SEA Games: Rowing for the sport's future

NAYPYIDAW- The race which rower Saiyidah Aisyah trains so hard for is already a lonesome slog - ploughing through 2,000m of water for more than eight minutes.

But it does not even begin to paint the full picture of the struggle rowing's sole representative in a Singapore contingent of 308 athletes went through. Or how the Republic's first SEA Games champion in this sport since 1997 carried on pushing herself despite less than ideal support.

Factor in all that and then it is easy to understand why Saiyidah could not fight back her tears when she won the 2,000m women's lightweight single sculls at the Ngalike Dam on Tuesday.

"My No.1 purpose for winning a SEA Games gold is to raise the profile of rowing in Singapore," the 25-year-old student development manager with Ngee Ann Polytechnic told The Straits Times a day after her win.

Her dedication to her sport and perseverance had seen her become an instant heroine online, with many labelling her an inspirational figure.

For instance, Tuesday's breaking news story on her exhilarating, come-from-behind golden triumph on The Straits Times' website garnered 3,723 Facebook shares and 412 tweets on Twitter by 9pm last night.

Saiyidah admitted that she has not read any of the online plaudits yet, but said that she is grateful for all the congratulatory messages.

And, while netizens have slammed the lack of funding for Saiyidah, the rower said that her goal is much bigger than money or recognition.

She hopes that her gold will spur a rejuvenation of the sport and send out a message that more needs to be done for rowing.

Said Saiyidah: "It's not easy finding a straight stretch of water more than 2km long to train in Singapore, but, maybe with more resources and support, we might be able to find places overseas to train."

Right now, the only ideal place for rowing training is at Pandan Reservoir, which is also the location of the Singapore Rowing Association (SRA) headquarters.

Training venues aside, the association also struggles to find consistent funding support.

The Singapore Sports Council said that it still funds the SRA, although this year the overall amount the SRA received was reduced - albeit by less than 10 per cent. Last year, the sport received between $200,000 and $499,000.

The government grant, said SRA president Nicholas Ee, is barely enough to keep the association running.

He said: "We have funding, but it is just not enough. Most of the funds are used to pay for salaries and utilities. Sometimes, it's not even enough to cover the utility bills, like the phone line.

"There is essentially no funding left for athlete development. Many times, I had to use my own money to pay for coaching and boat maintenance fees, like petrol and fibreglass."

The association's financial woes are why Saiyidah, though a carded athlete and a recipient of the SSC's spexTAG (Training Assistance Grant) and spexGLOW (Grant for Loss of Wages) schemes to a tune of about $3,000, struggled to fund her overseas training stints.

Thankfully for Saiyidah, she applied for, and was chosen as, one of the 320 recipients of the Peter Lim Scholarship in July. She received $10,000, which was used to fund a training stint in Sydney, a vital period in which she trained with the Australian national team.

Saiyidah hopes that her win will also convince the Singapore National Olympic Council to add rowing to the list of events at the 2015 Singapore SEA Games.

Part of a four-athlete team at the 2011 Games, where she won two bronzes, she is confident Singapore can put up a decent challenge on home soil.

She is aware, though, that the organisers of the Singapore Games will need more convincing. This fighter - she suffered a broken nose and part of her retina was torn as a result of a freak surfboard accident in October, but returned to training just days later - however, is not about to throw in the towel.

If anything, setbacks merely seem to strengthen this woman who refuses to give up.

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