NDP 2018: Pioneer Singaporean female athlete who raced against all odds

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
Pioneer Singaporean female athlete Mary Klass, 83, poses for photographers at the National Museum on Tuesday, 4 July 2018. PHOTO: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore

One of the stars of this year’s National Day Parade (NDP) is a pioneer female athlete that not many Singaporeans would have heard of. But once upon a time, Mary Klass, 83, won a silver medal at the Asian Games, competed in the OIympics and was considered the fastest woman in Malaya.

Klass’s achievements happened in the 1950s when funding and support for athletes in Singapore were rare, and female athletes were even rarer – she was even expected to do housework before she could go for training.

Her late father also disapproved of her sporting endeavours. “I suppose in his mind, he must be thinking: of all things, she picks sports,” said the fifth of seven children with a smile. “(But) I was quite serious…very determined.”

The former sprinter is one of the subjects of a 10-minute show film that will be screened at this year’s NDP, telling the real-life stories of five Singaporeans who have overcome adversity. It is directed by acclaimed filmmaker Boo Junfeng, who is also the creative director for NDP 2018.

Alluding to the opposition from her father that Klass faced in becoming an athlete, Boo told reporters at the NDP 2018 media briefing on Tuesday (3 July), “These are stories that are still happening today with anyone who has ambitions but is perhaps facing obstacles. It is really in these experiences that I draw my inspiration.”

Klass’ story was previously told in the 2017 documentary directed by Brenda Er entitled When The Stars Align.

‘Stand tall for my country’

Speaking to reporters at the same briefing, Klass, who started running at the age of 17, recalled training twice a day from Mondays to Fridays and being “pushed around” by people who did not think she would make the cut. She never had a personal coach and also trained with boys in a bid to improve her stamina.

While Klass was warming up for the 100m sprint final at the 1954 Asian Games, she overheard the Japanese coach saying, “This event between Japan and Singapore”, but a fellow Singaporean dismissed her chances of winning. Ultimately, Klass won a silver medal, after tying with her Japanese opponent for the fastest timing.

After retiring from competitive running in 1957, Klass married Sandy De Souza – the “boy next door” who used to watch her train – and became a housewife.

Now a mother of four and grandmother to four, Klass said she drew inspiration from her late mother, who suffered from tuberculosis. “She suffered 17 years with one lung. She’s a very, very strong person. Looking at her, that she can persevere (with) her sickness and never let her sickness get the better of her, that gave me all the confidence in what I wanted to do.”

Asked how it felt to be a part of the parade, Klass said, “I feel great. (It’s) so wonderful that people still remember me.”

Klass envied the current generation of athletes in Singapore who have access to more resources than in her younger days and whose parents can afford to support them. Her advice to today’s athletes, “Never lose courage. If you have to lose, you lose…but always be a good sportsperson.”

She also has vivid memories of going to the former National Stadium at Kallang after it opened in 1973. “I said in an interview that looking at the stadium, it made me feel so great. If only I could turn back the clock, I’d be flying into that stadium.”

Related stories

NDP 2018 creative director Boo Junfeng: ‘Unity’ is not just about ‘propaganda’

NDP 2018 releases cover version of 1987’s ‘We Are Singapore’

National Day Parade 2018 tickets ready for collection