Singapore’s only female rower fights for the fate of her sport at SEA Games

Justin Ong
Fit to Post Sports

Saiyidah Aisyah is Singapore's sole representative in the sport of rowing at the 2013 SEA Games. (Photo: Croker Oars/Aisyah's Facebook)

How does it feel to have the future of a sport lie entirely in your hands?

“Absolutely nerve-wracking”, says Saiyidah Aisyah, Singapore’s only competitive female rower and sole representative at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in December this year.

When the sprightly 25-year-old takes to the waters in Myanmar to compete in her 2km lightweight single sculls category, she will carry the hopes and dreams of a small but dedicated group of athletes from the Singapore Rowing Association.

The niche sport is struggling to stay afloat in Singapore after its annual budget was cut to zero by the Singapore Sports Council in the middle of this year.

Aisyah, who has been funding her own training and competition expenses throughout the year, admitted that she puts herself under constant pressure to perform well.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility, all the time,” she told Yahoo Singapore in an email from Sydney, Australia, where she is training full-time in preparation for the SEA Games. “I want to show that rowing deserves to be at the 2015 SEA Games (to be) held here in Singapore.”

The first big step towards that, according to Aisyah, is nothing less than a gold medal finish in Myanmar.

Aisyah training in Australia ahead of her mission at the SEA Games. (Photo: Rowing Down Under / Aisyah's Facebook)

Steady improvement

The signs are promising. Since she started rowing in 2004, Aisyah has bagged three bronze medals over two previous SEA Games editions.

Also among her clutch of achievements is a third-place finish at the 2010 Asia Cup, a silver medal at the Southeast Asian championships in May this year and an overall 17th ranking at the world championships in Korea three months ago.

Aisyah attributes her progress to two coaches who volunteered to guide her only recently. She had been training on her own since the 2011 SEA Games.

Former Japanese rowing coach Goken Sakamoto has been training her on weekends since moving to Singapore in December last year, while Australian Alan Bennett now coaches her daily out of the Mosman Boat Club in Sydney.

“It’s not their job,” said a grateful Aisyah. “And they’re not even receiving any remuneration for their services.”

Aisyah in Australia under the guidance of coach Alan Bennett. (Photo: Alan Bennett)

Priming for the big race

Aisyah herself isn’t paid to row, but she did receive S$10,000 from the Peter Lim Scholarship in July in recognition of her outstanding performance in the sport.

Half the sum is going into her training camp in Sydney, where she undergoes intensive practice with an elite team of Australian national rowers and champions.

Aisyah believes she is benefitting from not training alone for the first time, as well as being immersed in a rowing scene regularly packed with local regattas and races.

She recently won two of those – despite being still on the mend from surgery after a freak accident at the beach left the feisty lass with a broken nose and a small hole in her retina.

Aisyah rowing at Pandan Reservoir with members of the men's national team. (Photo: Aisyah's Facebook)

‘Ultimate goal’

Back in Singapore, Aisyah works a day job as a student development manager at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. She’s unfazed by the prospect of her peers steaming ahead in their careers, while she devotes the bulk of her energies to hours and hours of rowing at Pandan Reservoir.

“I reckon I’m at the peak of my athletic career, and I’m taking full advantage of my youth right now,” she explained. “I can always start a career after I retire from sports.”

And that won’t happen until she’s reached her “ultimate goal”: to represent Singapore at the Olympics.

Above and beyond, the plan is to “get married, have kids, and be like everyone else”, she joked. “After all, I think winning a gold medal at the SEA Games and representing the nation in the Olympics would serve as more exciting storytelling for my grandchildren.”

Perhaps so, but one suspects Saiyidah Aisyah already has quite the story to tell.

Singapore's fighting female rower Saiyidah Aisyah. (Photo: Nick Garratt)

Aisyah opens her SEA Games campaign on 14 December. Catch all the action at the 2013 SEA Games from 5 - 22 December in Myanmar here on Yahoo Singapore.