Singapore athlete gets laughed at, rejected and defeated – but still walks on

Edmund Sim truly suffers for his sport.

The Singaporean national racewalker, 30, is routinely made fun of and abused during training sessions – all because of the very nature of his activity.

“In (race) walking, you need to move your hips… so you look like a model,” Sim sheepishly admitted, as he shared with Yahoo Singapore numerous unpleasant encounters over his 17 years in the sport.

He’s been called “ah gua” (Chinese dialect for a man acting womanly) and “bapok” (Malay for transvestite) along with a host of other profanities.

Once, he was intentionally tripped by a school student.  On another occasion, a kid pulled down his shorts while the child’s parents stood by laughing.

“Initially, I’d get angry, and stop to scold them,” recalled the affable Sim. “But after a while, there was just no point. How many can I argue with? Best to just work on what I’m doing and show them this is a real sport.”

Racewalking, however, is as real as it gets: for instance, Sim can complete 5km in 22 minutes, and holds the national records for 10km (45.55mins) and 20km (1:36.01hrs) – admirable timings even by running standards.

Making do

But negative public perception hasn’t been the only obstacle the diminutive, 1.65m-tall sportsman has had to navigate.

With racewalking rules requiring one foot to make contact with the ground at all times, Sim’s shoes typically wear out quicker than most.

And because he doesn’t “come from a rich family”, he refused to take money from his parents when he started competing.

As a Secondary Two student, Sim walked his first-ever race wearing canvas footwear from Bata. Five years later, he completed his first international race with blisters resulting from a hole at the bottom of one shoe.

These days, the full-time human resources manager goes through more than five pairs of shoes a year, costing him over S$1,000 – a modest consequence of training up to 12 times a week.

He’s tried to source for equipment sponsorships, but to no avail. “I’ve been rejected by every single brand out there. Nobody’s willing to sponsor a sport that won’t give them as much exposure as running,” said Sim. “So I’ll just have to train harder and get good results.”

Down but not out

To that end, Sim has juggled work and training since 2007, with the help of two long-time coaches who voluntarily guide him for free, twice a week.

Aside from them, he treads a lonesome path, with Singapore’s other national racewalkers all students at junior level. But the man jokingly disagrees:  “I have a lot of training partners, especially in the parks, with so many people running!”

It was in a bid to improve – and qualify for the 2013 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games – that Sim forked out over S$4,000 from his own pocket to attend a three-week high-level training camp in South Africa in January last year.

While the experience of walking alongside some of the world’s best proved invaluable, he unfortunately didn’t make the cut for the Games last year – and it was at this low point that Sim pondered walking away from the sport for good.

But friends and coaches convinced him to give it one last shot, seeing how the next edition of the regional meet will be held in Singapore itself come 2015.

“If I make it, it’ll be my first – and last – SEA Games,” said Sim.

On his own feet

The road to qualification has kicked off somewhat auspiciously for Sim. Last month, at the Asian 20km Race Walking Championships in Japan, he clocked 1:36.58hrs, 40 seconds shy of the mark for the 2015 Games. Last year’s SEA Games gold-medalist crossed the tape in 1:29hrs.

Should he make the Games next year, there remains just one thing left for the determined racewalker to fulfil.

“Before I retire, I really hope to get Singapore’s 50km record,” said Sim, whose personal best of 5:18hrs is some 11 minutes off the national milestone.

With just over a year to go, would he consider leaving his job to focus on training full-time?

“I don’t know whether I still can get a job when I come back, so no, it’s not feasible,” Sim solemnly concluded. “Singapore is still career-driven. If I do something like that it’ll affect my career progression. Ultimately, we work for survival.”

But it’s also clear that none of life’s harsher realities can dampen the veteran athlete's love for racewalking. The big question is, why stick with the sport, despite the inherent difficulties he’s had to endure?

“I’ve tried many other sports and none provide as much satisfaction -- and as many constraints,” joked the former cross-country runner, who stumbled upon racewalking when he was "too lazy" to run his secondary school's yearly road race.

Sim explained that while we can run anytime we want, the highly technical nature of racewalking prevents casual participation in the sport. But the real reasons for his passion are far more deep-rooted.

“Racewalking made me more patient and tolerant,” he added. “It taught me how to fight against the odds my whole life… I’d say it’s harder to knock me down now.”