Paralympics: Para-sailor Jovin Tan rides through the storms

Jovin Tan earns many firsts in his sailing career, and it has helped him heal family rifts

Jovin Tan (far left) with his sailing partner Yap Qian Yin training for the Paralympics. Tan hopes that he can eventually become a sailing coach for both para- and able-bodied sailors.
Jovin Tan (left) with his sailing partner Yap Qian Yin training for the Paralympics. Tan hopes that he can eventually become a sailing coach for both para- and able-bodied sailors. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

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

In sports, gold represents a number and that number is one. The coveted first place. Yet while Singapore national para-sailor Jovin Tan may not have a Paralympic gold, sailing has already given him a series of far more important firsts.

To start with, a first taste of freedom. Born with cerebral palsy - a condition affecting motor functions - Tan was confined to a wheelchair from young.

Yet while he finds himself obstructed on land, on water he flies.

Sailing gave Tan a sense of control that he craved on land; on the boat, his wheelchair was irrelevant. He was no longer dependent on others for assistance. Instead, he called the shots.


On land, I require assistance to push me around, getting from point to point. But on the boat I'm the helmsman, I'm the skipper - the brains of the boat.

JOVIN TAN, national para-sailor, on the difference he feels on land and on a sailboat out at sea.


  • Three sailing classes will be contested at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, each comprising one-, two- or three-person keelboats. Unlike the types of boats used in the Olympics, keelboats have a permanent keel - the metal structure along the base of the boat - instead of a centreboard for better stability.

    Team Singapore at the Games: Jovin Tan, Yap Qian Yin

    Event: Skud-18 (Sept 12-17) Tan will partner Yap, 26, in the two-person class against 10 other boats. The duo first raced together at the 2014 Asian Para Games, where they won Singapore's only gold medal.

    There are 11 races in each event, with points awarded to each boat based on their placing in each race - the first finisher will be given one point, the second two, and so on. The sailor or team with the lowest overall score wins the event.

"On land, I require assistance to push me around, getting from point to point," said the 30-year-old. "But on the boat I'm the helmsman, I'm the skipper - the brains of the boat."

When Tan started sailing at 15, the sport was a means of escape. A blissful Sunday afternoon away from his father, who used to lose his patience easily with his son's disability.

"My father couldn't accept my disability at the time," he recalled. "If I were to drop my utensils while I'm having a meal outside, he would get very frustrated with me and scold me in public."

Sailing presented itself as a welcome reprieve in 2001, when the Asian Women's Welfare Association (AWWA) and the Singapore Disability Sports Council (SDSC) organised a sailing programme for people with disabilities.

Apart from the sponsored training sessions, volunteers would also help in transporting the participants to and from the sailing club.

"I took up sailing to escape from home," he said. "It was more about coming here every Sunday for half the day, away from (my father), and (getting to meet) new friends."

It also landed him his first sports medal in an internal para-sailing competition during his first year in the sport. It gave him his first chance to compete on a level playing field, after years of losing out at school sports days, always at a disadvantage against his able-bodied peers.

It also landed him his first plane ticket, when he was one of six Singapore para-sailors who were sent to Australia for an annual sailing friendly. His first time travelling solo, he relished the independence.

And, as he racked up more accolades over the years, he saw the first signs of his father's respect.

He said: "Over the years, with the achievements, he became more and more accepting. He used to come (to the sailing club) and volunteer himself."

It was a first not just for Tan's father, but for his sister as well.

Their relationship had always been rocky - when the two were younger, his sister, now 27, bore the responsibility of bringing him home from school.

"There would be a fixed time for her to go home, when she would rather spend more time in school with her friends," Tan recalled.

It was his invitation to one of his sailing sessions back in 2006 that transformed his sibling's outlook. She saw for herself what her brother could do on the water, and it "changed her completely".

She made it a point to get involved in her brother's passion, and she had no hesitations about putting him first - even putting her own employment on hold to take on the role of his carer and team assistant at the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Paralympic Games.

The voluntary role required her to manage Tan's daily needs during the Games and ensure that his sailing boat was adequately equipped before the start of each race.

It was a new responsibility - one she carried out with pride.

"It was an eye-opener for her to be involved in such a prestigious Games such as the Paralympics," said Tan.

"It gave her a sense of how disabled people are able to manage - when she was in the dining hall, she was so amazed by this para-athlete who was using his leg to eat, and using it to hold his fork and spoon."

Soon, the winds will change and his career will take on a new direction. Tan, who made his Paralympics debut at Athens in 2004, wants to try his hand at coaching after he returns from Rio.

The coaching examination and lessons will commence next month, and he hopes that he will have the licence under his belt by the end of the year.

Tan dreams of taking both para- and able-bodied sailors under his wing.

"I can't possibly be sailing forever, and what I know has to be passed on," he reflected.

"Right now, I don't think there's any person with a disability who's a coach in Singapore."

To some, it might seem improbable. But to Tan, this would just be another first.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2016, with the headline 'Riding through the storms'. Subscribe