Three pillars of Singapore netball

Chen the unsung hero who scores

"Steely determination", "absolute reliability" and "dynamo up front" were some of the words that came to mind when team-mates and officials were asked to describe former national netballer Chen Huifen.

Playing in goal attack, the 31-year-old was "always making play for the shooters", "finding spaces and gaps" and "working so hard all the time", said Netball Singapore chief executive Cyrus Medora.

She might never have been the star of the team, but her solid contribution on the court will be sorely missed now that she has called time on her international career after amassing 109 caps.

Despite doing so much for the team in the offensive third, she was "often unsung", making a lot of the play in the background even though she "didn't get a lot of glamour", added Medora.

Team-mate Nurul Baizura sang high praises of the 31-year-old, saying: "Her determination and focus was amazing. She moved so much on the court, and was probably always tired, but still had the ability to stay very sharp and score."

A prime example of Chen's shooting prowess was on display at the 2012 Asian Netball Championship final in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Playing against the host nation in front of a ravenous crowd, Chen held her nerve to net the last-gasp winner when the scores were tied at 47-all. Her performance in that game is one that is fondly remembered by the netball fraternity here.

Team-mate Premila Hirubalan recalled: "Against horrible odds, (to win) that Asian Champs by one in Sri Lanka at the last-minute, it was perfect.

"It was a tight game, we were neck to neck with the opponents. With 45 seconds to go, Huifen put the ball in, and then we froze the ball."

Chen added: "We were all smiling as we froze the ball. It was a winning smile, a wide-eyed smile."

Chen, a physical education teacher at Northland Secondary, also took charge of the attacking department of the team.

"She was very close with her sub-unit, and was a natural leader among them," noted Baizura.

"She was always very patient with her group of shooters, and always made it a point to give immediate feedback to them for the sake of their improvement."

In spite of all of her strengths, Chen's humility showed as she stepped aside to let younger shooters like Charmaine Soh, 25, blossom.

"When Charmaine started to emerge, she took a backseat. However, when there was a crisis, Huifen would take the lead," said national coach Ruth Aitken.

Chen's own confidence was developed over hours spent with veterans in the national team.

She said: "When I was a rookie I wasn't as confident on court, but as the seniors guided me and I was able to deliver the play that was asked of me, I started to have faith in what I could deliver."

Prem the team joker who plays her aces

When Singapore's netballers gather for training now, a familiar loud voice will be missing.

Premila Hirubalan, who made her debut in 1999, was "the voice of the team" during her 17-year international career, according to team-mate Nurul Baizura.

With a penchant for jokes and a zest for winning, Hirubalan lifts the team's spirits. Above all, it was her competitiveness that struck national coach Ruth Aitken the most.

"Prem was fiercely competitive, with the emphasis on fiercely. She is a real extrovert who brought life and energy to the group. She absolutely loves to win, is willing to verbalise it, and works really hard to achieve it," said Aitken, who added that Hirubalan, who announced her international retirement alongside team-mates Micky Lin and Chen Huifen on May 10, backed up her desire to win by being the boldest player on court.

Although fun and jokes are part of her personality, Hirubalan deliberately took things up a notch when the team needed it, saying: "It's just me, but it's also true that I am extra noisy when the girls are nervous or need to loosen up. Laughing and being happy is a cure for anything, and it keeps us close."

While Singapore's most-capped netballer (117 appearances) was a force to be reckoned with during competitions, Hirubalan was full of mischief duing trainings.

Baizura said: "At every training there is something that she wants to joke about. She believes that we perform better when everyone is happy, and is committed to lifting the mood of the team."

Baizura added that the goal defender's passion was matched by her sporting abilities, saying: "Premila was a player in her own league.

"She had her own gym programme outside of our training, and it gave her the physique and athleticism to stand out on court."

It is no surprise that Hirubalan was "feared by teams in the region", according to Netball Singapore's chief executive officer Cyrus Medora. On the court, the 33-year-old can be a relentless competitor who can dabble in mind games to unsettle her opponents.

As Lin revealed: "(She trash-talked) a lot. You just can't hear from the sidelines.

Hirubalan's commitment to the game was also undoubted, as Chen recalled: "We once went for a wedding dinner on a weekday, and she questioned our decision to miss training for it. She made sure we made up for it the next day."

Before the SEA Games final against Malaysia last year, Hirubalan, a medical officer in the department of anaesthesiology at Singapore General Hospital, made all the players write short phrases on their wrists.

"We wrote things like 'jump higher', 'run faster'," said Baizura. "At that moment when everyone was tense, we just got distracted from the pressure of the game."

Minutes later, the team wrote themselves into history, winning the Republic's first netball gold at the biennial Games with a 46-43 victory.

Micky the captain who makes others tick

Many will know the photogenic Micky Lin as the face of Singapore's netball team. But the former national defender was also the glue that bound the squad during her time as the team's captain.

The skipper's tact in interacting with her team-mates and her willingness to openly discuss issues and consider others' opinions made her like a "bridge between the players and the coach", according to Nurul Baizura, who served alongside Chen Huifen as the team's co-vice-captain.

Netball Singapore's chief executive officer Cyrus Medora said: "She was very easy-going, very approachable, and she made sure everybody was comfortable with each other."

National coach Ruth Aitken added: "Micky was always calm and collected. She knew how to handle people very well, and we could see that she was a natural leader for a very long time."

Aitken noted that the 30-year-old had "empathy" and a "high level of understanding about what makes people tick".

"She had the ability to get everyone onboard, and was always a positive voice in the team that made everybody look good," she said.

Her qualities shone through at the Asian Netball Championship final in 2014 against Sri Lanka.

"We played badly in the first few minutes, and were down by eight," recalled team-mate Premila Hirubalan.

"I get very angry when things don't go well on court, and I start shouting at people. Micky looked at me and said 'just look at me and smile', and I looked at her, kept quiet and played on.

"She is someone you can depend on to make you a better person."

Leadership was "something that developed over a period of time" for Lin, who was first tested in leadership roles by her coaches when she played in the younger age groups.

She said: "I try to put myself in the shoes of the younger players, and think if they are coming into the team, what would they like? I prefer to look at the human side of things. It's the small actions that make a difference, like giving the new players a pat on the back after their first training."

According to Aitken, Lin was key in helping 1.96m-tall basketball player Chen Lili adapt to her new sport when the China-born player joined them in 2010.

"Micky was instrumental in helping Lili to understand the game. She didn't just tell her what to do, but explained, reinforced, and asked her questions to help her grow into the game," said the Kiwi.

"I often listened to her as she spoke to Chen on the bench, and she was always very motivating."

Lin, a digital marketing assistant manager at Deloitte Singapore, bowed out of international netball after 102 caps.

For Aitken, whose decorated career saw her coach New Zealand to the world title in 2003, there is little doubt that Lin was special.

The tactician paid the ultimate compliment: "She is probably the most amazing team player that I have ever coached over the years."

kenggene@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on May 30, 2016.
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