cheyenne Goh, the first Singaporean to qualify for the Winter Olympics.  ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Trailblazers don't just open doors, they kick them down and discover worlds beyond for everyone else in their nation. They redefine athletic boundaries and journey literally to new sporting geographies. In Brenda Er's revealing and sensitive documentary When The Stars Align, Tang recounts how she flew to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics via India, Pakistan, Egypt and Italy on a propeller plane. Goh will be reassured her jet to Pyeongchang will have fewer stops.

Trailblazers build the first rungs of any history, setting up a scaffolding on which everyone else climbs. Joseph Schooling won an Olympic gold medal on his own, yet in a way he was standing on the shoulders of Neo Chwee Kok, the first Singaporean swimmer ever at an Olympics. Just another trailblazer clearing a little bit of the path.

These women belong to a rare tribe of trailblazers who know that sometimes to be the first is harder than just coming first.

In Er's documentary there is a lovely moment when Mary Beatrice Klass, 81, speaks of the day she, a young sprinter, read about Tang's Olympic journey and told herself, "Wow, if they can do it, why not me? Maybe I can do better". In 1956, she became the second Singaporean woman to reach the Olympics.

Goh, the skater, is part of this great Singaporean sports story, a reality maker, a path finder, a gift giver. Singapore might have a single Olympic-size rink, but in one qualifying swoop she's offered a sweaty nation the possibility of an icy future.

When barriers fall, belief comes. In 1988, the four-man Jamaican bobsleigh team qualified for the Winter Olympics but did not finish; six years later they came 14th, ahead of Russia and the US.

Trailblazers become inadvertent evangelists, their deeds make us look at their sport and learn about it, for we have never quite met such a tribe. And so Goh, who moves with the elegance of a dancer to music, is forcing us to watch YouTube speed-skating videos and consider how much tactical problem-solving they do at very high speed.


 Tang Pui Wah now aged 83, was the first Singaporean woman to qualify for the Summer Olympics at the 1952 Helsinki Games (above). ST FILE PHOTO

Trailblazers are also built of a particular strain of steel, refusing to be handcuffed by handicaps. Tang qualified for the Olympics even though she was "self-taught" and there is something powerful and poignant when she says in the documentary, "I felt that I had a powerful energy that I was unable to express... there was no coach to guide me".

Goh is fortunate to have four-time Olympic champion Chun Lee Kyung, from Korea, as her tutor, and she is tougher than her giggles might suggest. Skaters live on a very fine edge. On turns they tilt as low as MotoGP riders, balancing on carefully sharpened blades and powering themselves with thighs which in the legendary Eric Heiden's case measured 29 inches.

Goh wears an outfit which has an in-built neck-guard, ankle-guard, shinguard and has cut-resistant material under the arm, in the lower back and insides of the thigh. Moving at nearly 50kmh, in a jostling pack, a skater's blades can become a weapon. But ask her about falling and her answer is classic:

"It's disappointing."

In 1952, Tang didn't own a TV; in February 2018, we will be watching Goh on ours. But even as times change, nothing can dilute the triumph of trailblazers. It's why these athletes of summer and winter, of spikes and skates, should meet for lunch to exchange stories. Two remarkable women who can never be equalled, but can only be followed.


 Tang Pui Wah now aged 83 (above), was the first Singaporean woman to qualify for the Summer Olympics at the 1952 Helsinki Games . ST FILE PHOTO

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2017, with the headline 'Pair of trailblazers share historic links to Olympic firsts'. Print Edition | Subscribe