Why I Play series: Heptathlete Hannah Esther Tan

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By Iman Hashim

SINGAPORE — It takes guts and passion to take on heptathlon, the gruelling multi-discipline track-and-field women’s event. And Hannah Esther Tan is the only Singaporean heptathlete currently active.

Hannah Esther Tan is the only Singaporean heptathlete currently active. (PHOTO: Stefanus Ian)

As the event requires the athlete to take on not one but seven track-and-field disciplines, it has a notoriously high attrition rate in Singapore. Yet, the 20-year-old Tan chose to focus on the sport when she took a gap year after her ‘O’ Levels to decide on her next step in life.

The Nanyang Polytechnic student had a memorable first heptathlon competitive experience at the Philippines Open in 2017, when even a bad ankle injury suffered early in the competition failed to deter her from soldiering on to complete the event, and eventually secure the gold medal. The following year, Tan smashed the 30-year-old national Under-20 heptathlon record at the Thailand Open.

Q: What is the heptathlon?

A: The heptathlon is a women’s track-and-field event comprising of seven individual events: 100m hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200m, long jump, javelin throw and 800m, and it is competed over two days. Operating on a points system, participants have to score as many points in each of the events, as they are ranked based on the total points they score.

How did you get involved in heptathlon?

I actually started training for the heptathlon in 2016 after my ‘O’ Levels, and that year I took a gap year. Prior to this, I’ve already been trying other events. My parents had always encouraged me to try different sports before making a decision on whether I wanted to focus on just one sport. As I started leaning towards athletics, my father, who firmly objects childhood specialisation, ensured that I was exposed to a variety of events.

The enjoyment that Hannah Esther Tan gets from taking part in different events drives her passion for heptathlon. (PHOTO: Stefanus Ian)

This decision turned out to be great because I derive pure enjoyment from taking part in different events. Upon graduating from secondary school, he asked me what event I would like to focus on and I naturally said, “The heptathlon please!” It just gives me sheer joy doing it.

Was it a tough decision taking a gap year?

It was, actually. l didn’t suggest taking a gap year, it was my dad’s suggestion because he saw that I clearly didn’t know where I wanted to go. He said, “Why don’t you take a step back to really think about what you want to pursue in life, not just for the next year but for a few years down the road.”

And prior to this, I’ve always mentioned that I wanted to be a professional athlete in my 20s, but he said, you know, being a professional athlete requires a lot of commitment, and he wanted me to take a gap year to also experience what it’s like to live the life of a professional athlete, and to see whether I still wanted it after my gap year.

When did you start dabbling in track and field?

I started in Primary 5. I was playing catching one day, and the teacher-in-charge noticed that I could run faster than the boys, so he told me to go for the track-and-field trials that year and I got into the team. But it wasn’t serious training, it was just more of getting myself exposed to track and field, trying out different events, from 200m to 1,500m, long jump, and hurdles. So that’s how I got started.

What is it about track and field that made you decide that this is the sport you want to pursue?

When you’re just so passionate about something, it’s very hard to justify it sometimes. I just felt an immediate connection to track and field and it was something that I just loved right from the start. I mean, there were low points, but the intrinsic motivation to just give my best and to continue pursuing the sport has always been there. It’s unexplainable, really, but I just love my sport.

Hannah Esther Tan used her gap year after her ‘O’ Levels to live the life of a professional athlete. (PHOTO: Stefanus Ian)

Which parts of your body ache the most after a training session or competition?

My brain. It gets me every single time!

Tell me the biggest misconceptions people have of heptathlon.

Many people in the track-and-field scene, especially coaches, think that it is the dumping ground of athletics. So a lot of them think that pursuing the heptathlon is a “waste of time” and that it’s an event that you should do only if you cannot succeed in your individual events.

Actually, at one point, the comments got to me and I thought, yeah, maybe it is a dumping ground, maybe I’m just here because there’s no one and only then I can shine. But as I look at the other heptathletes around the world, they have really good individual results that are sometimes even better than the athletes in those individual events.

So I definitely don’t think it’s a dumping ground. If anything, it’s not an easy event, and it takes a lot to be able to cope and excel at all seven events. It’s a challenge that I feel not many people are willing to take up because not everyone can do the event.

Why do you do the heptathlon and not just specialise in one event? Do you think you might actually do better as a professional athlete if you just focus on one event?

People have been asking me why I don’t just specialise in the hurdles… But I think at the end of the day, it’s what I’m passionate about. I mean, I’ve toyed with the idea of just specialising in the hurdles and really excelling at it, but I couldn’t see myself training for just one event. It is just so much fun and it’s actually something I look forward to, being able to try out different events and excelling at different events.

In pursuing heptathlon, what has been your most memorable experience?

The Philippines Open in 2017 was extremely memorable because it was my very first competitive heptathlon. A lot of things happened at the meet, but it really brought me to a new level of mental toughness. I was already fearing the 800m right from the start, like, “How am I going to finish it? It’s going to be so painful.”

And to make matters worse, I had a very bad injury during the high jump. While I was warming up, my ankle rolled out and I felt this sharp pain. So I sat on the mat, I couldn’t move, it was so painful. Thank goodness I brought some oils with me, so I immediately applied it on my ankle, but it was numb and very weak, and I still had to jump. The jump didn’t go well, and my ankle got worse.

By the end of Day One, the ankle was swollen, it was blue-black, and I couldn’t walk. So my dad had to piggyback me to the bus and back to the hotel. But I told myself that if I could walk the next day, I would continue to compete. The next day I woke up around 5am, I tried walking and it was fine, it was bearable, so I told myself, “Okay fine, I’ll finish the heptathlon.”

Then during the long jump, I landed on my ankle again. When I got out of the sand, I could feel a lot of pain again. I still went into the javelin event, and I could feel the stiffness. It was so painful.

By persevering to complete her event at the 2017 Philippines Open, Hannah Esther Tan learnt a lot about her mental toughness.(PHOTO: Stefanus Ian)

Before the 800m, I was frightened. At the start line, I really didn’t think I was going to finish it, and I was all ready to drop out after one lap. Then we took off, and when I finished the first lap, I was feeling extremely exhausted already, and the pain was horrendous. So I was thinking, okay never mind I’ll just run another 100 metres, and then I would just step out of the track because the pain was too bad.

And then I heard my javelin coach and my teammate cheering for me, “Come on Hannah, don’t give up!” So I was just like, “Oh my God, I can’t just stop here.” So I ran another 100 metres and at the 600-metre mark, I was again like, “Okay, this is it, I’m just stepping out, this is too tiring.” But then the Filipino athletes were cheering for me! They were like, “Come on Singapore!”

I couldn’t just step out like that, right? So I ran another 100 metres.

As I was approaching the 700-metre mark, I suddenly remembered, when I was 14, I would take my Barbie and the Pegasus towel and drape it behind, and just pretend I’m carrying the Singapore flag. And I was reminded of my desire to be able to represent Singapore at an international meet, and to be able to stand on the podium with the Singapore flag. So I told myself, “Okay, it’s just 100 metres, let’s just push forth.” Then I just sprinted the last 100 metres and finished it.

So that meet brought me a lot of pain, but at the same time it helped me break through that mental state of “Oh, I can’t finish this”, and just brought me to a new level of tolerance. It will always stay on my mind.

What life lessons has this sport taught you?

Knowing that your identity should never be solely based on your physical achievements. Yes, it is valid to equate medals and records to success, but it shouldn’t be the absolute indicator of success.

While we all have unique challenges to confront, these moments are pivotal in shaping our character and morals that are so much more vital as they determine the type of life we live. The day I hang up my spikes, I hope to be refined in character and attitude as compared to when I first started out.

Hannah Esther Tan (centre) hopes to become a better person through her athletic endeavours. (PHOTO: Stefanus Ian)

Would you encourage more athletes to pursue heptathlon? How can they get started?

Only if they want to! It is undeniably a gruelling event that many are unwilling to take up, but the pursuit will be worth it. For those who are keen to do so, you could contact any one of our athletics coaches who will be able to help you get started.

Can you tell me in one sentence why you love the heptathlon?

The heptathlon stirs an undeniable passion that stirs deep within me, it leaves me burning, and this is why I do the heptathlon.