Paralympics: Equestrienne Laurentia Tan takes Covid hurdles on road to Tokyo in stride

The lead-up to Laurentia Tan's fourth Paralympics outing has been riddled with many difficulties caused by the pandemic. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - A two-week break from training in Germany took an unexpected turn for Laurentia Tan in February last year, when the 42-year-old found herself separated from her coach and horses for over a year.

The para-equestrienne had wrapped up a regular training session and then headed back to Britain, where she is based, expecting to return soon.

But what was supposed to be a two-week wait turned into 15 months as the Covid-19 pandemic worsened, leaving her unable to travel out of Britain.

She could not train with her coach and horses, and for a while, all she could do were stretches and exercises at home to maintain her fitness and riding skills.

While she eventually got to train with another horse in Britain through her British coach's connections, it was not ideal and Tan was relieved when she finally managed to get to Germany in May, just three months before the Aug 24-Sept 5 Paralympics.

In an e-mail interview with The Straits Times, Tan said: "I missed my horse, my team and everything to do with riding so much.

"It is not only about keeping my fitness and riding skills but also riding, training and the bond I have with the horses that I compete with."

The lead-up to the veteran's fourth Paralympics outing has been riddled with many difficulties caused by the pandemic, including the lack of competitions and training opportunities.

Training time was cut as coronavirus restrictions saw the introduction of individual "bubbles" to ensure that there was no overlap between different riders, resulting in less time for things like grooming and warm-ups.

Tan's struggles were not only limited to the riding arena, as the equestrienne - who has cerebral palsy and profound deafness and relies on lip reading or seeing people's faces to communicate - found interaction with others a challenge owing to face masks.

She said: "Even with the face shields and the transparent masks, which tend to fog up, people have to step back to ensure social distance, remove their masks and then repeat themselves and that is time consuming.

"Regardless of whether it's spoken English or British sign language, I still need to lip-read or see people's faces. Of course, there are always other ways of communicating, typing on our phones, writing with pen and paper, but all are relatively more time consuming."

But Tan has tried to make the most of the situation and is looking forward to the Tokyo Paralympics, where she will take part in the Individual Test Grade I, Individual Freestyle Test Grade I and Team Test to Music events.

Tan, who won a silver and bronze at London 2012 and two bronzes at Beijing 2008, acknowledged that a closed-door Games will have a very different atmosphere and result in a loss of opportunity to promote the various sports.

She added: "Every Games has been amazing in their own ways. And I think, despite the pandemic and the restrictions, Tokyo 2020 will be a memorable one too.

"For Banestro (her horse), this will be his first major championships so Tokyo might be a big ask. We will give it our best shot... I am aiming for a new personal best for this partnership."

Laurentia Tan will take part in the Individual Test Grade I, Individual Freestyle Test Grade I and Team Test to Music events at the Tokyo Paralympics. PHOTO: SINGAPORE NATIONAL PARALYMPIC COUNCIL

Tan is also encouraged to see how far para-sports in Singapore have come since she made her Paralympics debut at Beijing 2008, where she won the Republic's first medal at the Games.

Back then, she was part of a six-member contingent, which included swimmer Yip Pin Xiu, who will also be competing in Tokyo.

In London 2012, there were eight athletes before a record 13 competed at the Rio Games. This time, 10 athletes across six sports will compete in Tokyo, with debutants in powerlifting and tandem cycling.

She is thrilled to see the diversity of the Singapore contingent and believes that the growing numbers reflect para-sports' development.

"It is not just the para-sport scene, but in Singapore generally, where there has been huge improvements in the provision of facilities for everyone to have equal access," said Tan, who plans to compete in Paris 2024.

"The Paralympics have definitely helped showcase the level of potential we can achieve as human beings. And with each cycle, this increases awareness and exposure, and the number of athletes grows too.

"Up-and-coming athletes are the future, and our sports can only continue if people participate in it."

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