Steel Magnolia

The first thing that strikes you as you walk into Fu Mingtian's personal space in the hostel room at the Singapore Sports School is how pink it is.

Pink wallpaper, pink laptop, pink pillow case and blanket, and even a Pink Panther soft toy on her bed.

The pixie-faced shuttler said cheerily: "I've liked the colour for a long time and people say I look good in that colour too."

For sure, the past six months have been as rosy as her cubicle's colour theme in the big room, which the 21-year-old shares with several teammates.

First, Mingtian became the first Singaporean to win the women's singles badminton title at last November's South-east Asia Games in Jakarta.

One week ago, she became the first shuttler to win the Sportswoman of the Year accolade at the annual Singapore Sports Awards.

But if fate had taken a different twist though, Mingtian could have been a gymnast, a synchronised swimmer, or a diver, like her famous cousin Fu Mingxia.

She recounted: "My mum thought it would be a good idea to get me involved in sports before I started primary school.

"I started learning gymnastics for a couple of years and then synchronised swimming for another, at this place where my jiejie (elder sister in Mandarin) picked up the basics."

Jiejie is Mingtian's affectionate term for Mingxia, and the latter would dote on her youngest cousin by bringing her snacks or toys whenever she returned to Hubei on holiday in the past.

Mingtian would not follow in Mingxia's footsteps though, but it was not for the lack of trying.

She said: "When I was learning synchronised swimming, the diving coach asked me to try, so I did for a week.

Terrified

"It was fun at first because I was just jumping on the trampoline, but I was terrified when it was time to do the actual dive.

"The coach tied a rope around my waist so that he could pull me up if I didn't surface from the pool.

"And then he pushed me in. Needless to say, I gave that up and returned to synchronised swimming.

 "Later, the diving coach told me that I probably wouldn't be suitable because my dad is about 1.81m-tall, so I might be just as tall."

However, Mingtian would eventually grow to a height of 1.65m, which would be ideal for a diver.

She added: "Who would have thought that I would eventually turn out to have the right build for diving?"

When she entered primary school, Mingtian and her parents thought it would be the end of her sporting career.

Until one fateful day when she was in Primary Two.

She was having her PE lesson when a coach from one of the amateur sports schools came in and invited about a dozen students to try out badminton.

Asked why she thought she was among those picked, Mingtian said: "My height was quite okay for my age, and I was also the sports representative for my class."

She became part of the provincial training squad after primary school, and after two years, was about to go for selection for the main team when an opportunity came knocking.

Mingtian recalled: "A coach came to scout for players to play in Singapore. Back then, I really wanted to see the world.

"My parents had hoped that I would stay by their side, play professionally for the province and perhaps, eventually study in a nearby university."

But she was determined to broaden her horizons and decided to take up the Singapore Badminton Association's offer, even if it meant that the only child would be leaving her parents.

The steely grit that won her the gold medal in the hostile cauldron in Jakarta was already evident when she came to Singapore in 2003.

She said: "I would cry as I missed home for the first six months, but I wouldn't tell my parents because I didn't want them to come to take me back.

"I pushed myself really hard during training too because I wanted to stay in Singapore."

She got her wish and became a Singapore citizen in 2007 under the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme.

However, before her historic SEA Games feat last year, Mingtian's list of honours was short - she only won the girls' doubles title at the 2008 World Junior Championships with Yao Lei and the Vietnam Open women's singles title last year.

She said, her megawatt smile slightly fading: "That was a low period in my life, but even then I have never regretted taking up badminton or coming to Singapore.

"My coach would say, 'When you hit rock bottom, the only way is up'."

And it seems that she is on the up now with her recent achievements, although there is also a blip recently - her non-selection for the London Olympics next month.

 Good fight

She paused a while before saying: "A lot of people felt sorry for me, but it's alright. I wasn't really that unhappy when I got the news during our recent training camp in Taiwan.

"I kind of knew (that I wouldn't get it) based on my performances in general during competitions, but I just wanted to give it a good fight.

"I respect the selection committee's decision."

She may be all girly and cheery, but make no mistake, there is real steel beneath that charming facade.

"I would cry as I missed home for the first six months, but I wouldn't tell my parents because I didn't want them to come to take me back. I pushed myself really hard during training too because I wanted to stay in Singapore."

FACTFILE

NAME: Fu Mingtian
BIRTHDAY: June 27, 1990
HEIGHT: 1.65m
WEIGHT: 56kg

TRIVIA

Favourite movie?
I like action movies and my last show was The Avengers, but my favourite would be Titanic. I watched it about three times, even the 3D version recently.

Favourite singer?
(Taiwanese singer and TV host) Show Luo. I just like his songs.

If I could be stuck in the lift with someone, it would be... S
how Luo. I can chat with him... and maybe even ask for his number! (giggles)

If I weren't a badminton player, I would be a...
Probably someone who works in the office. They look very important, wearing their suits and typing away on the computer. Exactly what I want to do in the office? I have no idea!

Lin Dan or Lee Chong Wei?
I prefer Lee Yong Dae (South Korean Olympics mixed doubles champion). He's got a lot of style on the court and he's very handsome too. But if I had to choose between the two, it would be Lin Dan. He's very, very good on court and has won almost everything in the sport.

What do you do in your free time?
Training is very tough, so I would be in my room surfing the Internet, watching shows or chatting with my parents via QQ (chat application) on week nights. On weekends, I would go for karaoke sessions, watch movies or go shopping with my friends.

How would you describe yourself?
As she ponders the question, roommate Xing Aiying shouts in Mandarin from across the partition: White (referring to her fair complexion), and well-behaved!

Tell us something about yourself that not many people know.
I have a boyfriend, whom I've known for a long time. He lives in Hubei and his family knows my family very well.

sayheng@sph.com.sg 


This article was first published in The New Paper.

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