SINGAPORE: Standing a little over 1.50m tall, Jeremiah Tan's sprightly dashes across the football field while playing for the Singapore Cerebral Palsy Football Team immediately stand out to the casual observer.
His mobility is limited not just because he has cerebral palsy, but also because he had rickets as a child. Still, the 22-year-old pushes himself hard to keep up with the other players. While he is the smallest man on the pitch, that does not seem to make much difference.
According to his coach Mohamed Zainudeen, Jeremiah’s never-say-die attitude and positive outlook make him a valuable asset to the squad, which recently competed in the 2017 Asean Para Games (APG) in Kuala Lumpur.
"Jeremiah is foremost, a great personality to have in the team,” said coach Zainudeen. “A very cheerful and hardworking player who doesn’t miss training. When he’s bogged down with school and work, he’ll take responsibility and text me to inform me.
“On the pitch, Jeremiah is very much challenged given his disability, but yet he works extremely hard and is not lazy," he added. "He will go out to cover every blade of grass, and will demand the ball and gives everything."
Coach Zainudeen said that his discovery of Jeremiah was purely by coincidence. “I discovered him playing football near my flat, when he was together with his friends,” said the Bukit Purmei resident.
“I was just standing there by my corridor after my dinner, I looked down and saw him playing downstairs at the court. We had a chat and that was the start for us,” he said.
Although mainly used as a substitute striker due to his limitations, coach Zainudeen said that he maximizes Jeremiah’s effectiveness based on the 22-year-old’s strengths. “It’s just like coaching a regular football team, you have the better ones, the skillful ones and you have to complement each other,” he said.
It is the same with Jeremiah’s other team-mates, said his coach. “Here, we have different classifications: Some can’t do certain things and some are good at shooting, or just defending.”
ALMOST GIVING UP SPORT AFTER CHILDHOOD SURGERY
Born with rickets - which led to his bow-legged gait - Tan later developed a brain tumour at nine which caused reduced muscle co-ordination.
His tumour meant that Tan developed cerebral palsy, which in turn meant rehabilitation for close to two years to relearn his motor-skills – an ordeal which almost led him to give up on his sporting passions.
“I was taking my mid-year exams in primary school and during my paper, I just knocked out,” he said. “My teacher thought I was sleeping but she couldn’t wake me up. She got really scared, and called my mum and they sent me to the hospital.
“We all really didn’t think much of it until we saw my eye-doctor, who noticed a lump at the back of my eye. He then did a CT scan, and I was referred to KK Hospital for surgery,” added Jeremiah.
“It was only when I got out of surgery and saw all the tubes attached to me that I realized how serious it all was.”
His slow post-surgery recovery soon led the normally cheerful Tan into a state of depression. “My vitals were not doing well, and my mum knew something was off. Even when she brought a comedy movie DVD to cheer me up, I simply watched it with a straight face throughout the show.”
Having had to re-learn his movements on his right limbs, it took a while before he could finally play football with his peers. “They welcomed me back, and it was a case of ‘Let’s now go out and play together,’” said Jeremiah.
“I did find it difficult, with lesser control of my movements. At one point I did consider sitting by the sidelines and watching them play.
“But I’m quite happy that I managed to hang on.”
Nine years after his brain surgery ordeal at primary school, it was by sheer chance that Tan was spotted by national CP footballing coach Zainudeen during a fun kick-about at a court near his Bukit Purmei neighborhood. In 2015, the pint-sized striker made his debut in the ASEAN Para Games and helped hosts Singapore win the bronze medal.
Even though his team did not win a medal at this year’s edition in Kuala Lumpur, Tan said that he is “eternally grateful” for the support of his close friends and family which has led him down the path to represent his country.
“From the outsider’s point of view, it can be easy to conclude that this boy has gone through so much and don the national colours,” he said. “For me, it’s more of the emotion of gratitude, rather than the emotion of ‘Yes, I’ve made it’.”
SUPPORT FROM FAMILY AND FRIENDS
It is Tan’s determination to rise above his physical disability that amazes his peers. “My friends say I inspire them, but it’s actually them who inspire me,” said the La Salle media student.
“My friends … understand my capabilities and weakness, and because of that they’re able to adapt themselves to me,” Jeremiah pointed out.
“To have friends who are adaptive and inclusive really helps to boost my morale. It makes me really want to work hard for them and not let them down.”
It was this support that made Tan feel like he was not disabled. “Back in the 2015 APG in Singapore, it was about the support system where you could really feel the support in the stands,” he recalled.
“Just knowing that our friends and family are out there supporting us and knowing that their physical presence is there made a difference for us,” said Jeremiah. “They had our back no matter what, and it really pushed us to strive for more. Really having them there as a crowd, it really made us hungry to push ourselves.”
Being aware of his physical short-comings has simply made Jeremiah adapt: “I know that I’m different and I know that I have limits. There are things I want to do with my friends but I can’t because of physical setbacks.
“But I don’t let that define what I can or cannot do.”
Jeremiah now hopes that he can reach out to other people with disabilities to encourage them to showcase their sporting talents. “I do hope others will join us in our journey and having fun, in reaching our goals and coming together as a nation.
“That’s the beauty of sports in general, that everybody can enjoy it somehow. Even if you’re a spectator, athlete or official … somehow you get sucked into the atmosphere and get inspired.”