ABU DHABI: They emerged exuberantly from the depths of the cavernous Zayed Sport City Stadium and strode onto the main stage.
There was a teacher, a nurse and a McDonald’s employee among them. Cameras flashed, spectators roared, and they waved.
There were no Joseph Schoolings here, no Fandi Ahmads, no Feng Tianweis. Team Singapore’s Special Olympics contingent are far from big names, but they have big dreams.
There’s the sprinter who runs to fulfill her father’s destiny, the once-homeless half-marathoner who has found refuge in sport and the bocce athlete whose only pair of sports shoes once had to be tied together with rubber bands.
Beneath the smiles, there was a steely determination to succeed, for the country's 30 athletes are on a mission.
“There’s that competitiveness within them,” said head of delegation Lee Theng Ngee. “The athletes are focused. The first few days when we arrived was spent with the host town (cultural exchange) program, but some of them were already asking when was it time for their event to begin!”
The Special Olympic World Games, from Mar 14-21, is a meet for athletes with intellectual disabilities, and this year marks Singapore’s tenth occasion participating.
At least 7,500 athletes from more than 190 nations will feature in this edition, the largest number of participants in the event’s history.
At the Special Olympics, athletes are separated into different divisions based on factors such as their age, gender as well as level of ability. They then compete in these divisions.
“All our athletes’ goals are to win or break their own personal record,” said Mdm Tamil Selvi, one of the two coaches heading the athletics team. “They trained and prepared for the past year. They never gave up in between, they continued practicing and worked hard.”
“It’s been a long journey for us - from once a week to twice a week to thrice a week training sessions,” added bocce coach Norhaiza Binte Yep Abu. “It’s very tough but they are determined. The athletes have grown too ... I’ve seen them mature along the way as well.”
For Singapore’s athletes, the road to Abu Dhabi began as early as May 2017, when the 9th National Games were held.
“From there, we looked at their results and selected them for centralised training,” explained Mr Lee. “During these training sessions, we observed their behaviour, their attitude as well as their technical competencies.”
The final pool of athletes were selected in November 2018.
READ: 'I need to represent Singapore even though my father couldn’t': The para-athlete who chases her dreams and the dreams of others
But given the challenges these athletes face, there was an added level of preparation before they headed to the Special Olympics.
“We must make sure our athletes understand what we are trying to coach them on, what instructions we are giving,” Mr Lee said. “Normal athletes may be able to comprehend but for our athletes, you need to break up instructions to make them simpler. Step-by-step instructions, instructions with pictures, these are the ways we can guide them along the journey.”
Athletes went through two days at a readiness camp, where they learnt how to do luggage packing, how to interact with cabin crew on an airline as well as the culture of the Special Olympics host nation United Arab Emirates.
With the new environment comes a new set of challenges. This is the first time competing in an overseas meet for some Team Singapore athletes - for others it is their first time abroad.
“I’ve never been overseas for so long,” said 15-year-old Nurshalini Binte Sahnef, who will be participating in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m events. “I miss my whole family, especially my cat.”
This is where the coaches come in.
They wear multiple hats, apart from focusing on the performance of their athletes, they also keep a close eye on them off the field. This can range from making sure they eat right, adhere to the designated sleeping hours and keeping an eye on their emotional well-being.
“It’s not a burden or a challenge,” added Mdm Selvi, who is a teacher at special needs school Grace Orchard. “I love and care for my athletes.”
As a hush fell over the packed stadium, the athlete’s oath was proudly recited. It reverberated around the arena, rallying the spirit and resonating within the heart.
"Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."