SINGAPORE: Griselda Khng and Olivia Chen have ambitions to make it big in their chosen sport of sailing and have hopes of qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
The pair, who compete in the 49erFX class, are currently at the tail-end of a two-month training stint in Lake Garda, Italy, ahead of the European Open in Germany in July. In theory, they should be navigating into smooth waters in their journey towards sporting success, but the pair are facing strong headwinds.
Sailing is an expensive sport to pursue, and because they do not qualify yet for funding from Sport Singapore’s Sports Excellence Scholarship (spexScholarship), they have turned to alternative sources.
In December, they tried crowdfunding to finance their training stints for the first half of this year. But the generosity of strangers was limited, and they raised only around half of their S$25,000 target. As a result, Khng and Chen took out bank loans and also asked their parents to dip into their pockets.
Even then, the pair has had to rely on their coach’s contacts to get accommodations and boat rentals at a good price. “We knew that it would be difficult to try and get money. Sure, we didn’t reach the goal but we’re not going to let anything get in our way,” said Khng.
“We’re not going to just sit around waiting for things to happen. We’re just going to go ahead with our plans because our parents are really supportive, so with their help we managed to get here,” Khng added.
According to a Sport Singapore document detailing the selection criteria for spexScholarship funding, athletes must first "demonstrate potential for further development along the High Performance Scheme (HPS) Pathway", show ability to "commit to the demands of a full-time training load" and be "in medal contention for major games and world level events".
But to reach that level on a consistent basis, both Khng and Chen believe they would first need to train and compete as much as possible and gain experience overseas. This is a major expense, which is why they have turned to a range of other financial sources.
It is a training process 26-year-old Khng is especially familiar with, having qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics with her previous 49erFX partner Sara Tan, who left the sport to pursue her studies.
Because Khng and Chen are a new pair, the team are still unproven and thus do not yet qualify for spexScholarship cash to pay for their overseas training stints.
“We launched our crowdfunding site at the end of last year in December and before this, we had another training stint in Perth,” said Khng. “We previously raised enough funds for Perth, but not so much for this trip to Europe. We used money from our parents and loaned from the bank just so that we can afford being here.”
When the crowdfunding fell short of the target, Chen - a former national youth netballer and newcomer to sailing - faced the difficult prospect of asking her family for help. “It’s a little different for my parents because I come from a low income family, and even though my mum doesn’t earn much, she keeps asking me if I need any money,” she said.
“I feel bad taking money from my parents, but it’s the only way for now as I’d like to still continue training.”
FEELING THE “NEGATIVITY”
National squash player Vivian Rhamanan has also resorted to crowdfunding to pay for his training and overseas stints after making the decision to turn professional, but his attempts fell even further short of the target.
Although his world ranking has risen from 470 to 184 in the span of a year, the SEA Games jumbo doubles champion also does not qualify for Sport Singapore’s spexScholarship.
“My entire budget was about S$50,000 for the year and crowdfunding only contributed S$5,000. Other amounts came from sponsors Marigold and the Singapore Squash Rackets Association but I was still short of S$30,000. I had to go through my savings to maintain my professional career,” said Rhamanan.
He added: “To be honest, in the beginning, I did feel the negativity from my situation. But it only spurred me to push harder and prove my worth.”
But as the financial pressures have mounted, so the 31-year-old has felt the pressure - not least because he needs to support his family. “I started to feel a little bit upset and frustrated that I’m not getting the proper support to push ahead. It’s even more difficult this year compared to last year...and I have frequent discussions with my wife,” said Rhamanan.
“She is now doubting whether I should be continuing this pro career of mine because we are putting our family plans on hold of getting a house.”
He added: “To be at your best, your mind should just be focusing on training, performing at your best and not having any worries and so on. Finances, however, is another factor, and it does completely drain you mentally. You’d then find that you won’t be able to perform as well in training. In competitions, you put yourself under added pressure."
STICKING IT THROUGH
For all three athletes, giving up their chosen sport is currently not something they want to consider, despite the failure to reach their crowdfunding goals.
“Sailing is not an easy sport, we have to peak at the right time. Olivia only just started and we have to be patient,” said Khng. “For sure we’ll use crowdfunding again in future as it helped us pay for a lot of things and it’s actually a good platform for us to raise money. Every little bit of help would really benefit us and help us in financial situations.”
Her partner Chen thinks it is a matter of trying harder. “It doesn’t matter whether we get their funding or not, because we’re here on our own, and have our own mission to accomplish.”
“We’re not going to just rely on Sport Singapore and we’ll look for sponsors and crowdfunding as part of our means to get money for our training,” said the 22-year-old.
Channeling limited funds to help out their sailors remains the main hurdle for Singapore Sailing CEO Lim Han Ee. But he insists the National Sports Association (NSA) is doing the best it can to help the duo cope with the challenges. “I certainly can identify and understand their predicament and we’ll do our best to help them,” said Lim.
He added: “We want to continue to explore different means… such as marketing support, and in crowdfunding. If anything, we can leverage on our social media assets.”
“Once our social media channels are stronger, we certainly would want them to leverage on our channels to expand on their brand and their reach so as to garner potential corporate sponsorships, for example. We want to develop other different forms of platform to allow them to leverage on to get other support including sponsorship.”
In an email response to Channel NewsAsia, Sport Singapore explained some of their challenges in determining which athletes get funded. "All national athletes can tap on spexGrants and other forms of services to support their training and preparation for competition."
"The extent of support... differs from athlete to athlete. As resources are finite, allocation is based on objective performance criteria, assessment of potential as well as the needs of each athlete," said a spokesman.
He added: "As an example, our spexScholars are well supported on their potential to perform at the Continental and World levels. Beyond these, NSAs and athletes may need to find other sources of funds for their sporting pursuits."
"We are encouraged that athletes are now exploring different avenues such as crowd funding in order to broaden their support base... Together, we will be able to continue to strengthen the support system even as our athletes work hard to inspire us through their journey and performances."
FRESH APPROACH TO MARKETING THEIR CROWDFUNDING CAUSE
Having successfully crowdfunded her training journey to the 2016 Rio Olympics, national rower Saiyidah Aisyah suggested approaching crowdfunding in another way. “I think athletes need to ask themselves, ‘Why would a stranger support my dream?’. People would contribute if they see that their act would help themselves,” said the 29-year-old.
“I guess people contributed to my campaign because they believe that having me reaching my dreams would motivate them to chase their own goals as well.”
She added: “If you strongly believe in your dream, others will believe in you too.”