Rowing: From the water to the front line and back, Joan Poh on the verge of Tokyo Olympics berth

Joan Poh's quest for a ticket to sport's grandest stage has seen her travel from the Pandan Reservoir to Schinias in Greece.
Joan Poh's quest for a ticket to sport's grandest stage has seen her travel from the Pandan Reservoir to Schinias in Greece.PHOTO: KOH YUHAN

SINGAPORE - Some time during the past year, rower Joan Poh realised that an overcast sky was the perfect analogy for how she felt about the uncertainty over the Olympics.

Her quest for a ticket to sport's grandest stage has seen her travel from the Pandan Reservoir to Schinias in Greece, and from heaving oars to pulling shifts as a healthcare frontline worker during the coronavirus pandemic.

In Tokyo last Friday (May 7), Poh took to the water at the Asia and Oceania qualification regatta, which represented the final opportunity for her to qualify, and placed 12th in the women's single sculls. But she still does not know for sure if she has done well enough to return to Japan in two months' time for the Olympics.

Over the weekend and with time to burn in quarantine upon returning to Singapore, the 30-year-old has been performing mental gymnastics trying to work out the qualifying criteria to determine if she did. She thinks she has, but will only know for sure when the World Rowing Federation makes an official announcement on the matter by May 28.

The wait might be excruciating for some, but in a phone interview with The Straits Times on Monday (May 10), Poh said she is dealing with it just fine. She explained her weather analogy, which she came up with to explain to people she came across, like cabbies and private-hire drivers, who often ask her what she does for a living and then "in the same breath" ask about the prospect of a cancelled Tokyo Olympics.

"I tell them it's like doing laundry," said Poh. "You've washed all your clothes and taken them out of the washing machine. But suddenly, you look out and you're not sure if it's going to rain. How now? Do you keep your wet clothes inside?

"No. The logical thing is to hang them out to dry, and wait until the very last minute until the rain starts coming down, then you bring it in."

In the same vein, she intends to keep plugging away at her dream until "the plug is finally pulled" on it. Given everything she has put into it after it crystallised in her mind in 2018, she was never going to give it up easily anyway.

A challenging path

Poh's calloused hands will testify to the effort she has put in on her journey but she has also sacrificed time, money and career advancement.

From the start of 2019, she took 16 months' of no-pay leave from her job as a staff nurse in Tan Tock Seng Hospital's renal department to train overseas, from Hong Kong to Greece, China, Canada and Australia.

The coronavirus pandemic saw her return to work in April 2020, where she assisted dialysis patients, particularly those on peritoneal dialysis, a treatment for kidney failure. She admitted that trying to maintain her training - at least 20 hours a week - while juggling eight- or 10-hour shifts at work was tough.

"It's just the nature of the job that I won't get a fixed schedule which athletes live with," she said, recounting how she often missed meals on her first few days back at work.

"But I think this has helped me overall too, because I think I'm better now with dealing with unforeseen circumstances."

As sport began to resume with most of the world adjusting to a new normal, and with Olympic qualification back on the table, Poh in March again went on no-pay leave and returned to full-time training.

"I trained three times a day up from two before, so I increased my training hours a bit more," she said. "But the main difference was I was able to plan my recovery, nutrition and other errands around training again."

Many helping hands

Poh notes that a big reason she finds herself on the brink of qualifying for the Olympics is the help she has received from supporters like the Pho3nix Foundation which has sponsored her to the tune of €8,000 (S$12,900) - in the form of reimbursement.

It is a non-profit organisation created by Polish businessman Sebastian Kulczyk. Its aim is to promote physical activity as a way to improve health and wellbeing among children with a particular focus on those in disadvantaged situations. The foundation had been looking for an athlete in Asia to sponsor and Poh applied for it after she was referred to it by an official in national sports agency Sport Singapore.

Poh estimates the net spend of her Olympic journey, which started in 2018, to be about $20,000 a year. Koh Yuhan, team manager of the Singapore contingent that competed at the Asia and Oceania qualifiers last week, told ST her own estimate is closer to $30,000.

Poh raised about $5,000 through crowdfunding, and also received support from SpexGlow funding - a government grant for loss of wages which offers financial assistance to national athletes, up to a maximum of $3,000 per month for up to 12 months - but relied on her own savings for the most part.

She also highlighted the effort of her coach, Laryssa Biesenthal, a Canadian former athlete and Olympic bronze medallist who has worked with her since August last year. They had met at the World Championships in Austria a year earlier.

Koh said: "Coach Laryssa is one of the reasons Jo kept going. Many times in the past, coaches have told Jo she's too short (at 1.66m) or small to succeed in rowing, but Laryssa was the first to say, 'That's OK, we'll just find another way' for her to be successful. She has been very empowering."

Koh herself has played a big role in Poh's Olympic endeavour. At the qualification event in Tokyo, she doubled up as the bridge between athlete and coach, cycling along the side of the Sea Forest Waterway as Poh trained and raced while filming the athlete, and sending the footage to Biesenthal.

She would also arrange calls with the coach right after Poh got off the water, and if it was too late owing to the 14-hour time difference between Japan and Canada, would relay notes, pointers and game plans Biesenthal had come up with for her athlete.

Said Poh: "Yuhan's role as team manager is behind the scenes, just like so many of our support staff, who are all unsung heroes. She was pivotal. Without her, my head would have been all over the place, so I'm very thankful she was there with me.

"This journey has been arduous but every time I fall short or it seems I don't have enough, people come on board to support me."

Paying it forward

Because of all the help she has received, Poh is determined to pay it forward.

Now set to become the second Singaporean rower to reach the Olympics after Saiyidah Aisyah made history in 2016, she is doing all she can to groom a new generation of female rowers.

Even as she juggled work and training in 2020, she began putting together a team of 10 young women - former teammates, their interested family members or friends - and taught them how to row.

"They're still learning but are now able to train independently," Poh said proudly. "I had always wanted to increase the size of the rowing team in Singapore, because I understand the sport cannot rest on just one person, so I do what I can. After all the effort I put in, I don't want it to end with me.

"Plus, instead of zipping up and down along the course (at Pandan Reservoir) alone, having other people there and knowing one of them could be my successor, is a great feeling."

Even with one eye on Tokyo, Poh is already looking beyond the July 23-Aug 8 Games.

She hopes her imminent qualification for the Olympics will be a boost for the sport, and has sent an aim for her team of young women to become part of Singapore's largest contingent of female rowers to compete at the regional SEA Games. She also wants to lead the first women's team of Eight to the Asian Games, in 2022.

"Thankfully, rowing is a late-age sport, so… I'm not thinking of winding down," said Poh. "I hope with two rowers at consecutive Olympics, the government can start looking at rowing and seeing whether the sport can really take off from here. I think we can… And I'm glad to play my part."

For Poh, the skies above in her long struggle for rowing finally appear to be clearing up.