Sailing: Rookie pairing aims for Tokyo

Griselda Khng (far left) and new partner Olivia Chen are targeting a push for the Tokyo Olympics on the 49erFX and will dive into full-time training in the new year. Helmsman Khng's former crew Sara Tan is focusing on finishing her studies at SMU.
Griselda Khng (far left) and new partner Olivia Chen are targeting a push for the Tokyo Olympics on the 49erFX and will dive into full-time training in the new year. Helmsman Khng's former crew Sara Tan is focusing on finishing her studies at SMU.PHOTO: PAEAN NG

Griselda Khng's new crew Olivia Chen was formerly a Singapore age-group netballer

Getting to the Olympics is a tough enough endeavour for most athletes. Two local sailors will now attempt to reach sport's pinnacle by taking a course that few - if any - have successfully traversed before.

Griselda Khng, who represented Singapore at the Rio Olympics this year in the two-handed 49erFX, will now team up with Olivia Chen in a push for the 2020 Games.

While helmsman Khng is a former world Optimist champion and a 2012 bronze medallist at the 420 World Championships, her new partner is a complete rookie when it comes to sailing.

Chen, 21, a former goal shooter and goal attack in the national 21-and-under netball team, is more accustomed to sending balls through the hoop than in manoeuvring a high-speed skiff through open waters.

Speaking to The Straits Times from Perth, where the new friends have been training for the past week, Khng said she was forced to think out of the box when she had no luck finding a suitable crew in the sailing community.

Sara Tan, Khng's former partner, has decided to focus on completing her studies at the Singapore Management University.

"It's not easy to find a crew in Singapore," said the 25-year-old Khng, referring to a need for taller crews, a rarity here since few women sailors are tall or heavy enough. "I also needed someone who was as determined as me to qualify."

The average combined weight of sailors on the 49erFX is about 128kg. Taller crews are able to extend further out of the boat and the leverage helps the boat stay flat, achieving faster speeds in stronger conditions.

Khng and Chen were introduced by a mutual netballer friend. Chen, despite resistance from her family, has since quit her job at a logistics company and deferred plans to apply to university.

They plan to begin full-time training in January, starting with a 21/2-month stint in Perth before another training camp in Italy.

There, they will train under Luca Modena, who coached two-time Olympic champion Robert Scheidt, a Brazilian who has won medals at five of the six Games he competed in.

Said Chen, who played for Singapore at the World and Asian Youth Netball Championships in 2013: "I thought really hard before making the decision to drop everything and chase this dream.

"I'm still young, I have the ability to adapt to changes quickly."

Chen is not the first local athlete to make a switch to sailing. Joan Poh, who teamed up with Dawn Liu to campaign, albeit unsuccessfully, for the 2016 Olympics on the 49erFX, was a national dragon boater. Amanda Ng, a Rio Olympian on the 470 with Jovina Choo, largely did windsurfing before turning to dinghy sailing.

It is believed, however, that no rookie has successfully qualified for the Olympics within four years.

Still, Ben Remocker, class manager for the International 49er Class Association and a 2008 Olympian on the 49er himself, said it is not completely out of the question.

He cited the example of Australian Haylee Outteridge, who engaged double Olympic rowing champion Sarah Cook as her crew for the 2016 Games.

He said: "Ultimately, it did not work out, but not only (was Cook) new to sailing, but they were also late to the quadrennium. While Olivia may be new, the fact that they are already training and planning for the 2017 season means that they are at least off to a good start.

"As the boat is a two-person boat, it is not necessary for both members of the team to be elite at every aspect of sailing. It is only necessary that the combination becomes elite.

"Typically, the skipper accounts for the first 90 per cent of achievement of a team, and the crew determines the last 10 per cent, which of course makes all the difference at the top end.

"So if Griselda can improve as a helm, and Olivia can hone her craft and improve rapidly and daily, they have a chance."

But the Canadian added that there is a catch: "Sailing is not glamorous, it's not sexy and it's not easy. The key to becoming a great sailor is to enjoy being on the water training so much that all the hard hours are fun...

"While Olivia is likely a gifted athlete, whether she can fall in love with sailing is the real question."

The duo will also have to compete against other local sailors who have a head start over them. Kimberly Lim and Cecilia Low, for instance, are also making a run in the same class for the 2020 Games.

Not that Khng and Chen, who are turning to crowdfunding to raise funds for their campaign, are fazed by the challenge.

Said Khng: "We do have some way to go still, so we really want to focus on ourselves first. Competition is good because it keeps us on our toes. Athletes thrive when there's competition.

"We've put our entire lives on hold to do this. This is not a joke to us. I see it as us being willing to do whatever it takes to get to the Olympics."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2016, with the headline 'Rookie pairing aims for Tokyo'. Print Edition | Subscribe