National shuttler Vanessa Neo dislikes being touched on the shoulder when playing mahjong. It is something that her fiance, fellow national shuttler Derek Wong, 26, knows all too well.
"I'm very pantang (Malay for taboo) when I play mahjong, but he would come and purposely touch me," she said with an exasperated laugh.
At 27, Vanessa is one of the more experienced members of the national badminton squad. She joined the team in 2004, after making the big decision to quit her studies at Raffles Junior College to play full-time.
"For badminton, it is very hard to juggle your studies and sport. You have to make a lot of sacrifices," she said.
She trains six hours a day, six days a week.
She travels the world competing in tournaments. In the weeks following this interview, she was scheduled to compete in three overseas competitions.
But there is a perk to having a boyfriend who is also part of the national squad - she gets to see him every day.
"See until sian (Hokkien for boredom)," she quips, when asked about the downside.
Once a year, she takes a two-week holiday in between tournaments.
It was during such a holiday to Japan in 2013 that Derek proposed. But there will not be any wedding bells yet, at least not till after next year's Olympic Games.
"The Olympics is still the No.1 priority. I'll see how after that," she said.
She is already planning her post-sporting career, though she has not decided when that will happen.
Getting a degree is part of the plan. She already has a diploma in sports science. She said: "Maybe the degree won't come in useful at the end of the day, but it's more like an upgrade for myself."
For the moment, she is focused on improving her world ranking.
A doubles specialist, she is currently ranked 17 in mixed doubles (with Danny Bawa Chrisnanta) and 74 in women's doubles (with Shinta Mulia Sari).
Her partnership with Shinta started only this year although they have trained together for the past 10 years.
"It is the life of a doubles player," she said, about being paired with a new partner.
She had played women's doubles with Fu Mingtian last year. China-born Mingtian was the first Singaporean to win a SEA Games Gold medal in 2011.
By the end of the year, Vanessa aims to be in the top 20 for the women's doubles event. This is important because to qualify for next year's Olympics, she has to be ranked in the top 13 by next April.
The upcoming OUE Singapore Open gives her an opportunity to score valuable ranking points. The competition, to be played at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, will also help her prepare for the SEA Games in June, which will be held at the same venue.
She reckons that, together with her quest for Olympic qualification, the SEA Games will be the biggest event for her this year.
For budding athletes, she has this advice: "It is not an easy path to take. Don't give up because of one or two setbacks. It will take a lot of sacrifices and self-discipline. I believe that if you follow your dream, it will come true."
Catch her in action at the OUE Singapore Open which started yesterday and will run till Sunday.
This article was first published on Apr 8, 2015.
Get a copy of Digital Life, The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.