No funding? No facilities? No problem for Singapore’s winning wrestlers

Justin Ong
Fit to Post Sports
Singapore's national freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestlers in a sparring session at their Jurong home. (Yahoo! Photo)

Tucked away at the back of a remote futsal facility in Jurong, an inconspicuous blue door frames the entrance to the headquarters of the Wrestling Federation of Singapore (WFS).

But step inside and you won’t find grossly muscle-bound men in fancy costumes jumping off ropes or slapping and hurling chairs at each other.

Instead, the cramped, stuffy room – once used to store the boxing ring for 2010’s Youth Olympic Games – serves as the training area for Singaporean exponents in the Olympic disciplines of freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. The latter differs in its prohibition of moves below the waist.

Here, for over two hours daily, up to 15 national athletes jostle for space to hone their skills on a mat designed for two competitors only.

“We have to accommodate so many people on a mat that is even then cut off and not fully-stretched out,” said WFS secretary and wrestler Aaron Koh. “The training is not as efficient compared to our counterparts overseas, and compared to before.”

The WFS – founded in 2008 by Americans Michael DeNoma and actor Jimmy Taenaka – was once based at a 7,000 sq ft complex in Aljunied. Although primary patron DeNoma left Singapore in late 2010, the infant sport still grew at an impressive pace, scoring silver and bronze medals at the last two Southeast Asian (SEA) Games and expanding its operations to five affiliated locations.

Then the reality of budget and funding issues after their major sponsor withdrew hit hard in March last year, forcing the WFS to bid farewell to its Aljunied home as well as long-time coach Sergei Beloglazov. Training is now voluntarily conducted by part-timers Aliaksandr Hubarevich, a Belarussian PhD student at Nanyang Technological University, and wrestler Paulo Gumal Delos Santos, who flies in from the Philippines on a need-to basis.

Volunteer coaches Hubarevich and Santos take charge of training Singapore's national wrestling team. (Yahoo! Photo)

To make matters worse, the Singapore Sports Council (SSC) recently cut annual funding for the sport from S$199,000 to just over S$44,000 for the new fiscal year.

Gabriel Huang, operations manager and athlete at WFS, told Yahoo! Singapore that the new budget will cover only payment for the use of their Jurong storeroom.

“This cut is major to us because it feels like years of work coming unstuck,” said Huang. “We’ve submitted an appeal, but if it doesn’t go through, we’ll have to consider moving out and de-affiliating from the SSC and the Singapore National Olympic Council.”

It was against this backdrop of less-than-favourable conditions that the national wrestlers made history earlier this month at the Pre-SEA Games in Myanmar. For the first time ever in an overseas competition, Singapore achieved three gold medals, courtesy of Leonard Kong and Arvind Lalwani, on top of one silver and five bronzes.

Click on to meet the winning Singaporean wrestlers.

Ringleaders

The landmark result was all the more stunning given that 29-year-old Kong and Lalwani, 33, each spent less than a month preparing for the competition.

Business development executive Kong had just over three weeks of training and shrugged off a knee injury to take two golds in the 96kg freestyle and 96kg Greco-Roman categories.

Lalwani, who runs and coaches at mixed martial arts (MMA) gym Juggernaut Fight Club, sheepishly admitted to having only one week of intensive practice leading up to his gold in the 120kg freestyle and silver in the 120kg Greco-Roman events. It was also the ex-national boxer’s competitive wrestling debut.

Kong insisted that their wins had nothing to do with a sub-par level of competition. “The standard is there, it’s just not as big a pool because it’s the pre-SEA Games after all.”

Both gold medallists, along with coaches Hubarevich and Santos, see Philippines and Vietnam as their strongest opponents in SEA. While the Filipino wrestlers were absent from Myanmar due to financial reasons, Vietnam was the only country to best Singapore with a dominant haul of 16 gold medals.

