Paralympics: Tee ready to make Games debut after ‘roller-coaster ride’ to Tokyo

National para-cyclist Steve Tee (right) and his tandem cycling partner Ang Kee Meng have endured a "roller-coaster ride" journey in the lead up to their Paralympics debut. PHOTO: SPORT SINGAPORE

SINGAPORE - There was no warning before the crash that sent Steve Tee and his tandem para-cycling partner Ang Kee Meng skidding across the pine floor at the Jincheon National Training Centre Velodrome, leaving them with skid burns and bruises.

Racing in the 2019 Para Asian Track Championships' qualifying round in South Korea, the Singaporean duo were suddenly hit by a mechanical failure in their first lap which sent them tumbling.

While Ang had a split second to process that something had gone wrong, Tee, who is visually impaired, only realised what had happened when they hit the ground.

It was their third crash in less than two months in a journey to the Tokyo Paralympics that Tee, 40, has called a "roller-coaster ride".

While the scars from that accident have healed, the lessons learnt from the many setbacks he and his able-bodied partner have suffered in their four-year road to their Tokyo debut will endure.

Speaking to The Straits Times in a phone interview from Wales, where the pair were training, Tee said: "Our journey has been a roller-coaster ride and there have been two things that have made it unforgettable.

"The first was the crash in 2019. We were all bruised, injured, lying on the ground, but just when we thought everything was over, the organisers came over to ask if we could continue. We endured the pain and came back from behind to win the bronze. We bounced back from a setback."

The second memorable event came in August last year, when his dream of taking part in the Paralympics hung in the balance after he suffered a slipped disc.

Ahead of his microdiscectomy surgery, his doctor and physiotherapist told him that he might not return to his previous form. But three months later, Tee was back training and working towards the goals he had set for the Paralympics: to break his 4min 47.414sec personal best in the 4,000m event and place top three in Asia.

Just five years ago, Tee would not have imagined that he would be cycling outdoors again. Once an avid footballer and cyclist, he was crushed when he was in 2004 diagnosed with retinitis pigmentos, a genetic disorder that causes vision loss over time.

But he went on to captain Singapore's five-a-side visually impaired football team at the 2015 Asean Para Games and continued cycling on stationary bikes.

In 2016, he got back into the saddle when a friend asked if he wanted to try tandem cycling as Para Cycling Federation of Singapore president Christian Stauffer was looking to form a team.

Stauffer eventually roped in his friend Ang, a former national cyclist, to pair up with Tee for his first outdoor ride at Seletar in 2017.

What was a casual ride to get Tee and Ang familiar with tandem cycling turned into a ride of freedom, and nostalgia, for the former.

He said: "Other than the sense of freedom and thrill of speed on the bike, tandem cycling is unique because disability and ability come together and cycle together to compete as a team - it brings out the inclusiveness."

The two strangers have now forged a bond akin to that of brothers, said Ang.

Along the way, they have travelled to many places to train and compete, including Malaysia where they won a bronze medal in the 24.6km individual time trial at the 2017 Asean Para Games and Newport, Wales, where they had their final training camp before they travelled to Tokyo on Tuesday (Aug 17).

Both have made sacrifices to chase this Paralympics dream, leaving their respective full-time jobs in June 2019 so that they could focus on training for the competition. They had qualified in 2018 after placing among the top six Asian pairs in the international cycling federation's para-cycling male and female nations ranking list.

Tee said: "As time went by, we went for more competitions, races, interacted with each other more, so we understand each other more. He understands the lifestyle of a visually impaired person, how to guide a visually impaired person and along the way, he's given me lots of valuable advice."

Ang added: "We need to understand each other at a deeper level like how each other is feeling and coping with the training and life because it affects the training.

"It's been a meaningful journey to know someone at such a deep level after four years. We're not just buddies on the bike, we do care about each other and what's going on in each other's lives."

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