In the first part of a series looking at Singapore’s Olympics-bound competitors, Saiyidah Aisyah opens up on losing her trademark necklace, getting mothers to introduce their daughters to rowing and much more.
SINGAPORE: “Hard” is an ever-present word in the vocabulary of national rower Saiyidah Aisyah. Her training intensity since qualifying for the Rio Olympics: “Still as hard, if not even harder.” Her first day of fasting while training: “Hard, and even harder to get through the day after a morning row.”
But as she said, with a smile: “The struggle, that’s the best part.”
Saiyidah’s well-documented toils, both financial and physical, have seen her progress from winning a 2013 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games gold medal to becoming the first Singaporean rower to head to the Olympic Games. Yet an even bigger effort lies ahead in her desire to alter the way sport is perceived.
“I want to be at the forefront of women’s sport in Singapore,” declared Saiyidah. “You know, I have friends who are still unsure if they should push their daughters to take up sports, because it supposedly doesn’t have a bright future.
“It doesn’t have to be an Olympic dream; it doesn’t even have to be sport. I just want to encourage people - women especially - to fulfil their dreams when the whole world doesn’t believe in what you can do. If you believe, it is possible.”
She readily admitted her own mother was never the staunchest supporter of her rowing career. “But she knows I’m very self-motivated and that I love to prove people wrong. So maybe all this while it's been reverse psychology,” Saiyidah said.
“There must be some give-and-take though. My mum wanted me to get a degree, find a job, and that’s what I did while still rowing. After I made her happy and reached her goals, I told her I wanted to do this full-time and I put my job aside.
“Of course if you want to be filthy rich; if money is your end goal, look the other way,” she said. “But sport can bring to your life much more than what people think.”
COMING OF AGE
Before daybreak at Pandan Reservoir, where Saiyidah trains.
This December, Saiyidah will have spent 12 out of her 28 years in the sport of rowing. She remembers first fantasising about the Olympics back in 2010, but only after the SEA Games three years later did imagination become aspiration.
There in the churning waters of Myanmar’s Ngalike Dam, she made history by becoming Singapore’s first individual rowing champion at the regional event - defeating Thailand’s 2012 Olympian Phuttharaksa Neegree in the process. “Beating her was the turning point,” she said. “It gave me more hope that I could actually qualify for the Olympics.”
While Neegree took revenge by trumping Saiyidah at the next SEA Games, the Singaporean had the last word after pipping the 42-year-old veteran to the line at the Olympic qualifiers in April this year.
The archrivals could square off again in Brazil come August but Saiyidah is sanguine about that prospect, with her focus squarely on being “the best version” of herself.
“I’ve been getting a lot of wishes saying ‘Good luck, may you win gold’ but it doesn’t work that way,” she said. “I was 7th - last - in Asia to qualify. So of course you need high expectations of wanting to stand on the podium at the Olympics, but at this point I have to set goals I can work towards.”
Together with coach Alan Bennett, she has targeted a 19th- to 24th-place finish out of the 32 female single scullers set to do battle on the Rodrigo de Freitas Lake, against the backdrop of the famed Christ the Redeemer statue.
This measured approach, said Saiyidah, is the result of her growing maturity as an athlete - aided by Bennett’s guidance and foresight, as well as newfound monetary stability from the Sports Excellence Scholarship she was awarded in March.
That, along with a crowdfunding campaign which raised more than S$13,000, finally gave her the financial muscle to be able to fund her full-time training in Sydney, Australia since last August. And qualifying for the Olympics has yielded more fruit - with the local Easter Rowing Club donating S$750 to her cause as well as homegrown food chain 4 Fingers Fried Chicken sponsoring her with at least S$6,000 over the next three months.
Yet, as Saiyidah recalled, she very nearly gave it all up - just two weeks before the Olympic qualifiers. “There was this race which I didn’t do well for. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to do this anymore… I was just so frustrated that I took my necklace, threw it to the ground and somehow lost it,” she said, referring to the distinctive Olympic rings pendant she is almost never seen without.
It was not her first openly impassioned display. Tears flowed freely when the national anthem was played for her at the 2013 SEA Games, as they did when she finished last at the 2014 Asian Games, and as they do when she has an unsatisfactory training session.
Her Olympic vision, however, was returned shortly in the shape of a replacement necklace for a birthday present, just five days before the qualifiers. She coyly denied ever saying she would take it off after reaching the big goal. “Why should I? The more I should wear it now,” she laughed.
Perhaps Saiyidah draws symbolic comfort from the metal trinket resting against her collarbone. “The most common question I get these days is ‘Are you excited for the Olympics?’ Of course I am, but it’s more like one huge sense of relief. Because you put in so much effort and there’s always this worry living inside you; this self-doubt whether all the persistence will pay off,” she reflected.
She added that being away from home meant delayed elation over her achievement. “When I went back to Sydney after the qualifiers, there was no one around - no media; no family members to celebrate. It was just back to normal. Life went on. Only when I returned to Singapore then it suddenly hit me. I did it.”
It is a realisation hammered home by a blitz of interviews and photoshoots crammed into a four-day layover in Singapore, before she flew off to the UK for a month of training and racing.
"This is the reason why I’m in Sydney,” she half-joked. “I wasn’t looking forward to all this.” As the sun rose over Pandan Reservoir on her designated “media day”, Saiyidah smiled, flexed, posed and did whatever the journalists asked of her.
She pulled through seven interviews in seven hours, filled with the inevitable “How did you get into rowing?” and “How do you feel about the Olympics?” lines of questioning.
“Oh my God, I'm done. I just want to go home and sleep,” she exclaimed, revealing that she’s dropped 3kg since fasting for Ramadan began on her first day back in Singapore.
"Honestly, I don’t like all these media interviews, but I have to do it. I know it’s good for the sport.”
Still, mention “rower” to the man in the street and he is likely to picture a canoeist, kayaker or even dragon boater instead. So has Saiyidah the athlete become bigger than the sport, at least in Singapore? “I never thought of it like that. I think people are now more aware of what rowing is,” she insisted.
“Since I became a professional rower, whatever I do, I always want to give back to SRA (Singapore Rowing Association).”
Adding that she sees herself eventually moving into coaching or management, she said: “I think that’s my ultimate goal - to help develop the sport.”
She explained that her time in Sydney has showed her how. “I know what it’s like to have a daily quality training environment with good coaches, good training partners and I think that’s what’s important to build an elite team. I want to bring that atmosphere, that system, along with whatever I’ve experienced overseas, hopefully back to Singapore.”
But Saiyidah was also quick to reiterate that her competitive days are far from over. “I'm only 28. Most Olympic medallists are around 30 to 32, so hopefully I still have a few more years left in me. I definitely want to try for Tokyo in 2020.”
Will the target ever shift from Olympic qualifying to winning a medal? “Hopefully,” she said, breaking into a grin as she entertained the thought. “But one step at a time. After Rio, I want to medal at the 2018 Asian Games to redeem my 2014 campaign.”
Three years ago in her first interview, she spoke of winning the SEA Games and making the Olympics as sufficiently “exciting storytelling” for her future grandchildren. Now she says it’s “not enough”.
“There’s a lot to tell. But there’s a lot more to go.”
Photos: Justin Ong
View our entire Rio Olympics series here.