Story and pictures by Leslie Tan
From the road, it’s easy to miss Pandan Reservoir, an elevated reservoir situated in the midst of an industrial hub in the west. Off Jalan Buroh, hidden from human view, sits the clubhouse of the Singapore Amateur Rowing Association. It was here that I met 26-year-old Yeong Wai Mun, a recent mechanical engineering graduate of the Nanyang Technological University.
Wai Mun had dropped me an email one day to say hello to clarify that there was a difference between paddlers (dragon boaters) and rowers like himself. He did it so thoughtfully and politely that I was intrigued and so was keen to meet up with him to find out more about why he is training full-time in this little-known sport in Singapore.
Having played basketball in River Valley Primary, he spent the subsequent four years in Gan Eng Seng Secondary in the National Cadet Corp. “I wasn’t sports oriented that time,” said Wai Mun. “NCC was prominent at Gan Eng Seng in my time.”
In Jurong Junior College, Wai Mun ran cross-country, then ended up in the artillery vocation during National Service. Then came four years in NTU, graduating in July 2007. “I’ll never forget that day,” said Wai Mun, referring to his graduation. “Kind of a relief that I finished studying.” We can all identify with that.
With most of his schoolmates heading into the job market, and a booming one at that, Wai Mun’s decision to pursue his Olympic dream full-time stands out. A full-time athlete in Singapore is rare enough. A full-time athlete pursuing a little known sport, even rarer.
“My father supports the idea of rowing full time. I reassured him that I have my future at heart. I’ll try to build something for myself.” Wai Mun says it matter-of-factly, without uncertainty. “I want to stay in the sports field but I haven’t decided what paths to take.”
Wai Mun took up dragon boating at NTU after an army friend who used to paddle for a polytechnic team suggested he try it out. “My (older) brother also studied in NTU and his friends were in the dragon boat team.”
The NTU dragon boaters left a deep impression on him. “The NTU Dragon boaters make their presence felt on campus. They take their training seriously: three times a week, land training, runs, weights, static paddling in a pool. Saturday, Sunday at Kallang, two hour sessions each.” Wai Mun ended up spending three-and-a-half years in the NTU dragon boating team from ’03 to ’06.
“Rowing was introduced to us in my second year because one of the national rowers was in NTU,” Wai Mun recalled. “I wanted to stop dragon boating and switch to rowing but ended up staying in dragon boating on the advice of my coach.”
“My team manager and coach inspired me to take sports to a higher level. My mindset is that if I were to do a sport competitively, I would aim for an Olympic sport.”
“Since I didn’t have a foundation in canoeing and kayaking (both Olympic disciplines), I focused on rowing,” said Wai Mun who eventually picked it up in January ’07. “Dragon boat training in NTU helped me with the physical aspects of rowing.”
Wai Mun is now training in Sydney to prepare for the Asian Olympic Qualifiers in Shanghai. The Singapore Rowing Association will decided whether to send him to Shanghai based on his performances in his races in Sydney.
“With a large number of rowing clubs in Sydney, there are regattas almost every weekend. Some at the elite level, some are intermediate/novice level. The first race I participated during my first week there was the New South Wales (NSW) State Championships, which is an elite level regatta, with most clubs from the state of NSW. Another regatta which I participated in was the Leichhardt regatta. This was a less formal regatta, where the competition was not as tough. I came in first for my races.”
“I then participated in the Kings/PLC/NSWRA regatta which would be considered an intermediate level regatta. Even though I was entered as a Lightweight, the race was a combine race where Open and Lightweight rowers raced together. I came in second behind an Open weight rower.”
Beyond winning or losing, Wai Mun is finding the exposure of training with elite athletes overseas priceless.
“The rowers here are exceptionally committed athletes. Being only university students, they are all aged under 23, and the elite rowers have already rowed for at least 5-6 years, some even more. So just training with such a group is already a good motivating factor to constantly push and improve myself. I can tell the vast amount of experience they have just by listening to their race plan and how they work on their technique. We train 6 days a week, with Sunday being a rest day. There is an equal amount of rowing on the water, with strength and endurance training on land.”
“I am paying my own way to Syndey,” said Wai Mun, showing how serious he is about his dreams. To pay his own way, he took on a variety of part-time work. Apart from working as a rowing instructor, he also models for the students at the School of Art, Design and Media at NTU. Given his Olympian physique, it is not a surprise.
“My big target is the London Olympics in 2012. Rowers need nine to ten years to compete at the highest levels. By 2012, I would only have six years experience. It’s still a long shot. But if I don’t at least try, I won’t know how high a level I could’ve reached. I cannot stop after one or two years.”
“This sport requires quite a lot of years so that you don’t leave it with regrets. You have to try whatever you can to reach your peak. I think most athletes would regret retiring before they reach their peak.”
His weekly training regime while in Singapore:
Mon – weight training session in the afternoon
Tues, Thurs – double water sessions of one-and-a-half hours each
Wed, Fri – rowing session in the morning, weight training session in the afternoon
Sat – double water sessions
Sun – rowing session in the morning, off in the afternoon
Core stability training 3 times a week