Not plain sailing but Poh wants a front row

Not plain sailing but Poh wants a front row
Joan Poh (left), with rowing partner Joanna Chan (right).

It only takes a handshake to know a rower. In those few seconds of interaction, you feel the calluses that line the top of her palm.

Calluses are a proof of effort. They come from five hours every day on the water when carbon oars create a painful friction with sweaty palms.

Joan Poh knows better than most the price that her palms pay for her sport. After all, the national rower was a former dragon boater and sailor - sports that also make the athletes susceptible to blisters and bleeding hands.

Yet, new skin toughens the hands and experience strengthens the athlete.

And her years in dragon boating and sailing have eased her into rowing since she joined the national team last December.

"Rowing is like a combination of everything I've learnt. Dragon boat gave me a foundation in fitness and taught me how to work in a team, while sailing taught me to be independent," said the 24-year-old, who will be rowing in a coxless pair boat with Joanna Chan.

But it was not always smooth sailing for Poh. After four years of dragon boating - which included a SEA Games appearance in 2011 - she took a risk in 2013 and joined the national sailing team in hopes of competing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

To focus on gaining more sailing experience overseas, she even took a gap year from her studies at the National University of Singapore.

Together with her then-sailing partner Dawn Liu, she took part at last year's Sailing World Championships in Spain.

But the partnership never flourished, as they finished last among 55 competitors.

As the SEA Games drew near, Poh thought she had lost her chance to compete on home ground.

"I almost signed up as a volunteer for the Games because I thought that would be the only way I could be part of it," she said.

Then, on a whim, she heeded a friend's suggestion to try out for the rowing team and managed to gain a spot after the trials last year. Pairing up with Chan - who has been rowing for seven years - the duo proved to be a strong fit.

Three months after she joined the rowing team, the duo won their first medal in March after finishing third in the women's 1,000m coxless pairs at the Asia Cup Rowing Championships held at the Marina Barrage.

Said Chan, 22: "At first, I was a bit worried because I wasn't sure if she could hit the target stroke rate. But she managed to after all the training."

The third-place finish has also given the duo enough confidence to go for a podium finish at next month's SEA Games.

They do have some way to go, though, with their Asia Cup time of 3min 57sec still far back from Vietnam's winning time of 3:49.

Yet, Poh said: "Joanna and I think quite alike. Competing at this coming Games in front of our friends and family means a lot to us. We will go for gold."

At the 2013 SEA Games in Myanmar, Saiyidah Aisyah earned Singapore a rowing gold in the women's 2,000m lightweight single sculls event - the Republic's best individual performance for the sport.

After her win, rowing was added to this year's SEA Games line-up although her pet event has been left out. Saiyidah will be competing in the 500m and 1,000m lightweight single sculls.

This year, Singapore Rowing Association president Nicholas Ee hopes the athletes will win three medals, with at least a gold. For Poh, she feels that she has finally found her home in rowing.

"Every sport has a sweet spot, when you know you're doing something right and that gives you a sense of achievement," she said.

"(I get that feeling) every time I feel the boat gliding through the water, the feeling that the boat is powering through the water. "I find it very addictive."

This article was first published on May 20, 2015.
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