Singapore’s Saiyidah Aisyah rowing her way into Olympics history

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Saiyidah Aisyah is the first rower from Singapore to ever make it to the Olympics, having qualified for Rio 2016. (Photo: Andre He/Yahoo Singapore)

Saiyidah Aisyah is the first rower from Singapore to ever make it to the Olympics, having qualified for Rio 2016. (Photo: Andre He/Yahoo Singapore)

After winning the nation’s first historic SEA Games gold three years ago in Myanmar, expectations were high.

But Singapore national rower Saiyidah Aisyah failed to perform in subsequent competitions. She missed out on an Asian Games podium finish in 2014 and failed to strike gold on home soil at last year’s SEA Games. Performance anxiety and doubt crept in.

“Whenever I went for races, I just tensed up so much and got so nervous because of the pressure, thinking about the outcome and expectations, that I didn't perform well,” she explained.

“That was one of the biggest challenges that I had to face throughout these three years: having to overcome that fear.”

Saiyidah Aisyah, far left, with the other six Asian qualifiers for the Olympics after the event in South Korea. (Photo from Aisyah’s Facebook page)

‘Best’ race ever to make the Olympics

With the help of a mental skills coach, she learnt to overcome self-doubt by slowly building up her mental strength to focus on executing her races right again.

“You know you have that little voice inside your head that sometimes brings you down?” she said. “It's not about telling that voice to shut up; it's about accepting that there's a voice and just listening to another [more positive] voice.”

It came to fruition in South Korea, where her last chance of Olympic qualification rested on Chungju’s Tangeum Lake. Even when she failed to make the ‘A’ final, which would guarantee automatic qualification, she bounced back fast from the setback.

Carrying “lots of hope”, she made history in her final race at the meet - the ‘B’ final - by coming in first ahead of two others who had beaten her in the semi-finals to nab the seventh and final qualification slot for the women’s single sculls. The historic feat made Aisyah the first Singaporean rower to ever qualify for the Olympic Games in April.

“Korea was really interesting because I had never found myself so focused before,” she recalled.

“The last race was basically the best race because I had done all the ‘feeling nervous’ [part] the night before, so on race day I was just excited.

“That changed the whole game-plan: It was basically just to have fun and row as hard as I can. It was actually the first time I've felt like that.”

Achieving this feat made her difficult decision to leave Singapore last August and train full time in Australia “worth it”.

Away from the luxuries and comforts of home, she trained up to three times a day, six days a week under coach Alan Bennett.

Living and training overseas has been a costly affair. Money issues always plagued her – to the point that her mother offered to sell their flat.

“She is supporting the family because my step-dad got unemployed recently,” she explained. “It's been hard on her. Usually she doesn't get involved [with my finances] but when she told me she wanted to sell the house to help me out, I was like 'no, you shouldn't be doing this' because I was the one who made the decision to go on this journey.”

Fortunately, there was no need to sell the family home. Aisyah started a crowd-funding effort in February which raised close to $14,000, and was also awarded additional financial support through a SpexScholarship by SportSG in March this year.

Saiyidah Aisyah’s necklace, which is made up of the Olympic Games logo. (Photo: Aisyah’s Instagram)

A precious reminder around her neck

Aisyah first dreamed of making the Olympics in 2010 and bought a necklace which features the Olympic rings – a reminder to herself of her desire to compete on the world’s biggest sporting stage.

Chasing her Olympic dream stems from a deep desire to challenge herself and prove others wrong.

“Basically, I just want to be the best version of myself and I know you have to take risks to do something you've never done before to achieving something that you've never achieved before,” she explained.

Trumping Thai Olympian Phuttharaksa Negree in 2013 was the start of genuine hope, a hope she held on to despite doing poorly in one race leading up to Korea.

“My coach told me that if I continued to perform like that, we should just cancel the trip to Korea,” she said.

“I was so frustrated that I actually threw away my necklace. I just didn't want to fight anymore. I was so tired of not performing.

“But that made me look back at how far I've come - after 12 years of fighting for this sport, it didn't make sense for me to just stop there… it actually made me just want to push through.”

She has since received a replacement Olympics necklace as a birthday gift, and she constantly wears it.

“I just want to perform to the best of my ability, see how far I can go,” she said with steely determination. “Row as hard as I can, make the country proud. I am really truly honoured to be the first [Singaporean rower].”

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Saiyidah Aisyah will compete in the women’s single sculls event in Rio. (Photo: Andre He/Yahoo Singapore)