In the 10 years that Rachel Yang has been pole vaulting, she has just about heard it all. Not the acclaim - but, rather, the sneering.
That she is wasting her time on the sport and should give it up. That her new role as a mother meant her focus should be on her two-year-old son. That her petite 1.57m frame is simply not cut out for a technical discipline where its best athletes are usually taller. Or the most cutting comment of them all - that she always fails to perform when it matters.
"I started pole vaulting late, at the age of 23, and I was written off right from the beginning," the 33-year-old told The Straits Times.
Her 3.83m effort at the Malaysian Open last week bettered her own national record by 1cm.
She posted 3.70m yesterday at the Singapore Open to clinch a bronze, finishing behind Thailand's Chomchuendee Chayanisa (4m) and South Korean Choi Yun Hee (4m).
Yang is not oblivious to the comments and certainly is not immune to them. She said: "For years, I struggled with the negative comments which kept ringing in my head during competitions.
"They made me want to prove my critics wrong too much. Pole vault is a very technical event... and hence requires great concentration to execute well.
"But in most competitions, I was overwhelmed by the negativities and performed far off from my training," she added, pointing to how she cleared 4m in a trial jump at the 2011 SEA Games in Palembang, but failed to clear a height 40cm lower when competition started.
Singapore's top female pole vaulter knows she cannot silence her detractors. She has simply learnt to let her results do the talking.
Her performance last week, her best since giving birth in February 2013, earned her a starting berth at June's SEA Games.
It will be the first time she is competing at the biennial Games since 2011, having been unable to get back in shape in time for the Naypyidaw Games.
The stride back to the top of the sport has been a long and arduous journey marked by setbacks.
When she got back to training just three weeks after giving birth, Yang found she had lost much of her strength.
She could not even hang onto the pull-up bar for more than three seconds, a far cry from doing 10 pull-ups before. Even after training for six months, she was still nowhere near what she was capable of doing pre-pregnancy. She said: "I wanted to give up. Mentally, it was tormenting. Physically, it was tiring."
But neither the comeback nor disbelief from the people around her felt as trying as the "politics", she said.
While she did not refer specifically to any event, Yang has had a testy relationship with national governing body Singapore Athletics, including a bitter episode over her participation in a pole vault meet in South Korea last year.
She took to Facebook to voice her grievances then, earning threats of legal action from the association, which deemed her comments as defamatory.
That run-in drove her to the lowest point in her decade-long career, she said, and also contributed to her missing out on qualifying for the Asian Games last year.
She said: "It caused me to be overwhelmed by bitterness and worries. In training, I was more concerned with having to deal with a possible lawsuit than with training itself.
"In the end, I just completely lost focus and the qualification."
But now, Yang said she has finally found the breakthrough she so longed for.
So much so that despite juggling a full-time job as a marketing and partnership manager at the Singapore Sports Hub, a schedule that sees her train six days a week, her role as a mother, and now a student pursuing her MBA, she remains undaunted.
She even has her eyes set on crossing the 4.2m mark and a medal come June on home soil.
She said: "It's been very long comeback. Last year was particularly difficult. The record (at the Malaysian Open) was really a breakthrough."
Said her husband David, who also doubles as her coach: "Being her husband, I know how many times she wakes up at night to feed our son. I look at the things she has on her plate and I can't help but tell my friends this is a superwoman."
Added Yang: "I may be greedy. But I just want to live my life with no regrets. I want to be a good role model for my son so that he learns (about) commitment and hard work.
"...We may not be the ones making it to the Olympics but the minimum that we can do is to bring the level of Singapore's pole vaulting closer to the world's, making it easier for the next generation to dream and achieve."
This article was first published on April 6, 2015.
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