ST Singaporean of the Year nominee: Rower Joan Poh on her inspiring journey

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National rower Joan Poh is an Olympian and as a nurse, also serves as a front-liner – roles for which she has been lauded by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally.

SINGAPORE - Three weeks ago, a young girl travelled from her home in the East to the Singapore Rowing Association's Pandan Reservoir training base to learn how to row.

Asked by officials why she wanted to pick up the sport, the 13-year-old Singaporean said she had seen Joan Poh compete at the Tokyo Olympics in July, and wanted to be like her.

"That," said Ms Poh, "was quite a moment for me. Because I realised we never know who we could be inspiring."

Ms Poh, 30, finished 28th out of 32 athletes in her event in her Olympics debut, but it is her journey to the start line in Tokyo that has roused many.

She pursued her Olympic dream while balancing commitments as a staff nurse in Tan Tock Seng Hospital's renal department, taking several stretches of no-pay leave to train and compete abroad.

The start of the pandemic in early 2020 saw Ms Poh stop heaving oars and return to the frontline, pulling 10-hour shifts from April for almost a year.

She resumed full-time training in March and two months later, at the last opportunity, qualified for the Tokyo Games.

Her perseverance led Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to hold her up in his National Day Rally speech as a shining example of what it means to be "the best of being Singaporean".

It is also why she is among the nominees for The Straits Times' Singaporean of the Year award this year.

Ms Poh said she was "very moved" by PM Lee's mention, and that it gave her Olympic pursuit a different meaning.

"Right up till then, I had felt like I had failed," she said, referring to her placing in Tokyo.

"But through the PM's mention, I realised (that) there was meaning in having taken and lasted the journey. It made me feel like I was enough; that my fight and spirit was enough."

Singapore rower, Joan Poh in action during the Women's Singles Sculls rowing heats at the Sea Forest Waterway during the Tokyo Olympic Games 2021 on July 23, 2021. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

The validation meant the world for Ms Poh, the oldest of three children who grew up in a one-room Housing Board flat in a family that lived "hand-to-mouth". Her difficult formative years were what compelled her to strive for sport's grandest stage.

"I didn't want to be boxed in or limited just because I didn't have the best start in life," she explained.

"I didn't want to let that define who I could eventually become."

After relying on savings, loans from friends and eventually a crowdfunding campaign, Ms Poh later received support through various Government funding schemes.

Low moments were aplenty, though, and rock bottom was being in a hotel room in Kunming, China, in 2018 with the "few hundred dollars" left in her bank account - not enough for a plane ticket home.

"I called my mum to share my situation with her (because) I felt I was going to be stranded," she said.

"It was one poor person crying to another poor person… She loves me, she wanted to help me, but she didn't have the resources."

Joan Poh finished 28th out of 32 athletes in her event in her Olympics debut, but it is her journey to the start line in Tokyo that has roused many. PHOTO: COURTESY OF JOAN POH

They borrowed some money for Ms Poh to come home. Moments like these now fuel her passion to make a difference.

"I feel a lot for at-risk youth, because at one point of time I could have been one of them. Maybe I was," she mused.

"So if I could be a figure that someone from a similar background could look up to, then (the impact) would be bigger than just me."

She hopes Singapore can harness the "differentiation" amongst its people as strength, through a society which enables all groups to progress.

"And to be a nation that is kind and nurturing, as much as we are prosperous and successful," she added.

For the sake, perhaps, of potential diamonds in the rough like the young girl she inspired.

To vote for the Singaporean of the Year 2021, go to Voting ends Jan 7, 7pm.

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