'I need to represent Singapore even though my father couldn’t': The para-athlete who chases her dreams and the dreams of others
SINGAPORE: When the crack of the starter's pistol reverberates, it is just Siti Nurhayati Ali Askar Khan and the track.
Arms pumping, legs churning, heart pounding, the 16-year-old blitzes down the lane. No distractions, no worries, no stress.
While life has often been complicated for Siti, who has mild intellectual disability which manifests itself in lower than average IQ and learning difficulties, running is anything but.
Just dash to the finish line and be the quickest, she explained. "I like running because my mind is clear. No stress – all clear."
Siti runs fast and she has to - she's part of Team Singapore's contingent of 30 athletes who will participate at the Special Olympics World Games 2019 from Mar 14 – 21.
Held in Abu Dhabi, the event is for athletes with intellectual disabilities, and this year marks Singapore’s tenth year participating.
Singapore's athletics team has eight members and Siti is arguably the most experienced of the lot.
Having participated in a number of overseas meets - including the Asian Youth Para Games in Dubai, the World Para Athletics Grand Prix in Beijing, the World Para Athletics Grand Prix in Tunisia and the Asian Para Games in Indonesia - she is a seasoned competitor.
And as the medals which hang in the living room of the Boon Lay flat she shares with her parents and three siblings suggest, Siti doesn't just compete to make up the numbers.
"When I win, I feel more encouraged and that I need to continue," said the youngster, who finished with a 400m silver in Dubai two years ago and a 400m T20 category silver in Beijing last year.
Even where there are no glittering medals, there is a collection of personal bests: In the Asian Para Games, her most recent overseas meet, Siti clocked her best-ever timing of 1min 12sec in the women's 400m T20 event.
A 400m specialist, Siti will be competing in the 200m, 400m and 4x100m relay at the Special Olympics.
She wants at least one medal, perhaps in the relay.
"I like teamwork, so I hope the teamwork in the relay gets us at least a medal," she explained.
"For her to run 100, 200 metres is no problem," said Siti's coach, former national sprinter Muhamad Hosni. "Endurance-wise, strength-wise, speed-wise she’s already there."
"In the relay, she needs to really guide the team, by the time she gets the baton, she needs take the lead back."
But Siti’s road to Abu Dhabi, or to the running track for that matter, did not come without its fair share of challenges.
Recalling her days in a mainstream primary school, the bubbly teenager remembers struggling with schoolwork and exams.
"I found it very difficult," she said. "I thought it was the same for everybody. So I would just do my exams, and my teacher noticed that something was not right with me (compared) with other students and their studies.
"The teacher said: 'Siti, I need to speak to you. You have these difficulties blah blah blah, I will send you to a better place. I just kept quiet because this meant I would have to leave my friends."
Her mother, Mdm Yusnah Mohamad, had already noticed some difficulties Siti was facing while in playgroup.
"The teachers told me that her mind would switch, she won't listen," recalled the 53-year-old housewife. "She was a slow learner."
Mdm Yusnah transferred Siti, then in Primary Three, over to Grace Orchard, a special needs school.
"First time I went there, I just kept quiet and I didn't make friends," Siti recalled. "But after I met one friend who talked to me then I started to talk, and it got better."
One of the teachers at Grace Orchard, Mdm Tamil Selvi, introduced Siti to running as a co-curricular activity - and there was no looking back.
"I tried (sports like) badminton and swimming, I don’t feel comfortable and I didn't like it – it’s so troublesome," said Siti. "But running is not complicated, it’s just running to the line.
"At first, it was just running for fun," said Mdm Selvi. "When she started to run, we could see the strides, the style was there, and she works hard too...Within Singapore's special schools scene, she won quite a number of times."
Siti chases dreams of becoming a professional athlete one day.
But she also pursues the dreams of somebody else - her father, Mr Ali Askar Khan bin Fazal Ilahi.
It has been decades since Mr Ali's path to the national football side was cruelly curtailed by a despairing tackle, but the scars remains.
"We played a game against Singapore American school - I was a striker, when I dribbled pass one of the guys, the other guy tackled me and then I fell," said Mr Ali, who was then part of the national Under-16 side.
But it wasn't the tackle that ended his fledgling career - it was the bout of fits that he suffered on the pitch as a result.
Mr Ali continued to feature for club sides such as Tiong Bahru, but never made the step up to the national side.
He continued to battle with these episodes of fits for a number of years, before finally managing to rid himself of them.
"My talent was there, but my future was not," added Mr Ali ruefully.
While Mr Ali was never able grace the football pitch at the highest level, his legacy was not lost. Over 30 years later, his name would sound over the speakers at a meet in Dubai when Siti competed in the Asian Youth Para Games.
"When the guy called her name and my name - Ali Askar Khan, I felt so happy," Mr Ali recalls. "When she was on TV, she almost made my tears flow out ... I hope she can make it, not like me who didn't make it.
"She is my daughter, she continues (the dream) for me. Even though it's not the same sport, but it's still sports. That was also my dream to represent Singapore."
His daughter shares the same sentiment. She said: "I feel proud to represent Singapore, I feel like I need to represent Singapore even though my father couldn’t."
Having graduated from Grace Orchard School, Siti is now furthering her education at APSN Delta Senior School.
She is several months into her first year at the school, and slowly assimilating to her new environment.
"There were some things that she was adjusting to this new school," said one of her teachers, Ms Estella Mah. "I can see that she is moving out from her comfort zone to ask help from her classmates ...She does show leadership qualities to take initiative to look out for friends who are struggling in class."
With training four times a week, and longer school hours - Siti starts school at 8.30am and ends trainings at close to 8pm - she is being stretched more than before.
But Siti plans to keep going.
"This is my passion. I already said that if I want something, I will achieve it. It is very worth it."
"She goes for her training, she is never absent, added Mr Ali. "I can see that she is trying to put in effort and there is a future there.
"She's aiming for something - she's aiming to become someone."
And so, Siti runs.
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