SINGAPORE - First impressions usually fade from memory but in the case of tandem para-cyclist Steve Tee and his pilot Ang Kee Meng, their first meeting remains a memorable and humorous one.
"Can I feel your legs?" was one of the initial questions Tee, who is visually impaired, posed to a surprised Ang in May 2017.
Recounting that encounter, Tee, 39, chuckles and tells The Straits Times: "My former coach (Christian Stauffer) told me not to worry because Kee Meng is a big and strong guy with big legs so he will take care of me.
"When we met, I was curious so I asked if I could touch his leg. I think he was a bit shocked. When I felt his leg, I was also a bit shocked, so we were both shocked in different ways.
"After that and after riding with him, I felt like I could trust him and we can race together. He's like a mentor to me and he has lots of experience in cycling. He will share tips on how to improve my weaknesses."
In tandem para-cycling, a visually-impaired athlete, called the stoker, is paired with a sighted counterpart, or the pilot.
Ang, 34, is a former national track cyclist. He said: "When I first met him, he was very quiet and shy. Subsequently, I tried to break the ice and he started telling me his stories.
"He's quite a funny guy so it's quite fun to go out and ride with him. He's like a funny older brother."
A friendship and successful partnership has since blossomed - they claimed a bronze in the 24.6km individual time trial at the 2017 Asean Para Games in Kuala Lumpur and last year finished third in the 4,000m individual pursuit (B) at the 9th Para Asian Track Championships in South Korea- with the pair set to represent Singapore at next year's Tokyo Paralympics.
On Thursday (Dec 3), the pair will be announced as the first local athlete ambassadors for Bridgestone Asia Pacific, which has donated more than $160,000 towards their equipment, training and competition costs.
Other national para-athletes who are supported by corporate partners include para-swimmers Yip Pin Xiu (Citi Singapore) and Toh Wei Soong (BP Singapore and Toyota Motor Asia Pacific) as well as para-archer Nur Syahidah Alim (BP Singapore).
BP had also supported four-time Paralympic medallist Yip and Paralympic bronze medallist Theresa Goh for the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
Paul Choo, Bridgestone's vice-president of human resources and corporate social responsibility, said: "The pandemic has only heightened our athletes' resilience as their dreams have only been delayed, not denied. Their unwavering commitment and positive attitude are an inspiration to us all as we navigate these difficult times. We are very proud to be part of their remarkable journey."
In June, Tee left his job as a supervisor at a call centre to train full-time. He trains 18 to 23 hours a week, while Ang trains more than 25 hours.
They usually go for two or three training camps overseas a year for one to two months each time and are planning for one in Perth next year.
In 2004, Tee was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa which his doctors said would lead to total or near-total blindness. When he first heard the news, he was devastated and shocked as he could no longer play his favourite sports like football and cycling.
"I went into a state of isolation for about three weeks," recounted Tee.
The turning point came when one day, he was awakened by the sound of thunder and realised that he was very hungry as he had not eaten the whole day.
As there was no one and no food at home, Tee grabbed an umbrella and bought himself a packet of chicken rice from a stall that was a 10-minute walk from his home.
"I realised that if you're hungry, you will find a way to protect yourself from the storm and get food," he said. "Likewise, if you're hungry, you can overcome any kind of adversity or challenges you face in life.
"I continued my hunger for life again and focused on solutions."
By end-2008, he graduated with a double major degree in computer security and networking and eight months later, landed his first job in a call centre.
In 2015, he captained Singapore's five-a-side football team for the visually impaired at the Asean Para Games on home soil before switching to tandem cycling in 2017.
At the Paralympics next year, Tee and Ang hope to improve their personal best timing of 4min 47.414sec in the 4,000m event set last January.
Ang added: "Hopefully, we'll be able to inspire other younger people with disabilities and get them out to the light.
"It's about telling people that if Steve can do it, I'm pretty sure anyone who has a will can do it as well."