REPORTING FROM MYANMAR
She was so fatigued that she had to be helped into a chair, but there was no rest for Singapore rower Saiyidah Aisyah.
Barely a moment later, she found herself whisked onto the podium, gold medal strung around her neck and standing to attention as “Majulah Singapura” blared from the speakers.
The 25-year-old sobbed openly as she sang the national anthem with heart swelling and legs wobbling.
Not from the pain of a grueling 2,000m row in the lightweight single sculls event, but the joy of securing Singapore’s first ever individual gold in rowing at the Southeast Asia Games.
Singapore last earned a gold medal in 1997 through the female doubles pair of Lim Tech Yung and Toong Hui Lynn.
Aisyah’s race saw her pull across the finish line in 8:08:94s, after a thrilling last quarter where she put in a late surge to catch, and then overtake, the leading pack.
“This means the world to me,” she told reporters as she choked back tears. “I’m really, really proud to represent my country and win gold.”
For Aisyah to be overwhelmed was perfectly understandable.
As Singapore’s only competitive female rower and its sole representative at the Games, her gold provided sweet victory over trying circumstances.
A three-time bronze medallist since the 2009 Games, Aisyah has been funding her own training and competition expenses throughout the year, and has practiced solo since the 2011 edition.
The student development manager at Ngee Ann Polytechnic recently won silver at the Southeast Asian rowing championships in May.
She then moved to Sydney to train under coach Alan Bennett for the past three months, and clocked regular races on the local rowing circuit.
The conditions in Sydney also helped brace her for the strong crosswinds and choppy waters at the Ngalike Dam in Myanmar.
With her preparations in place and race times steadily improving, Aisyah arrived at the SEA Games filled with quiet confidence.
“I knew that no matter what, all the hard work had already been done earlier,” she told Yahoo Singapore. “In the end, it was belief that won the race.”
Racing her own race
Lining up at the start next to Aisyah were two Olympians in the form of Thailand’s Phuttharaksa Neegree and Myanmar’s Shwe Zin Latt.
Although she surprised herself by taking the lead at the start, the Singaporean was soon trailing Phuttharaksa, Shwe and Indonesia’s Maryam Makdalena Damoi by the midpoint of the course.
Still, she focused on racing her own race, and when she spotted the Thai rower losing steam at the 1500m mark, Aisyah kicked into gear and went hard for the finish.
She eventually powered into the lead with 250m to go and wound up two seconds clear of silver-medallist Maryam.
After the dust settles around her historic win, Aisyah will return to a country where the status of her sport remains uncertain.
According to Singapore Rowing Association president Nicholas Ee, he was told that when the Sports Hub opens in April 2014, there would be no room for rowing, despite an aquatic centre dedicated to sister sports like kayaking and dragon-boating.
Nevertheless, Aisyah is determined to row on, with the August Asian Games in Korea her next target. After that, it’s the 2015 Singapore SEA Games – provided the sport is included.
Last week, the Singapore National Olympic Council excluded rowing from its list of 30 confirmed sports for the SEA Games. Nearly every other nation in the region had appealed for its inclusion, but SNOC pointed to the lack of a 2,000m course in Singapore as the prevailing factor.
“Rowing must be included in 2015!” she exclaimed, emotions running high right after her race. “It’s an Olympic sport… and here I’ve proven that hard work can achieve success (in the sport).”
Aisyah later admitted that knowing she might not compete in 2015 had “definitely” fired her up for Tuesday’s race.
But in the end, her big goal remains the Olympics: a dream she constantly wears close to her heart in the shape of a pendant bearing the Olympic rings.
She confessed that she’d bought it off eBay – yet it is clearly a trinket that carries far more value to her.
When asked – in jest – if she would only take it off when she reached the Olympics, Aisyah nodded yes, dead serious in her affirmation; and clearly dead set on achieving what she wants.
Read more about her rowing journey in her interview with Yahoo Singapore here.
More SEA Games content here.
Watch the wins in this video: