SEA Games: Isabelle ready to cross divide

SINGAPORE- She became the youngest paddler to don Singapore colours at age 11, prompting many to dub her a future champion.

But Isabelle Li, now 19 and a Youth Olympic and SEA Games silver medallist, never felt more than just a kid playing a sport she loved.

As much as she enjoyed and excelled at the game, table tennis as a full-time endeavour was not something she was sure of - until 2010 when she temporarily put studies aside to focus on the YOG.

"None of this was planned," she said, pointing to her role as a national paddler, competing against the world's best at some of the sport's biggest events.

"When I was younger, I played out of passion for the sport. I didn't know this was what I wanted to do. I just took everything one step at a time, and I eventually ended up here."

As a local born-and-bred talent, she remains the minority among Singapore's stellar cast of players. But while others might have been intimidated, Isabelle did not cower from the challenge.

She said: "Sometimes, it's really about callings in life, and table tennis feels like something that is in season in my life right now."

Ranked 226th in the world, the final-year student at Republic Polytechnic has grown to be the local face of Singapore table tennis.

The nation rallied behind her in the YOG where she won a silver in the singles on home soil.

She bagged a silver at the 2011 SEA Games, then still only 17.

For all the impressive titles she has collected on the junior circuit, she is now commencing another journey, albeit a much tougher one - the transition to the senior ranks where she will face the sport's giants regularly.

"The hardest thing about the transition is starting anew all over again," she said.

"I've to remind myself that I'm not going to face the same opponents as before, to be prepared to fail - at least for the short term - before I can start reaping success.

"It's been discouraging at times. It's hard to feel like you've made it somewhere, and are suddenly falling back."

Shots now come at her faster. Matches are more intense. Opponents are better technically, quicker at adapting and attacking her weaknesses than before.

So the defensive specialist began training herself beyond just physically fending off shots on court. She learnt also to fight the battle in her mind - to focus on the process and not the outcome, and to learn from mistakes, rather than berate herself for failure.

Said national women's coach Jing Junhong: "Isabelle has played since she was very young so she had an advantage while she was on the junior circuit.

"But going to the senior level is a big change. It was hard for her to make the transition and she's had to make a lot of changes mentally and technically.

"She's grown into a stronger player now. She is more sure of herself and puts up a much stronger opposition when she faces players who are better than her."

Isabelle calls it "leaving room for grace".

No longer someone who would throw tantrums after a loss, she said she now knows how to take setbacks in her stride.

She is no longer the baby of the team at this SEA Games.

As the defending silver medallist, Isabelle knows all eyes are on her to at least repeat the feat in Myanmar this month.

She said: "To me, everything is about the journey. I focus on enjoying the experience but, at the same time, there is this pressure to win there.

"There's really a role (for me) to play - I'm not just there to gain experience. But, to be able to rise to the occasion, that kind of challenge sparks something inside me.

"Where I am right now is a very privileged place to be in, to be able to enjoy what I'm doing, pursue my dreams and be passionate about what I do every day."

She admits she has no clue where her table-tennis adventure will take her another 10 years down the road.

But she does know where she wants to be in more than a week's time - on the SEA Games podium, wearing a smile and a medal round her neck.

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