From turning cartwheels at home to an Olympics place: A gymnast’s triumph over injuries
In the second of a series of profiles of TeamSG competitors who have qualified for next month's Olympic Games, CNA speaks to a gymnast who has always persevered.
SINGAPORE: Triangular fibrocartilage complex (TFCC), ulnar styloid, labrum.
These parts of the human anatomy are normally the purview of those in the medical profession, but they are very familiar to gymnast Tan Sze En.
The 20-year-old, who is a student at Stanford University in the US, has seen injuries to these parts of her body and more as she developed her career as a top-class competitor.
A fractured heel in 2017, a torn rotator cuff in 2018, a partial tear of the lateral collateral ligament in 2019. Three consecutive surgeries on her wrists in 2020.
Yet despite it all, Tan kept going.
For while surgeries can heal injuries, little can remedy unfulfilled ambitions.
"I didn't really want to end my career on an injury, I would rather end it my own terms," explained Tan. "So I knew I would never really quit right after getting injured or because of an injury."
And thanks to this spirit, she can soon add the word "Olympian" to her resume.
"IT’S NEVER BORING"
Watching her brother turn cartwheels also turned the cogs in six-year-old Tan’s head.
For if he could do it, maybe she could too.
“My brother was doing gym(nastics) as a CCA (co-curricular activity) and he would do cartwheels and stuff at home,” she told CNA in a virtual interview from the US this week. “And I would copy him and my mum was afraid that I would get injured, so she signed me up for gymnastics.”
Tan juggled both gymnastics and badminton for a few years. When asked to pick between both sports, she opted for the former.
“There was this one badminton training session I had where I missed my serve five times and I thought it was so embarrassing. I was just like: ‘I'm not gonna do badminton anymore.' So I chose gymnastics,” she explained.
“I like it because it's never boring. There's always something you can be improving on, and I really enjoy seeing the progress that I've made, learning new skills. Even when you already know the skill, you can always work on better technique, better form, things like that.”
But Tan would have to take the good with the bad. There were days when she struggled.
“I had some trouble with the sport when I was younger. I hated going to training and stuff ... and I was just kind of like: ‘I'm tired of this.’ And I'm sure my parents were also very tired of it,” she recalled.
At the age of 13, she had had enough.
“When you're learning a new skill, it's always really scary. So that was emotionally and mentally exhausting,” she said.
“And then physically, you're always moving around so it was also really tiring. I was young and I guess I just wanted to be with my friends. I didn't want to be in the gym all the time,” said Tan, who by then was training almost every day.
And so, she decided to quit.
“So ... (I told my mum): ‘Oh mum, I'm going to quit and she's like: ‘Okay’. And then during those three days, I was pretty bored," Tan recalled. So, she thought she should go back.
This was not a decision she made lightly.
“I realised that it just wasn't really my time and I still had more that I could do, and more that I could achieve, which is why I came back,” Tan recalled.
"I feel like that's just kind of what's driven me this entire time."
UPROOTING FOR TOKYO
It was in 2016 that Tan knew she wanted to compete at the Olympics.
“I just remember when I was watching the Rio Olympics. And I was like: ‘Oh, it would be so cool to represent Singapore in the Olympics.’” she recalled.
“I think that was the first time I realised that I wanted to try.”
Recognising that it would be “really hard” to balance her studies in junior college with the pursuit of this dream, Tan decided that the US would provide a better “academic - athletic balance”.
READ: ‘I owe everything to my mum and dad’: A Singaporean fencer makes history and keeps an Olympics promise
“I knew that if I didn't end up moving, I would kind of regret it. Because ... I'm afraid that I'm going to regret stuff in the future so I just want to give it my all now,” she explained.
Her parents were supportive of the move.
“They pretty much just said okay. If they were surprised, it was probably because they knew I've had some trouble with the sport in the past,” Tan said.
After a trip to visit various gymnastics clubs in the US, Tan knew it was the right decision to take. Along with her parents, she relocated in early 2017.
Her time in the US has been beneficial, noted Tan.
“I definitely improved as an athlete, I learned some new skills,” she said.
“I think I was more confident in my gymnastics, but also as a person. I'm pretty shy, and being in the US kind of forced me out of my box a little more, even though people would still consider me shy, so it's all relative. But I do think I became less shy when I was there.”
But Tan found her progress was limited by injuries.
Less than a week before the start of the 2017 SEA Games in Malaysia where she had been scheduled to compete, Tan sustained an injury while dismounting from a balance beam.
She would eventually feature at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, but had to undergo shoulder surgery immediately after the event to fix a torn rotator cuff and labrum.
“It (the surgery) was scary, but my shoulder was pretty bad. It was affecting my everyday life," she recalled.
"It would hurt to tie my hair, shampoo my hair, sometimes picking up stuff would also hurt.”
Amid the injuries and training sessions, there were times when doubts would start to creep in.
