Victims of bullying stands tall now

SINGAPORE - Standing at 1.92 metres and weighing 180kg, it is hard to miss judoka Ho Han Boon, who was easily the largest Singapore athlete at the recently concluded SEA Games.

Yet, the 24-year-old was somehow able to slip under the radar for much of the Games, before his stunning victory in Myanmar - Singapore's first judo gold at the biennial affair in 24 years.

And while his victory has thrust the judo coach into the limelight, things were not always rosy for the man dubbed the "friendly giant" by his team-mates.

The soft-spoken athlete revealed that he picked up the sport because he was often bullied in school.

"When I was younger, I was picked on a lot by bullies, even though I was one of the bigger guys. Maybe it's because I was a quiet kid, and lacked confidence," said Ho.

"Once, when I was doing my homework in class, a group of four guys poured water all over my work. They taunted me, and dared me to fight."

Ho, then a rugby player in primary school, did the only thing he knew - he ran head first into the protagonist as if in a rugby scrum. He warded off the bully, but decided to learn a form of martial arts to protect himself.

The opportunity came when he was looking for a co-curricular activity at East View Secondary School.

There, he picked up more than just throwing and grappling techniques.

"Judo was the only martial art offered, so I took it up," said Ho, who is studying for a diploma in hospitality and tourism from PSB Academy.

"But the things I took away from judo weren't so much about the fighting, but about respect, and treating people the way you want them to treat you."

Indeed, one look at the ever- smiling Ho, and it is almost impossible to tell that underneath the boyish looks and infectious laughter, lies a judo expert adept at throwing attackers and pinning them into submission.

After he joined the national team late in 2009, a lack of sparring partners meant he was unable to test himself adequately.

He often had to spar with team-mates much lighter than him, and often held back for fear of hurting them.

"We know he holds back during training because he doesn't want to injure us. Sometimes we have to ask him to go harder on us," said Gabriel Yang, captain of the Singapore team and at 85kg, one of a few who can spar with Ho.

A two-week training trip to judo powerhouse Mongolia last month helped Ho unleash his potential.

There, he was up against highly- skilled opponents in his weight category for the first time.

"The trip really helped me a lot, because the Mongolians were too good. I was getting thrown around a lot, something I'm not used to, and it made me more aggressive," he said.

Channelling the newfound aggression to good use, he stormed to the gold medal in the three-man field at the Games, winning both bouts by ippon.

"I just wanted to do my country proud, and the gold medal came as a surprise," said Ho, who made his SEA Games debut in Myanmar.

Looking forward, the baking enthusiast - chocolate lava cakes and shepherd's pies are his specialities - intends to defend his gold medal on home turf in 2015.

For now though, Ho, who has been gaining weight since he was 13, wants to cut down on his unhealthy diet of junk food.

He said somewhat sheepishly: "I eat the same portion as my team-mates, but it's the tidbits that cause my weight to balloon. I used to eat one large packet of Lays potato chips every day, and I can finish two large packets of M&Ms every week.

"I'm going to eat less junk food so I don't go over 200kg. It's difficult enough to buy clothes and shoes in Singapore!"

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