Tokyo 2020: Four days to go

Poh rowing against currents in her goal to grow sport

National rower Joan Poh, who is a staff nurse at Tan Tock Seng Hospital's renal department, has taken over 20 months of no-pay leave to train and qualify for the upcoming Tokyo Games.
National rower Joan Poh, who is a staff nurse at Tan Tock Seng Hospital's renal department, has taken over 20 months of no-pay leave to train and qualify for the upcoming Tokyo Games.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

The blue-green waters of Pandan Reservoir, where rower Joan Poh trains alone is the backdrop for her solitary journey to the Tokyo Olympics.

Each two-hour session, Poh's only company is the sound of her own breathing, often ragged as she moves the oars through the water.

From venturing into waters here and abroad alone, to seeking funding and coaches, the challenges of pursuing a niche sport are endless.

But Poh, 30, has one thing to keep her going in her dream to compete at the Olympics: Her goal to grow the rowing scene in Singapore.

Before her, there was Saiyidah Aisyah Rafa'ee, who blazed a trail by becoming the first Singaporean rower to qualify for the Olympics in 2016. Poh said: "If I want the sport to continue growing, I cannot be at ease and at rest until there's some form of continuity.

"If I stop rowing, there's no one else rowing. No one put this on me, I just felt I had this responsibility."

But there are days when the weight on her shoulders becomes too much.

In May, Poh and her team manager Koh Yuhan are at the Asia and Oceania qualification regatta in Tokyo, the final opportunity to earn a ticket to the Olympics.

This contingent of two see the Goliaths they are up against - teams who travel there with coaches, managers and other support personnel.

In contrast, most of Poh's training in the lead-up has been done in Singapore with little sparring experience and her coach Laryssa Biesenthal, a former Canadian rower and two-time Olympic bronze medallist, has been working with her remotely from Canada.

The night before the final, the pressure gets to the duo and they break down in tears.

"Sometimes it felt really intimidating, we were mustering up the courage we needed to do what we were there to do," Poh says. "It was a feat for us to be there racing, being coached remotely and facing the pressure of making sure we deliver our best for this mission."

And deliver she does, as Poh books a berth in Tokyo with a 12th-place finish in the women's single sculls.

Overcoming hurdles has been a constant theme in Poh's Olympic journey.

The lack of a steady coach sees her travel to Hong Kong, Greece, China, Canada and Australia in search of training opportunities.

Since the start of 2019, the staff nurse at Tan Tock Seng Hospital's renal department has taken over 20 months of no-pay leave to train.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, she returned to work in April last year, balancing training sessions of over 20 hours weekly with eight-to 10-hour shifts at work.

Even as the going is tough, Poh is still actively working to get more people into rowing. In the past year, Poh has put together a team of 11 comprising her old teammates and their families and friends, and taught them how to row.

Now, as Poh prepares to make her Olympic debut, she is already thinking ahead to the next one.

She hopes to make it to the 2024 Paris Games and is using the upcoming one to gauge where she stands among the region's rowers so that she "knows how much more I need to improve to close the gap".

But the next Games will depend on whether she can get a more structured training programme, which includes finding a permanent coach and she hopes to continue working with Biesenthal.

But there are silver linings for Poh even in the hardest moments.

Sometimes, it is the sunset as she steps out of the boat, a moment of tranquillity in what has been years of ups and downs.

The water is calmest then and as it reflects the sky's glow, Poh is reminded to live in the present and to seize opportunities that allow her to pursue this passion of hers.

And so she keeps rowing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2021, with the headline 'Poh rowing against currents in her goal to grow sport'. Subscribe