When Private S. Satguru reported to the Naval Diving Unit last September to start his Basic Military Training (BMT), there was just one problem - he could not swim.
"I was posted to the Sembawang Naval Base and the only vocation there is the diving unit, so I knew I had a huge obstacle to overcome," recalls the 21-year- old aeronautical engineering graduate from Singapore Polytechnic.
The unit takes some non-swimmers if they meet other requirements for a combat diver and are willing to learn to swim.
The 1.85m-tall basketballer, who plays centre for the Clementi Community Sports Club team, considers himself athletic. "Running, pull-ups; anything physical on land was not an issue," he says. He proved this by clinching the Best in Physical Training title during BMT.
If he had a choice, he would have picked the commandos as his vocation. "I wanted to challenge myself, and the commandos are land-based. I would have been comfortable in that element."
Still, the diving unit appealed to him, too.
"Diving has always fascinated me," says Pte Satguru, whose father runs a Sim Lim Square shop selling communications equipment. His mother is a hospital patient services assistant, and he has an elder sister in university.
"I went for swimming lessons when I was six years old, but my strokes were all wrong. I was struggling very badly in the water, and the Naval Diving Unit deemed me a complete non-swimmer," he says.
He knew he had to learn to swim, and fast. He began training earnestly on weekend breaks during his BMT, commuting from his Clementi home to the Pasir Ris swimming complex to meet swim instructor Adam Pang, who was also his coursemate.
"Adam gave me tips on how to improve my technique, and slowly, my level of confidence went up," he says of the sessions which lasted up to two hours each time.
He also practised at the Clementi and Singapore Polytechnic pools with other coursemates, even after working out at the gym on weekends.
At the end of the BMT, he swam 50m in his camouflage uniform, treaded water for five minutes, and then made an improvised float using his trousers. "I could swim, even though I was not fast or efficient in the water."
He passed. Failure would have meant being posted to another unit. Now, he could move on to the Combat Diver Course.
The next challenge presented itself at the drown-proofing test in the dive pool, during the second week of the course.
That is when trainees have to perform underwater drills such as somersaults, retrieve a dive mask from the bottom of the pool and swim 50m - all with their hands and feet bound.
"I thought this exercise was totally impossible," recalls Pte Satguru. "How could anyone swim or survive underwater with their hands and legs tied?"
But two months of step-by- step coaching by his dive instructors during his BMT and endless practising paid off.
"I was so happy when I cleared it," he exclaims. "Passing that test really built my self-confidence in the water."
But a final hurdle - the Diver Fitness Test - nearly put paid to his goal of becoming a combat diver. It comprises a run, swim and several static exercises to be completed within a time limit.
"I cleared everything except the 500m swim," he recalls. Each trainee is given up to five tries to swim that distance in 12 minutes. "I had only one try left and if I did not make it, I would have been dropped from the course."
Added pressure came from knowing he was the last of the 17 trainees handpicked to become dive leaders who had yet to pass the swim test.
"As a leader, you are supposed to lead by example, but I just could not meet the swim timing," he says, recalling how hard it was to go faster than 18 minutes.
But after clearing Team Building Week - Hell Week - and its five days of non-stop extreme physical training and harassment from instructors, Pte Satguru could smell the finish line.
"Imagine going through so much and failing just because of a swim," he says.
He slowly worked his way down from 18 minutes to 16, and then 13 minutes. On his final attempt before the end of the course, he gave it his all, and crossed the finish line in 11 minutes, 10 seconds.
"I had to swim for my life," he says with a grin. "Thank God I passed."
He emerged one of the top graduates of the 40th Combat Diver Course, and was one of only four divers sent for midshipman training at the Officer Cadet School.
Pte Satguru says of his mates: "I am really grateful to them. Without their help, I would not have graduated."
He can hardly wait for next January, when he will gain his commission as an officer and return to Sembawang Camp.
"That is where I started my journey," he says. "All my brothers are there - the people I have gone through tough times with. I can't wait to go back there and be part of the frogman family again."
This article was first published on July 26, 2014.
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