Trust Kong to know the competition: he was part of the team training for the 2009 SEA Games, and in December that year, took part in the Commonwealth Wrestling Championships in India. It was his maiden international event, and the former school swimmer, cyclist and rugby player lost all his matches in an experience he called a “shock to the system”.

Leonard Kong with his double gold-medal haul. (Yahoo! Photo)

Much has changed since, and Kong, who is an avid user of the CrossFit exercise programme, now appreciates the importance of competition exposure more than ever. Like Lalwani, he had no qualms forking out around S$800 to participate in the Myanmar meet, but the affable, strapping athlete believes that “the real story here” belongs to his juniors in the federation.

“For me, it’s not that bad, I’m a working professional,” said Kong. “But these boys are still schooling, don’t have jobs yet and have to ask their parents for money to fly out there.”

Of the five bronze medalists in Myanmar, Sean Lee, 19; Toh Xhin Ran, 18; and Eddy Khidzer, 19 are polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education students who have yet to attend National Service.

Bronze medallists (from L-R) Aaron Koh, Eddy Khidzer, Gabriel Huang, Toh Xin Ran and Sean Lee. (Yahoo! Photo)

Kong then spoke of the fledgling wrestlers’ refusal to let the lack of funding affect their commitment to the sport. “They’re going to a tournament in Thailand tomorrow, taking a 21-hour budget train ride to wrestle over the weekend and come back. They do this all the time.”

Training with the younger athletes helped inspire Kong’s newfound appreciation for the hardworking ethic behind wrestling, a lesson further drilled home at the recent pre-SEA Games meet.

“I used to love to pull off fancy moves and win magnificently,” confessed Kong. “But Aliaksandr and Paulo gave me very sound advice: it doesn’t matter if it’s not spectacular, just keep it simple.”

“Just wrestle, just fight. Fight hard.”

The sheer combative aspect of the sport is something that Lalwani undoubtedly identifies with. He attributed his “unexpected” wins to a “fighter’s instinct” sharpened over 17 years of competitive boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and MMA.

Even then, Lalwani considers wrestling, which he picked up in 2008, as one of – if not the – toughest fight sports around.

“Being punched in the face is different from being slammed on the head,” laughed the thickset athlete, when asked to compare his first love, boxing, with more recent exploits on the wrestling mat. “And training (for wrestling) is very, very tough.”

“I really like the discipline involved; the hard work; the dedication,” said Lalwani, mirroring Kong’s sentiments. “Training’s always hard, fighting’s easy. All the work is done before the fight.”

Arvind Lalwani with his well-earned medal coup. (Yahoo! Photo)

Turn the page to find out what's next for Singapore wrestling.

Back to the grind for Singapore's national wrestlers, who train for two hours in the evening every day. (Yahoo! Photo)

Contending with the future

For the WFS, however, the drastic funding cuts have made securing contests hard work in itself.

“At the end of the day, you need money for competitions,” Lalwani told Yahoo! Singapore. “I hope SSC has seen what we can do with all that we won, and hopefully start helping out wrestling more.”

The federation is looking to raise around S$150,000 this year alone, according to Huang, who also scored a third-place finish at the pre-SEA games event. Most of it will have to be sourced from donors, and the wrestlers are doing their bit by chipping in with what they can, with some even attempting to convince their employers to help out with sponsorship.

For all their momentous efforts in Myanmar, the WFS received no payout, let alone recognition, from the SSC. On the other hand, bronze medallist Koh shared that the winning Vietnamese wrestlers were given a US$2,000 reward from their relatively less-well-off government.

The situation has made it even more crucial for the wrestlers to deliver a strong showing at the 27th SEA Games in Myanmar at the end of the year. Both Kong and Lalwani are gunning for a spot in the Singapore contingent, and hopes are high, with the coaches setting a target of at least three medals.

“We’re already at the same level as Philippines and Vietnam, and can get even better,” asserted Hubarevich. Kong was equally confident of his chances: “If I go, I’m going to want gold.”

See more pictures of Singapore's national wrestlers here: