Changing people's perception of Singapore sailors

The worst look in sport from a rival is not disdain but the look that goes right through you. To be there, in a race, but not seen. To wear a competitor's number yet not be viewed as competition.

This perception by a rival that you are irrelevant is vaguely rude but fiercely intimidating. It is a perception that arrives not because he has proof you are no good. But because he assumes that since you're the wrong height, have the wrong build, and were born in the wrong place, you can't be any good. You, Singaporean, you can sail?

This perception is Colin Cheng's enemy, his extra opponent and his hardest thing. It intrigues and amuses him that his passport colour, his scholarly face - "I can't help that," he grins - and his height ("Haha, 175cm," he mails me) often leads to a reflexive disrespect.

"Sailing is quite physical," he explains, "and - at the senior level - we're physically smaller and not as strong. As a small nation we don't have that respect. They don't put you down, they just don't regard you as a threat."

At World Cups, amid a familiar sea of acronyms - GBR, AUS, DEN, GER - the SIN is a relative stranger. He - a gold and silver medallist at the Asian Games - is so foreign to them that when he recently trained in Belfast, amid a slew of Europeans, a German asked an Australian about this tanned outsider who was sailing quite well: "Who is this Indian?"

Perception is never the whole truth but it becomes a hard truth to fight. Perception has us believing white men can't jump and African-Americans can't swim. Perception breeds insecurity for it makes the sailor ask - am I not worth looking at?

For Cheng, his continent's history is the culprit behind this perception. On land and in unsalted water, Asia no longer sportingly fumbles: We can play football, swim, race cars, hurdle. But in the ocean outdoors, the wind hasn't shifted much. Reciting numbers like a practised statistician, Cheng says Asia won 5 sailing medals of 129 in the past four Olympics; Denmark, with a population of 5.6 million, won six.

The stereotype, Asian, Not Good Enough, is hard to wash off in sea water (though it will one day as world-class junior sailors from Singapore make an equal impact in senior ranks).

Till then the stereotype abrades the confidence and even impedes growth. To improve, the learning East must sail with the advanced West but language and ability separate them. Says Cheng: "The majority of sailors speak English and so it is not often that you see Asians mingling with others. As a result, you don't see training partnerships and groups forming between Asians and the stronger sailing nations."

But no handicap of geography can scare Cheng into folding his sails and he still lives in Sydney, the heart of Southern Hemisphere sailing. A solid man in a liquid world, he wears any errant perception of himself with an implacable grown-up calm.

He races sailboats yet knows sailing is more than racing. Before a man finds a rival and discovers one-upmanship, he sails for pleasure. To feel the wind scraping face and the boat skimming water, to grapple with nature alone on the lonely water ... this is elation. As he pithily says: "I'm there to enjoy myself."

Yet he appreciates that athletes must prove the truth of talent to themselves but also to each other. Applause from fan and critic can't compete with respect from peers. And so the perception that he is not worthy has become his provocation. "I think it's positive fuel for me and not a chip on the shoulder."

And so every put-down became uplifting. In 2010, during the world championships in Britain, he arrived at the boat park on a very still day and told his coach Brett Beyer that snide comments about the wind being as light as Singapore's were inevitable.

He was right, three times he heard it, but every slight steeled him. Later during that championship, on a windier day, he placed well and now the sailors told him, surprised and intrigued: "So… you can sail in a breeze now?" It is one of his best moments.

This year, it happens again in the Australian Nationals where he wins both races on a particular day. "I did it by sailing smart and they (the Australians) were impressed and congratulated me." Every compliment is like a building breeze behind him.

And he must find every wind to improve on his 15th place in London 2012 at Rio 2016. He must overtake many men and overcome many perceptions. It is still awkward being an Asian in the water, but he likes its effect on his competitive ego. "It's quite a cool thing. I want to show them what I'm made of."

Wants them to look at him. Wants them to see him.

I, Singaporean, can sail.

rohitb@sph.com.sg

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