“It was a combination of everything, but also especially sometimes you just go through really … (bad) weeks in the gym, and I was kind of wondering if it was worth it. I guess progress is up and down so I was kind of in a down period so I was like: ‘Is this even worth it, am I even going to make it?’” she recalled.
“(But) you just have to remember why you're doing it in the first place. And similar to coming back from injury - just trusting the process and being patient. Because as long as you keep working towards it ... eventually you'll start seeing your improvements again.”
Tan soldiered on, and her reward was a crowning moment at the 2019 World Championships in Germany.
MAKING THE CUT
The pressure was off for Tan at that competition in Stuttgart.
She could qualify for the Olympic Games there, but there would be other opportunities to do so in the following year.
“I was relatively not stressed for that competition because I didn't really think I had a great shot of qualifying for Tokyo ... I might as well just have fun, which is when I tend to do my best anyway,” recalled Tan.
The crowd was enthusiastic, the energy was good, and Tan was ready.
“I just wanted to focus on what I had to do,” she recalled. “And (I) just tried to relax before I competed, instead of psyching myself out.”
Tan finished with an all-around score of 48.098, and her overall position meant she was close to qualifying.
“After I competed, we kind of knew that I was on the cusp of qualifying, but we weren't super sure which way it would go. So I was a little more hopeful,” she recalled.
And then came a text on a Sunday morning from Singapore Gymnastics general manager Karen Norden saying that she had booked her place at the Olympics.
“It definitely took some time to sink in. Plus, I don't have very big reactions to things ... I also just woke up, so I was lying in my bed and I was like: ‘Oh wait, am I reading this right?’” she recalled.
GOING UNDER THE KNIFE
After the highs of Olympic qualification, Tan was brought back down to earth with another injury.
As she braced for impact during a training session in late 2019, she knew something was off.
“I took off the (balance) beam crooked. I was doing my dismount, so I couldn't really get the jump that I needed and I under-rotated so I was still twisting as I landed on the floor,” she recalled.
“I kind of knew right away that something was up. I just wasn't really sure what," she recalled.
She thought to her herself, "Please don't be my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament)' because that would have taken me out of Tokyo.”
The injury proved to be a partial tear of her lateral collateral ligament, and meant that she was ruled out for a second consecutive SEA Games, prompting her to ask herself why this was happening again.
“There's a lot of wear and tear injuries (generally in the sport), but also I guess gymnastics is kind of dangerous. So, if you just land wrong, you're probably going to break something or snap something so I think a lot of gymnasts are always dealing with injuries.”
Following the news that the Olympics were postponed, Tan underwent three surgeries in 2020 to fix wrist injuries.
“It was starting to hurt in my daily life as well, but I guess it was more so after the Olympics got postponed, I knew it would be really hard to go another year with the injuries. So I decided to get it fixed before,” she explained.
Yet despite it all, Tan has kept going.
“I think for me (the hardest times) would definitely be injuries. Just always feeling like I kept getting set back while everyone else was just training and improving, and I had to start from zero again. I think those were the most frustrating times,” she explained.
But she said that these experiences have taught her patience.
“Coming back from injury takes a long time. Usually it goes slower than what you would like and when you're coming back, everything you're doing just doesn't feel like what it used to feel like - which can be quite frustrating. But if you're just patient and you trust the process you'll eventually get back to where you were,” Tan said.
And Tan is thankful for the many opportunities the sport has provided.
“I’ve gotten to travel to so many places. I’m at Stanford, I'm going to compete at the Olympics. I got to live in Chicago,” she said.
“It's also shown me that I'm capable, more than I think that I am. It's also taught me many valuable life skills like time management, perseverance, (and) determination. It’s also showed me how much my family really cares and supports me - no matter what."
Tan’s goals for Tokyo 2020, where she will be competing on the balance beam and in the floor exercise, are simple.
“I just want to put out routines that I can be proud of, and that match the level of routines that I can do in training,” she explained.
“Usually I get pretty nervous, so the routines are not as good. But I just want to show what I've been working so hard towards and what everyone's helped me work towards this entire time.”
She says it still feels surreal that she will be featuring at the Games.
“It still feels kind of crazy. It's a great honour to be able to represent Singapore there. And it's nice to know that all my sacrifice and what my family has sacrificed has paid off,” said Tan, who will become only the second Singapore gymnast to compete at the Games after Lim Heem Wei in 2012.
“I also hope that this achievement can inspire younger gymnasts in Singapore to show that just because we're from a small country doesn't really mean that we cannot make it to the major Games. We still can.”
Tan is keen to note all the support she has received.
“It's been a really long journey so I'm just really grateful for everyone that's helped me and believed in me, never gave up on me - even when things were rough.”
More importantly, Tan never gave up on herself. Her scars, several of which feature prominently on her shoulders and wrists, are proof of that.
Nothing will dent her spirit - not even injuries.