Rower achieves Olympic dream despite mum's objection and funding issues

Saiyidah Aisyah Rafa'ee wears a symbol of her five-year sporting dream around her neck, in the shape of an Olympic-rings necklace.

But the trinket the rower wears today, exactly a week before her dream becomes a reality in Rio de Janeiro, is not the original one she got in 2010 when, inspired as a volunteer at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, she decided to aim for the biggest sporting stage of them all.

"This is a new necklace," Aisyah told The New Paper with a giggle.

"Before I left for South Korea (for the Olympic qualifying races in April), I had a small club race in Sydney and I didn't do very well in that race.

"My coach told me, 'If you continue to perform like this, we might as well cancel our trip to Korea'.

"I was so frustrated with my performance that I threw my necklace away. Then I couldn't find it. When I went home after the race, I regretted throwing the necklace away.

"I thought about how far I've come - 12 years of rowing - and just because of one setback, I was going to throw away my dream? Surely not.

"So that was a turning point for me."

The replacement one she wears now was a birthday gift after she achieved qualification in Chungju, South Korea.

Making the cut was by no means straightforward.

After failing to make the 'A' final, which guaranteed automatic qualification, she had only one last shot - finish top of the 'B' final.

She did just that, finishing ahead of two others who had beaten her in the semi-final, to clinch the seventh and final qualification spot for Asia in the women's single sculls.

The feat made the 28-year-old the first Singaporean rower to qualify for the Olympics.

Not bad for someone who took up rowing only in her teens, when a talent scout from the Singapore Rowing Association spotted her during an inter-class rowing machine competition in her school - Bukit Panjang Government High School.

Aisyah said that qualifying for the Olympics ranks as her greatest sporting moment so far.

It is the culmination of many years of hard work and perseverance.

In her quest to make the Olympics, she has been on long-term no-pay leave from her job as a student development officer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic since August last year to move to Sydney to train full-time, up to three times a day and six days a week, under coach Alan Bennett.

SUPPORT

Having used up most of her savings to fund her sporting ambition, Aisyah set up a crowd-funding campaign earlier this year in an effort to complete her final push, and raised $14,000.

Growing up with four brothers made her naturally competitive, but her biggest challenge was to convince her mother to support her Olympic goal.

"My mum is not very supportive of my rowing because I'm her only daughter and I'm always not around," said Aisyah.

"As with all mothers, she wants me to graduate with a degree and find a job.

"But I've done both things and I told her that I want to reach for my goals, which are in rowing."

In the end, her mother relented and even offered to sell the family's flat to fund her qualifying campaign. But Aisyah disagreed and set up her crowd-funding campaign instead.

Perhaps watching Aisyah compete at the Olympics might soften her mum's heart further.

After all, when she gets into the water at the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon on Aug 6, against the backdrop of the famed Christ the Redeemer statue, Aisyah will become Singapore's first Malay Olympian since shuttler Zarinah Abdullah competed at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Aisyah's target in her maiden Olympic outing is a modest one.

"I've discussed this with my coach and we have to set realistic goals," she said. "My goal is to perform to the best of my abilities.

"There are a few finals, from 'A' to 'E'. I aim to be in the 'D' final and make the top 20.

"I have some people telling me, 'Good luck, may you stand on the podium with a medal'. Of course, every athlete wants to win an Olympic medal, but I have to be realistic.

"I want to reach that podium, but trying my best is what I can do at this point."


This article was first published on July 30, 2016.
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