Feng Tianwei, Singapore's most decorated Olympian, gets ready for another battle
In the fourth feature in a series of profiles of TeamSG competitors who have qualified for the Olympic Games, CNA speaks to one of Singapore's most successful competitors.
SINGAPORE: Three Olympic Games, two bronze medals and one silver.
The breakthrough in 2008 - her first Olympic medal.
Breaking records in 2012 - the first and only time Singapore won two medals at a Games.
Heartbreak in 2016 - missing out on adding another.
It has been 13 years since Feng Tianwei burst onto the world stage and wrote her name in the annals of Singapore's sporting history, but the fire within her still burns bright.
The 34-year-old has put in the work for the Tokyo Games. Now, she is ready to compete.
PREPARING AMID A PANDEMIC
This year’s Games will be like no other. The shadow of COVID-19 looms large.
And in preparation, sacrifices have been made and limits put to the test.
Feng has experienced this, having spent about half a year in Japan in a bid to get ready for what will be her fourth Games.
“During this pandemic, no matter where you are, it is not easy,” she told CNA over the phone from Osaka, where she was based until recently.
“I was in Japan pretty early and have been here since December last year to compete in the T-league competition (Japanese professional league). Once the competition was done, I stayed behind here to train and prepare for the Olympics,” she said, speaking in Mandarin.
While Feng competed in two tournaments in Doha earlier this year, much of her time has been spent cloistered within her training base in Japan. This has allowed her to eliminate time spent in quarantine, and allowed her to focus on preparation, she noted.
“This gave us more assurance with training and put our minds at ease,” added Feng, who spent time in Osaka along with two coaches.
Situating herself in Japan also provided her with access to a wider range of sparring partners, explained Feng.
Yet, given the constantly evolving COVID-19 situation in the country, there was also a need to be cautious, she said. This meant limiting her movements to only training or going to the supermarket to buy food.
“Apart from training, I didn’t leave the house much; I didn’t really go out at other times, nor did I dare to. During this long period of time, I have had to maintain this kind of more restricted mode,” she said.
“When you face a competition like the Olympics - where there is increased anxiety and pressure - apart from being mentally and physically more difficult, it is a challenge in all aspects.”
Feng, who this week joined up with the rest of the Singapore team at their centralised training base in Shimada City in Shizuoka Province, recalled how her training sessions in Osaka could also be impacted by other factors.
“If somebody in the building (we train in) is infected … then it will have to close for a few days and nobody can train,” she explained.
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“We get sparring partners from the university. If somebody from the school is infected, then the school won't allow the students to train with us. These sorts of things happen quite frequently, so our training sessions are affected by COVID-19.”
But the veteran Olympian learned to deal with these circumstances.
“At first, it was not so easy to adapt (to the pandemic), and I felt that in preparing for the Olympics, a lot of circumstances were not ideal. There were a lot of changes every day, and anybody could get infected - including me,” she said.
“So at the start, I was a little more anxious. But now, I’ve gradually adjusted my mindset … to become more level headed and calm.”
One of the biggest challenges of preparing amid a pandemic has been adapting to the shifting dynamics.
“The biggest difficulty about preparing for the Olympics is that during the pandemic, circumstances can change at any moment, and you may not be able to prepare for these constantly changing circumstances,” Feng explained.
Despite these challenges, there have been successes for Feng in the past year.
In March, she reached the WTT Star Contender Doha finals, before succumbing to Japanese world number 2 Mima Ito.
“I feel there was quite a lot to gain from the competitions (I participated in this year). From these competitions, there were improvements whether it be in terms of my mentality and skills development,” said Feng, who is currently ranked ninth in the world.
“There were improvements to these aspects, as I made changes. I hope I can carry this to the Olympics and perform well there.”
BEAUTIFUL MEMORIES AND A SENSE OF REGRET
No athlete in the Singapore contingent heading to the Games has won more Olympic medals than Feng, but she is nonplussed about the title of being Singapore’s most decorated Olympian.
“The title is not important to me, it’s not something that I focus on. I have many beautiful experiences competing, these experiences are very fulfilling and very precious to me. So I am very happy to once again compete in the Games,” she said.
“If you think of it from the perspective of the title, of course there will be pressure. But I want to put it to the back of my mind. I don’t want to think about such things.”
In the last Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the Singapore women's table tennis team failed to finish with a medal, their first time falling short in three editions.
Feng, who competed in the singles and the team event, recalls it with some measure of regret.
“In the team event, (Yu) Mengyu and Zhou Yihan were in very good form … (But) it was not a good competition for me. At that point, my skills and playing style were lagging behind a little and it was a struggle,” she noted.
“When playing, I was also not in the right frame of mind and put too much emphasis on the results and the medals. These two (things) combined to result in a performance that was not up to standards.”
At this year’s Games, Singapore will be represented by Feng, Yu and Lin Ye in the women’s team event. Feng and Yu will also compete in the women’s singles event.
Clarence Chew, who will feature in the men’s singles, will be the sole representative in the men’s competition.
Lin and Chew will be making their Games debuts. This will be Feng’s fourth Games and the second that Yu features in.
Much has also changed for Feng since the last Games.
For one, she has parted ways with the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA), and is no longer supported by it.
Instead, Feng receives funding help from Sport Singapore’s Spex Scholarship while continuing to represent the country.
“Being on my own has been a test for me, to independently approach things like training sessions, looking for training partners, these sorts of things. But I feel that I have grown from this and feel that my circumstances have gone better and better,” she said.
“It’s been a process of growth for me.”
When it comes to competing in the Games, Feng noted that her mindset has also developed and matured over time.
“For the first three Olympics that I competed in, my way of thinking was a bit different. This will be my fourth. At the start, what I really longed for and strived to achieve was my dreams, and to showcase myself,” she explained.
“But now, I just want to take it as a competition and not to think too much into it. As much as possible, I want to be calm and steady, and do what I can do.”
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But she believes that this edition of the Games will be a special one.
“Each Olympics has its own set of unique characteristics. For this year’s edition, I feel that athletes could treasure the chance to compete even more as a result of the pandemic,” said Feng.
“It will be a much anticipated competition, given that it has been a wait of five years … Athletes will really want to go for glory, aim for medals and showcase their abilities.”
And Feng too shares that desire.
“I too have been looking forward to the Games, because I recently have made a few changes, and hope that I can perform well during the Olympics,” she explained.
Feng hopes to earn a medal of course, but it is more than just that.
Rather, it is about performing to the best of her abilities. Nothing more, nothing less.
As Singapore’s Olympics Network, Mediacorp will be bringing you the widest coverage of Tokyo 2020. Go to mediacorp.sg/tokyo2020 for more details now.