Nominee #4: Jason Chee (para table tennis)

Para-sports: Jason Chee is trumping life as well as opponents

Para athlete Jason Chee, who lost three limbs in a naval accident in 2012 and an eye to cancer in 2017, won an individual gold medal in table tennis at the 2017 Asean Para Games.

Never-say-die attitude helps him overcome setbacks and demons for APG gold in KL

With practised ease, Jason Chee retrieves a leather case from a bag hanging behind his wheelchair and grips the case between his teeth.

He unzips the case with his right hand, slips his bat in and replaces bat and case in the bag.

Any of the five or six people standing around him at the para-table tennis training facility at the Singapore Sport Institute would have been happy to help, but more than winning matches or medals this is what the 35-year-old does best - adjusting to life's setbacks and getting on with the resources left to him.

Already without both his legs, left arm and three fingers on his right hand after an accident at work on board a ship in 2012, the navy serviceman was diagnosed with cancer last year and had to have his right eye removed in May.

Yet, just four months later Chee claimed the men's singles Class 2 gold medal at the Kuala Lumpur Asean Para Games (APG) that had haunted him since a runner-up finish at the previous APG in 2015.

The para-table tennis player is still able to recall vividly the last exchanges of the pivotal 3-2 victory (11-8, 11-7, 7-11, 5-11, 11-9) over Thai arch-rival Thinathet Natthawut, who beat him three years ago.

"When I was down 2-6 and 7-9 in the final set it gave me flashbacks of 2015. I told myself, do I really want to get silver again and just to fight and play one ball at a time," said Chee, who is one of five nominees for The Straits Times Athlete of the Year award.


Para-table tennis player Jason Chee, the men's singles Class 2 winner at last year's Asean Para Games, taking a break during training. He is looking forward to the Asian Para Games but is realistic about his medal chances. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

"At 9-9 I took a towel-down and thought about the next two balls he is going to serve and what kind of ball I am going to give. At 10-9, he gives me a high ball, I smash the ball and I win the match 11-9. Mission accomplished. Mind stable, heart stable and I remove my flashbacks."

Chee's first APG title came despite the loss of depth perception and some peripheral vision along with his right eye.

"The most important adjustment I had to make was to train myself to always turn my head to my right to see the ball more. Before, with two eyes, I just had to keep my head straight," he said. "My forehand is also my weak point, so with my coach's guidance he trained my forehand and focused on hitting balls to my right side."

Chee's former coach Chia Chong Boon, 66, had initially doubted his charge's chances of avenging the 2015 defeat after learning of Chee's operation to remove an eye.

"Under those circumstances, winning a gold was even harder. If you lost to an opponent with two eyes, how can you hope to come back and win with just one? But Jason did it, and from a losing position too," said Chia, who retired after the KL APG, having spent eight years in charge of the para-table tennis team.

"For that reason I feel his gold medal is more precious than most."

Chee is looking forward to October's Asian Para Games but is realistic about his medal chances.

"The Asian Para Games is one level up so I have to continue to train hard. I haven't set any targets - the Asian level is very challenging and there are many strong opponents from (South) Korea, China and Iran who are ranked in the top 20," said the world No. 54.

"I'm very happy to represent Singapore at minor or major Games, so if I am able to qualify, that will already be a blessing."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2018, with the headline 'Trumping life as well as opponents'. Print Edition | Subscribe