ST Athlete of the Year: Yu Mengyu insists on seeing the beauty amid the imperfection

Over the next seven weeks, ST will honour outstanding Singaporeans who are nominees for the 2021 ST Athlete of the Year award, backed by 100 Plus. They defied the odds, injuries and the pandemic to chase their sporting dreams, setting new standards of excellence for others to follow.

Yu Mengyu has been wearing a faint scar near her throat, after going through a procedure to remove a benign growth. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - She may be used to having medals round her neck, but since January, national table tennis player Yu Mengyu has been wearing a faint scar near her throat, after going through a procedure to remove a benign growth.

While it was a day surgery that went smoothly, it had been delayed for almost six years as the 32-year-old focused on getting ready for the Tokyo Olympics, held last year due to the pandemic.

During this period, the growth expanded from millimetres to two centimetres, causing some discomfort and concern.

Yu told The Straits Times: "It was detected in 2016, but I had already undergone surgery to repair my shoulder, which put me out of action for a few months.

"The doctor also asked why did I put off this surgery for so long, but all I wanted to do was to get ready for the Olympics."

Such commitment and dedication paid off to a certain extent as Yu made it to the semi-finals of the WTT Contender Doha last March.

Four months later, she fought her way through to the Olympics' women's singles event, beating Chinese Taipei's world No. 8 Cheng I-Ching and Japan's world No. 10 Kasumi Ishikawa en route to finishing fourth.

Yu's achievements have earned her a nomination for The Straits Times Athlete of the Year Award, which is backed by 100Plus.

During those five years of "imperfect" preparation, she had to deal with a 12-month hiatus from competition due to Covid-19, as well as shoulder and back injuries that left her bedridden at one point.

And even when she could train, she had to put in an extra half-hour before and after every training session to limber up and warm down to minimise the risk of injury. Still, she was never free from pain.

The world No. 25 said: "Time flies. I still remember the scenes when I was the flag bearer with Loh Kean Yew at the Olympics and certain moments of the competition. These are beautiful memories that fill me with pride and made all the sacrifices and rough moments worth it.

"Of course, there is a tinge of regret that I was not able to win a medal, and perhaps I could have played some points in the bronze playoff differently, but I still see the beauty amid the imperfection.

"It was a long journey and every step was an arduous one, and there were times I thought I was not going to make it.

"Looking back, the journey was like climbing stairs and every step was an improvement that lifted me higher. Without going through all those difficulties, maybe I would not have been so at peace to perform as well as I did during the Olympics."

Her perseverance also moved Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to praise Yu during his National Day Rally speech.

Yu Mengyu in action at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, taken on July 21, 2021. PHOTO: ST FILE

He said: "While she did not win a medal in the end, she won the applause and respect of Singaporeans. And that is the Singapore spirit, to be indomitable, to keep going and never give up."

Yu had previously said Tokyo 2020 would be her final Games campaign, and as she enters the twilight of her career, her heart is still set on contributing to Singapore table tennis.

The Liaoning native, who moved here as a 17-year-old in 2006, said: "PM Lee's words were the biggest compliment I have ever received. It's an honour, affirmation and responsibility that will spur me to work harder and improve.

"When the time comes for me to retire, my priority would be to continue to work with the Singapore Table Tennis Association. I will stay in Singapore and I hope to be able to do my part for young players in the local community.

"I want to share my experiences with them and encourage them that tough as their journey may be, they can overcome difficulties and achieve their goals with belief and a never-say-die attitude. And even if we don't end up winning all the time, the process would have made us a stronger and better athlete and person."

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