SINGAPORE: As she walks past the playground near her home, Pan Annan cannot help but turn to look. With her mother tugging her hand, however, she continues on her way.
If the children there should look up at her block, they might see her again outside her flat, peeking at them with a longing expression.
“Sometimes I’d feel that I’m missing out on playing,” she admits candidly. “I miss my friends a lot.”
But the 10-year-old with a “really packed schedule” knows that her childhood “is different from others”. Every day, she is in training for three hours to achieve her dream of becoming an Olympic champion for Singapore in rhythmic gymnastics.
If that is not enough, she is the youngest musician in the Singapore National Youth Chinese Orchestra, and at school, she is in the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) Chinese and the Math Olympiad.
“It’s quite hard to manage my time,” she told the programme On The Red Dot in its series on Wonder Kids. (Watch her episode here.)
But she is nothing if not determined to push herself. “I want to do better than I did before because I wouldn’t want to stay the same," she said.
As a lot of people say, if you want to win, you have to win against yourself first.
This is not just talk about a pipe dream from a girl with stars in her eyes. She has already topped her age group in international competitions, even in China.
A 7-YEAR-OLD'S PLEA
It could have been so different, however, if Annan’s tears one day had not moved her mother.
Mrs Angela Pan’s daughter started her formal training when she was seven. A teacher had chosen her to be in the school team. But Mrs Pan, who has a doctorate in Chinese, had never heard of rhythmic gymnastics.
The women-only sport incorporates elements of ballet and is accompanied by music. Individual gymnasts perform floor routines with a rope, hoop, ball, ribbon and clubs, one at a time. They earn points for their apparatus handling, execution and artistic effect.
“At that time, I didn’t accept it. We wanted her to be good academically,” said Mrs Pan.
I stopped her going to gymnastics. And she started to cry, asking why she couldn’t go. Then I realised she may really like it.
She did indeed. After two years of training, Annan took part in the Singapore Gymnastics National Championships last year. The then nine-year-old won second place in the overall All-Around category for 12 years and under, the competition’s youngest age group.
“My wife even cried at the time,” the girl’s father David Pan said with a little chuckle.
His daughter’s performance caught the eye of national sports association Singapore Gymnastics. She was selected to represent the country in her first international competition, on home soil: The Singapore Open Gymnastics Championships.
This time, she was placed first in the 10-years-and-under age group. She has since won other individual medals in international championships, like her gold and silver for two events in China's Zhong Ling Cup.
She has a gift in her chosen sport. Her coach and nine-time world champion Bianka Panova said: “Flexibility is a gift. Or you have to work to develop it. Annan has it naturally; she’s flexible like a Russian gymnast.”
Mr Pan is now eyeing opportunities for her to participate in the SEA Games and, if possible, the Youth Olympic Games. “We’re looking for an arrangement with the national team, to see what we can do for her," he said.
PROUD PARENTS OF A SELF-STARTER
Annan is the Pans’ only child, and they put “a lot of effort” in raising her, said her father – but in different ways. “Somebody needs to push harder, somebody needs to take it a little bit back,” he said.
No prizes for guessing that he is the one who “doesn’t put too much pressure” on her, given her “very tough schedule”.
It is Mrs Pan who fesses up with a smile that they call her “dragon mum” or “tiger mum”.
Annan shared innocently: “Sometimes my mother will start being angry with me, saying that I’m addicted to gymnastics and it’ll interfere with my studies.”
Explaining herself, Mrs Pan said: "To achieve success in life, in my experience, it’s no use if you’ve got talent but you don’t work hard.
“People may feel that I’m so strict with her. I treat her as an adult. When she makes a decision, she is responsible for it.”
At the same time, both parents, who were born in China, are proud of all their daughter has achieved so far.
On top of her gymnastics, she just finished a concert with the Singapore National Youth Chinese Orchestra, where she plays the pipa (a Chinese lute), the grand dame of the traditional stringed instruments.
The orchestra’s website states that it is a group of “highly talented musicians between the ages of 11 and 26”. But Annan joined when she was nine.
The Raffles Girls’ Primary pupil juggles her schedule by being a self-starter, working on her assignments in the car, for example, even before her father suggests it.
She enjoys school, but as with any child her age, whines about one thing.
“They’re really serious about our learning, so the homework will be a big pile. I’ll always pray to God, saying don’t give me any homework, please,” she said with a grin.
The reality, however, is that it has been “quite hard to cope" homework-wise, especially with an extra load coming from her GEP Chinese and Math Olympiad.
But that is where she shows the grit of the world beater she longs to be.
My teacher quoted to me, ‘The day that the body aches, the day that it rains, is the day that champions train.'
HERALDING A GOLDEN AGE?
In January, she won another feather in her cap when she took home the National Athlete Award (Rhythmic Gymnastics) at the Singapore Gymnastics’ inaugural Annual Awards Dinner.
Ms Panova made it a double victory with the Coach of the Year Award (Rhythmic Gymnastics High Performance).
In 1987, she became the first rhythmic gymnast to score a perfect 10 for all five gold medals in the World Championship. And that has served to inspire her current prodigy.
“Sometimes I would dream of becoming Bianka number two," Annan said with an unabashed smile.
Every year when I blow out my birthday candles and make my wish, I wish to qualify as an Olympic gymnast. I’ll never change it. I’m going to hold on to my dream.
“It’ll be very hard to become an Olympic champion. I’m not sure if I can. But I’ll try my best to achieve it.”
On The Red Dot arranged a special surprise for Annan, by gathering her neighbourhood friends to play with sparklers at the playground – with the help of her parents.
She was thrilled, dashing out the front door and for once transforming into a carefree 10-year-old laughing with her friends.
Said her mother: "I feel guilty that she doesn’t have much time to play with her friends as before. But what to do? She chose this."
Mr Pan added: "As parents, we always would like our kids to become the best. Now she’s a child, but in future she’ll understand."
That future could perhaps be a decade from now. According to Ms Panova, the best years for gymnasts are the ages of 18 to 20.
“The journey to Olympic realisation or world realisation in our sport is a very long process,” she said.
“Annan has a great purpose, a great aim. She wants to participate in the big international competitions in the name of Singapore, which I believe is possible. And it would be the golden age of Singapore gymnastics.”
On The Red Dot profiled four children with exceptional gifts, exploring the sacrifices they and their families make and the challenge of pursuing their potential without losing their childhood. Watch the series here. Read about the 8-year-old computer prodigy and why his parents moved him to Melbourne.