Asean Para Games 2015: Artist with a brush and bat

Eugene Soh is a self-employed mathematics tutor by day, and he swops book for bat by night as captain of Singapore's table tennis team for next week's ASEAN Para Games (APG).

In between, the 52-year-old grips a paintbrush, producing award-winning works that have raised thousands for charity and been displayed in galleries on both sides of the Causeway.

Hectic schedule aside, the bespectacled Soh is genial, soft-spoken and almost polite to a fault.

Apologising profusely for turning up five minutes late for his interview at the Singapore Sports Institute in Kallang, he points to his wheelchair.

"Rush-hour crowd, not easy for me to get through," he says with a warm smile.

But the former Chinese High School student has faced sterner challenges than navigating through packed train stations.

At age nine, walking became a chore. A growth on his spine - known medically as an arteriovenous malformation - caused pain and weakness in his left leg.

At the time, back surgery was risky, even life-threatening. By the time he turned 15, however, the discomfort had reached a point where an operation made sense.

"After the first surgery, I was on crutches, feeling depressed, like my life had been taken away from me," Soh recalled.

Two years later, he went under the knife again to remove further residue from his spine. He has been a wheelchair user since.

But this time, rather than sulk, he found solace in painting, a therapeutic outlet to express his feelings and inner creativity.

Emboldened by his strokes indoors, the National University of Singapore mathematics graduate decided to take a swing under the sun.

He went on to play wheelchair tennis for eight years, before discovering what he called his "true calling" in 2010.

At the behest of wheelchair racer William Tan, Soh picked up a table tennis bat for the first time. To this day, he struggles to put it down.

"We started from scratch. I was serving and smashing tennis-style - what a mess it was," he said with a sardonic laugh. "But I pushed ahead to prove that, no matter how old you are, able-bodied or physically challenged, sport is the best way to stay fit and sharp."

Three-time SEA Games champion Chia Chong Boon offered to coach them pro bono, even sitting on a wheelchair to grasp his charges' view of the table.

Slices trump smashes as strong core muscles are required for opponents to stretch near the net from a seated position.

"Eugene has improved a lot. The transition from tennis to table tennis isn't easy but look at how graceful he is at the table now," said 63-year-old Chia, who won seven national titles.

Soh is ranked 51st in the world in the Class 4 category, which is for athletes with fair sitting balance and fully-functional arms and hands.

He won two bronzes in the open singles and team event at last year's APG in Myanmar - a marked improvement from his 2011 debut when, in his own words, "more time was spent picking up the ball than hitting it".

Thankfully, art taught him patience. It takes about 40 hours for Soh to complete a painting, but he needed three months to master the handshake grip and serve without resembling a tennis player.

Even at training last week, he was learning new ways to angle his shots and force adversaries into awkward stretches.

There is little time, he says, to apply his mathematical nous during a match. But there is one number he is targeting at the APG.

"It would be nice to be No. 1, to get the gold, to celebrate with my wife," said Soh, who is married with no children.

"It has been a tough journey but I'm proud of where I am today.

"Whether it's art, maths or table tennis, I am never satisfied, and always hungry for more."

This article was first published on November 29, 2015.
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