Spotters in the spotlight

SINGAPORE - They knew that cheerleading was a dangerous sport.

That made their job as spotters - ensuring their fellow cheerleaders made it through the stunts safely - all the more important.

But on their watch, Ngee Ann Polytechnic student Lai Qing Xiang, 18, fell and injured his spinal cord while attempting a back handspring on Aug 30 last year.

Mr Lai, who was part of the polytechnic's cheerleading team, died 12 days later in hospital after complications from his injuries.

On Tuesday, the two students who were spotting Mr Lai at the time of the incident were called to the stand during the coroner's inquiry.

How well Mr Vincent Lam and Mr Eugene Eng performed their roles came under the scrutiny of State Coroner Imran Abdul Hamid, who said that "it was an accident waiting to happen".

Mr Lam, 19, who was the first witness on Tuesday, initially said in his conditional statement that he did not witness Mr Lai making the jump.

He elaborated in court that he was focused on helping Mr Lai complete the move and was only "assisting his legs".

COMPLETE STUNT

He also told the court that his role as a spotter was to assist the performer in completing the stunt and to reduce the risk involved.

But the state coroner said that Mr Lam's job was to be "physically there" and that he had to look at the way Mr Lai jumped in order to perform his task.

Mr Lam then changed his answer and said that he did see Mr Lai jumping, but only vaguely.

When Mr Imran mentioned that the sport has documented a number of fairly serious injuries overseas, Mr Lam acknowledged cheerleading as one of the most dangerous sports.

But he said he was surprised because he did not think it would happen here.

Said the state coroner: "If it can happen overseas, it can happen anywhere."

After his friend fell, Mr Lam thought he was just winded.

"I thought he needed some time to catch his breath," he said.

Only when Mr Lai's face changed colour did he realise that his injury was serious.

Mr Lam said he immediately called his coach, Mr Andrew Ong, who then instructed Mr Lai to be moved to outside of the hall.

Mr Imran asked if more safety measures should be in place, but Mr Lam said there was nothing else that could improve safety while performing the move.

Mr Lam also refuted claims by Mr Mirza Namazie, the lawyer representing Mr Lai's next-of-kin, who said that he and his partner did not do a good job while spotting for Mr Lai.

"I felt that we did all we could," Mr Lam said.

He also said that spotters are not meant to break the performer's fall, only "there to assist with the motion of the back handspring".

But Mr Eng, a business information technology student who is waiting for his final year results, said he tried to support Mr Lai, who weighed 100kg, on his lower back in order to try and break his fall.

"The best that a spotter can do is try to make the impact as minimal as possible," he said.

Mr Eng also said he was told by his coach to call for an ambulance after Mr Lai's fall and that there was no personnel who could provide medical help at the time of the incident.

The inquiry will conclude on April 15, when the state coroner is expected to present his findings.

ABOUT THE CASE

He was attempting to do a back handspring manoeuvre during a cheerleading practice on Aug 30 last year.

But Ngee Ann Polytechnic student Lai Qing Xiang, who weighed 100kg and was 1.77m tall, failed to jump high enough to execute the move.

He then fell awkwardly on a crash mat, landing on his back and head, and later went into a coma.

That day was also the first time the coach, Mr Andrew Ong, who took over around July last year, had taught the group how to perform the move.

The teen, 18, died 12 days later from his injuries, which included a fractured spine and a blood clot in the heart.

rloh@sph.com.sg


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