Price of chasing their dreams

From the $6.5 million Olympic Pathway Programme to its successor, the $40 million Sports Excellence (Spex) scholarships, there is little doubt that in recent years Singapore's national athletes receive significant financial support.

But no system is perfect and with a finite amount of funding to allocate, some local sportsmen inevitably receive less.

Sailors Justin Liu and Denise Lim's historic triumph in last month's International Sailing Federation World Cup Qingdao leg was also noteworthy for another reason - their successful campaign was largely bankrolled by their own funds.

A string of poor results earlier this year had led to their partial funding from the Singapore Sailing Federation being cut as they did not meet the association's criteria for fiscal aid.

The struggle for sponsorship is nothing new to tennis player Sarah Pang, the only Singaporean competing on the Women's Tennis Association's lower-tier circuits.

A former schools badminton player, she took up tennis at 19 and had countless doors slammed in her face as she chased her dream of becoming a full-time professional.

"What I saw was a lot of doubt, and those moments were honestly very discouraging," said the 30-year-old.

After graduating from the National University of Singapore in 2008, Pang took on three part-time jobs for a year as well as two loans from friends to pay for a three-week training stint at the famous Sanchez-Casal Tennis Academy in Barcelona costing $11,000.

Scrimping and saving has been par for the course for golfer Koh Sock Hwee, whose resume includes maths tuition teacher and a statistical data collator for taxi companies.

Her ongoing campaign at the LPGA Tour's qualifying school in Florida in the hopes of qualifying for playing privileges on the US-based multi- million-dollar circuit have already set her back more than $30,000.

"It's a big financial risk but you can't put a price on chasing your dreams," said the 2015 SEA Games double bronze medallist, who as a carded athlete receives $1,200 annually from Sport Singapore.

Top-tier Spex scholars like Asian Games swimming champion Joseph Schooling and table tennis star Feng Tianwei, meanwhile, are given a monthly stipend of up to $8,400.

The programme, launched in 2013, is part of the revised High Performance Sports scheme which is aimed at supporting talented athletes with the potential to bag medals at the Asian, world and Olympic levels.

However, for those athletes in the low-profile sports like rower Saiyidah Aisyah, who has been training full-time in Sydney since August, financial assistance is in short supply.

Her final chance to make the cut for next year's Olympics in Rio will be at the Asian qualification regatta to be held in South Korea.

But her savings - her visa prevents her from working - will run out long before the race in April.

Said the 2013 SEA Games lightweight single sculls (2,000m) champion: "Sometimes, I do think of quitting. I am human too and there are days when I feel down and feel like just packing up and going back home and going back to work and not having to think about some crazy dream of mine.

"And then I realise that if I do that, I wouldn't ever be able to forgive myself."

Those sentiments echo a similar message of conviction expressed by Oregon-based marathoner Soh Rui Yong, another local athlete who is seeking to earn a coveted spot in Brazil.

The 2015 SEA Games champion has been actively searching for sponsors - Flight Centre Active Travel and sports supplement online portal have pledged their support in the last few months - to help defray his expenses as he approaches the critical period of his Olympic campaign.

"To others like me out there, don't let your funding or your fate rest solely in the hands of your national sports association or SportSG.

"Take the initiative to chase your dreams, keep working, and never let anyone tell you that you cannot do it."

This article was first published on October 18, 2015.
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