2016 Paralympic Games

Paralympics: Returning to race in Rio was just a matter of time

Norsilawati's desire to reach the Paralympics spurs her through all setbacks in long career

Norsilawati Sa'at, 39, will make her Paralympic Games debut in Rio in the women's 100m and 400m T52 events, but her first international appearance was in the same city in 2005.
Norsilawati Sa'at, 39, will make her Paralympic Games debut in Rio in the women's 100m and 400m T52 events, but her first international appearance was in the same city in 2005.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Singapore is sending 13 athletes to the Sept 7-18 Rio Paralympics. The Straits Times takes a look at several of these representatives - how they manage to rise above their disabilities and how they train to compete with fellow Paralympians, as well as their hopes and aspirations 

Norsilawati Sa'at has fond memories of Rio de Janeiro, and it is not just the leisurely outing she took along its famous Copacabana Beach that she remembers.

For it was in the Brazilian city 11 years ago that the wheelchair racer made her international competitive debut at 28, at the 2005 International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports World Games.


Frustration sets in because you used to have so much freedom. But I realised that being frustrated doesn't get you anywhere. You just have to move on.

NORSILAWATI SA'AT, looking back on the 2001 car accident that broke her spine.


  • Facts on the sport

    Athletics has featured in every Paralympic Games since the inaugural edition at Rome 1960.

    The last time a Singaporean wheelchair racer competed was at Beijing 2008, when Eric Ting took part in the men's T52 400m race.

  • Classification

    Physical (T35-54, F35-57), visual (T/F11-13) and intellectual (T/F20) - the lower the number, the more severe the impairment in T (track) and F (field) events.

  • Team Singapore at Rio

    • Muhammad Diroy Noordin (men's F40 shot put and F40/41 javelin throw)

    • Suhairi Suhani (men's F20 long jump)

    • Norsilawati Sa'at (women's T51/52 100m and 400m)

The para-athlete clocked personal bests in all three events she had raced in at that meet - the T52 100m, 200m and 400m. Those results still remain her best times.

This month, however, the 39-year-old returns to Rio for what she deems the biggest race of her life, as she makes another memorable debut - this time at the Paralympic Games.

Norsilawati, the oldest para-athlete among Singapore's 13-strong contingent, qualified for Rio when she met the Minimum Qualification Standard at April's China Open Athletics Championships.

"It's like I've come full circle - from the first (international) race to being in the most prestigious (competition) now," said Norsilawati, or Sila as she is usually known.

The journey was not without setbacks. In 2011, for example, she stopped training for three years, citing a lack of progress and poor results for her decision.

She said: "At that point, there was nothing really moving forward. It was a bit stagnant and I felt a bit frustrated with myself."

Despite halting her training, she still had a lingering ambition before she completely quit competitive wheelchair racing - and that was to make it to the Paralympic Games.

"I've never lost sight of making it to the Paralympics. I was not going to stop racing until I reached the Paralympics," said the IT freelancer.

During her hiatus, she kept tabs on her fellow competitors, both new and old, whenever they competed in events, through the International Paralympic Committee website.

She made her comeback at the start of last year, but then found out that she could not participate in the Asean Para Games held on home soil last December. Her event was cancelled owing to a lack of competitors.

Norsilawati is a tetraplegic athlete who races in the T52 category, which is meant for athletes who have limited finger movements and no trunk or leg function.

Wheelchair racers participate under the T51-54 categories in athletics. The lower the number, the greater the disability.

Norsilawati was not born with a spinal cord injury. In 2001, she was travelling in a colleague's car when it crashed and turned turtle. The accident broke her spine and left her using a wheelchair.

"Frustration sets in because you used to have so much freedom," she recalled.

"But I realised that being frustrated doesn't get you anywhere. You just have to move on."

Wheelchair racing, introduced to her by her physiotherapist, was the outlet for her frustration and was ultimately what helped her move on from the accident.

But it also provided its own set of challenges for the disabled athlete.

For instance, she has to be assisted onto the racing wheelchair by her coach Jaffa Mohamed Salleh, who also has to spray her with water at regular intervals to lower her body temperature during training sessions because of her inability to perspire.

Even though she is 11 years older now, she insists that she is not past her prime yet and quicker times are ahead of her.

To bolster her belief, she points out that two-time reigning 400m Paralympic champion Michelle Stilwell of Canada is 42, while defending 100m champion Marieke Vervoort of Belgium is 37.

And thanks to a new and improved wheelchair that enables her to increase her stroke efficiency, the athlete who always wears a bandana is determined to beat her younger self.

But she is not in a rush to do so, as she knows that a longer run-up is required to lower her times.

She said: "I believe that I still can reach my full potential and I can go lower than my personal bests now.

"After Rio, I will get even better. People normally train a few years (to improve their timings), but I just came back last year.

"I will try to break my personal bests in Rio, but if not, then at Tokyo (2020)."

Even though she might not return to Copacabana beach this time due to security concerns, leaving Rio as a Paralympian will leave her just as satisfied.

She said: "The word 'Paralympian' is like wow, to know that I am among the world's best athletes."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2016, with the headline 'Returning to race in Rio was just a matter of time'. Subscribe