Special Olympics: In Singapore's successful athletics contingent, coaches are learning a thing or two

Special Olympics: In Singapore's successful athletics contingent, coaches are learning a thing or two

Singapore's 4x100m runners
Singapore's Special Olympics runners pose for a photograph (From left: Maveric Lee, Shaman Pandian Jeyabalan, Jacob Wong, Aidil Nur Irsyad Abdullah Sapadi). (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

ABU DHABI: “Be a Marvel fan of Robert Downey Jr,” reads 16-year-old Maveric Lee’s Instagram bio. 

While his hero Downey Jr has 28.8 million followers, "mavstark0501" has 14. But what "mavstark0501" has in common with Downey Jr's Tony Stark or his alter ego Iron Man, is the desire to help others.

The teenager psyches his friends up before races, encourages his compatriots to eat more fruits - "They can help you get medals", and even leaves his teammates congratulatory comments on social media.

Lee won the 200m M8 division at the Special Olympic World Games on Sunday (Mar 17).

Two days later he was back on the track, competing in his pet event - in the M14 division of the 100m.

But a slip during his race cost him a place on the podium as Lee finished fourth. His teammate Jacob Wong, however, clinched gold in the M3 division of the same event.

Replying to an Instagram post by Special Olympics Singapore hours later, ‘mavstark0501’ had this to say to his teammate: "Congratulations Jacob, you won 1st medal!!! I am so proud of you!!! My Best Friend."

PROMISING YOUNGSTERS

Lee is one of the eight athletes under coaches Tamil Selvi and Noor Hanif Sulaimee.

These athletes have bagged three of Singapore's four gold medals at the Special Olympics. Remarkably, the wins have come courtesy of a 14-year-old, a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old.

"If you look at them, age doesn’t matter," said Selvi. "It’s more of their ability levels. They have started training early ... if they keep going they should be able to achieve (a high standard) ... There’s a pathway for them to show their strength. This is just the beginning."

SIngapore's runners at a training session at Bishan Stadium
SIngapore's Special Olympics runners at a training session at Bishan Stadium (in white: Siti Nurhayati Ali Aksar Khan, in red: Priyadashani Jeyabalan (Photo: Matthew Mohan)
 

And according to Selvi and Hanif, their young charges also have been teaching them a thing or two.

"Their mental strength is really something that shouldn’t be underestimated," explained Hanif. "Their courage and the confidence they have despite whatever happened to them in their previous event is inspiring to see."

There's Jacob, who overcame the disappointment of missing out on his first race due to injury to win days later in his second event. 

There's Priyadashani Jeyabalan, who managed to power home in third despite an injury midway through her 400m F3 division race on Tuesday.

Not forgetting Lee, who fought to the end of his 100m sprint. 

"The determination is the best thing we are learning," said Selvi. "Priya, despite her injury, competed with determination. She showed the sporting spirit, it was really very inspirational."

BATTLING WEATHER AND ILLNESS

The cool and dry conditions in Dubai, where the track events have been held, have not helped.

"The weather is very different from when we train back home," said Hanif. "Usually they train at 4 to 6pm in Singapore and it’s humid and hot. When they compete here it’s about 20 degrees. 

"That's a drastic change. For some of them, this is the first time they have been to a country with cold weather."

With consecutive racing days, frequent travelling and unfamiliar conditions, a number of them also fell sick with fever.

This meant that Hanif and Selvi had to on several occasions, wake up in the middle of the night to check on the athletes, apply a sponge to cool down their temperature as well as give them medicine.

"We were parent, coach and teacher," said Selvi with a laugh.

But there's been a sense of satisfaction too - not just from the results, but the togetherness of the team.

"They are not really very individualistic. When others won and (they) didn’t win, they motivate each other," said Hanif. "There was once we wanted some of them to rest but they insisted on coming down, they want to support the other athletes in the race. It goes to show the team effort they have."

Ahmad Sutrisno, Low Boon Chin and head coach Norman Koh
(From left) Low Boon Chin, head coach Norman Koh and Ahmad Sutrisno pose for a photograph. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

Norman Koh, who coaches Singapore's long-distance runners, has also been impressed by his two athletes Ahmad Sutrisno and Low Boon Chin.

"I've got to admit that the team had been really resilient and overcame challenges faced along the way - from managing injury to illness, being grouped with very strong competitors, managing changes to the game rules, competition stress and anxiety," he said. 

"I'm really fortunate to be part of this team and to witness the entire journey, to see how their commitment to training had rewarded them with their best performances thus far irregardless of medals.

The Special Olympics World Games, held from Mar 14 to Mar 21, is a meet for athletes with intellectual disabilities, and this year marks Singapore’s 10th year of participation.

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.

Of Singapore's 16 medals at the Special Olympics, seven have come from athletics.

"They have been working very hard - it’s a long journey, all the way they have been training and keeping themselves fit," said Selvi. "So we did expect some gold and silver medals as well."

More importantly, these accomplishments are already leaving a ripple effect.

“Take Maveric and (Nur)Shalini, they are now role models and motivation for other students in schools such as Eden School (where they are students),” said Hanif. 

“I heard from teachers texting me now that their students want to start training hard and take their CCAs more seriously because these students are able to see what they have achieved. That’s life changing.” 

One of the reasons behind Lee's love for Iron Man is that the suited superhero can fly.

But, not all heroes have a suit of red armour to take to the sky.

Some just have red windbreakers with the words "Team Singapore" printed on the back.

Source: CNA/mt(mn)

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