Under our "Inspiring People" monthly column, we highlight the incredible journey of one Singaporean who has overcome tremendous odds to achieve personal success. This column celebrates the triumph of the human spirit and we hope it will inspire you to reach for your dreams too. This month, we bring to you a young man who overcame his difficulties to scale great heights — literally.
He is 25, but only has the equivalent of a primary six education.
With an intelligence quotient of less than 70 points — as compared to about 100 for the average adult — he also has trouble expressing himself at times.
Meet Special Olympian Salihin bin Sinai.
While he is able to talk animatedly about his day job (a dental technician), the many sports he plays and about his hobbies, ask him how he feels about something and he may not know how to respond.
All this, however, did not stop Salihin from successfully scaling and planting the Singapore flag atop the 5,895-metre tall Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, last June.
After months of preparation and training, he completed the climb alongside eight others over a five-day trek, following one of the toughest routes up the peak.
“It was so cold that at times I couldn’t sleep,” said Salihin, recalling how he would wake up at one or two-hour intervals. On the fourth day of his journey up, he experienced altitude sickness, but being almost at the end, he refused to give up.
“I didn’t want to let all the people (who had helped me get here) down,” he explained, sharing how he went through rounds of training with Michael Dee, who led the team, as well as his expedition partner, a volunteer from Special Olympics Singapore who trained with Salihin every day over the three-month period he spent training himself up for the climb.
When asked how it felt to stand at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, Salihin could only say, “I saw sky, clouds — there was nothing to see.”
With his intellectual disability, Salihin did not go through Singapore’s regular education track.
After a year at Chong Fu Primary School, he spent about 10 years in special schools for the intellectually disabled, learning subjects ranging from English, Math and Science to performing arts and outdoor education.
He then finished his education by undergoing a year of vocational training at the Delta Senior School, a post-secondary school under the Association for Persons with Special Needs, where he learned skills in hospitality, landscape operation, services and production.
Strong family support
Plans for Salihin’s expedition would not even have come into existence if not for his stepmother, who was initially approached by Dee.
“I wasn’t too worried about him going,” said Junaini, who had confidence in Salihin’s fitness — for not a day goes by without him engaging in some kind of physical activity. “As long as he trains well, I was sure he wouldn’t have a problem,” she added, agreeing to the trip even before Salihin himself knew about it.
“She (Junaini) came and told me I was going, and I said, ‘Why did you say yes when I haven’t even said yes or no?’” exclaimed Salihin. “I was quite shocked when she told me I was going to climb the mountain,” he added with a laugh.
With four stepbrothers and a younger sister, Salihin can count on the support of a large family. The maroon-painted wall in the family’s living room is dominated by a large square frame containing a collage of pictures and coverage on Salihin’s arduous climb. In a smaller frame beside the collage are the details of the Stars of SHINE 2011 award he received from the National Youth Council last year.
While Salihin has no plans to trek any more mountains in the near future, Junaini is proud of what he has achieved.
“I do feel proud of him, and I hope he will achieve more and more success in whatever he does,” she says.
Awareness for Special Olympians
Salihin is the first Special Olympian in Asia to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro, and his story helps raise greater awareness of intellectually-disabled athletes in Singapore.
Like the Olympics, the Special Olympics World Games are held every four years, with its most recent installment held in Athens, Greece, between late June and early July last year. Singapore’s contingent of 45 athletes with intellectual disabilities returned with an impressive 37 medals from the Games — 12 gold, 13 silver and 12 bronze medals.
Salihin is one of some 1,500 Special Olympians in Singapore, many of whom are, like him, completely physically fit, although they would have differing types of intellectual disability. They train under Special Olympics Singapore, an organisation that operates independently of the Singapore Disability Sports Council, the latter of which serves people of all types of disabilities.
Special Olympics Singapore trains its athletes in eight sports, currently — namely aquatics, athletics, badminton, bocce, bowling, equestrian, floor hockey and soccer. It relies heavily on volunteers to train their young athletes in particular, however, and Salihin sometimes helps his badminton coach with younger players in honing their techniques.
In Singapore and around the region, national multi-sport meets are organised every four years as well, and local Special Olympians compete against others from the Asia-Pacific. At these, Salihin has won five medals in badminton and swimming, with his two bronze medals in badminton attained at the 2003 World Summer Games in Ireland.
Of his athletic achievement thus far, Salihin says he feels very proud and excited each time he gets the opportunity to represent Singapore.
“Even if I lose, it’s okay, it doesn’t matter,” he says, adding that he hopes to inspire more young athletes to strive toward greater heights.
“Anyone can do it, as long as you train hard and don’t give up.”
Learn more about how you can support Special Olympics Singapore by visiting their website, or their Facebook page.
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