SEA Games families: Fatherly love plays foil to Nicole in fencing journey

SEA Games families: Fatherly love plays foil to Nicole in fencing journey
Former national fencer and serial entrepreneur Wong Toon King exposed his eldest child, Nicole, to the sport at a young age but left her to decide whether to take it up. Now 19, the foilist is forging her own path and finds comfort in how a mutual love for the sport has strengthened their relationship, as she prepares for her second SEA Games. Nuria Ling.
The daughter of former national athlete Wong Toon King knows her dad always has her back
Published: 6:50 PM, August 12, 2017
Updated: 12:34 PM, August 18, 2017

The 29th SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur will be a family affair for six members of the Team Singapore contingent competing in the regional event. Hailing from football, silat, badminton, and fencing, the young athletes will be following the footsteps of their parents, who also competed and won honours for Singapore at previous editions of the SEA Games. In a four-part series ahead of the Kuala Lumpur Games, up-and-coming young footballers Irfan and Ikhsan Fandi, Sheik Farhan and Ferdous, Nur Insyirah and Nicole Wong tell TODAY what it is like growing up and playing the sport as children of Singapore’s sports personalities, how they hope to emulate their parents’ successes, and eventually make a name for themselves.

SINGAPORE – When she first started travelling overseas for competitions, national fencer Nicole Wong was often recognised by others because of her father.

“Because the fencing community is so small, some older coaches would have known him,” the 19-year-old told TODAY. “I am not even with him and they are like, ‘you are TK Wong’s daughter’!”

It is an association that Nicole, the eldest child of former national fencer Wong Toon King, cannot dodge and Wong will have you know that his daughter is really a chip off the old block.

“For better or for worse, her character is very much like mine,” chuckled Wong.

“My friends, when they talk to her, they think I am (very similar to) her too.”

While the father-daughter pair clearly enjoy each other’s company, as evidenced by the laughter-filled interview session at their home, both Wongs are also strong-headed and have learnt to let the other have his or her own space.

“It’s much nicer now,” said Wong, a venture capitalist. “When we were younger, we (often) clashed – she’d bash back and I would also (but) now we are older, we know that we are like this because we are alike.”

Nicole started fencing at five because of her father, first joining one of the classes at Z-Fencing – Singapore’s first fencing club that Wong established in 1993 with three other teammates – for fun before deciding to take it more seriously. She has two younger siblings, Julia and Alex, who are 14 and seven respectively, and only Julia is involved in the sport seriously.

When she was 12, her parents left it to her to decide if she wanted pursue the sport further, with Wong, who has two individual bronzes and one team silver from two SEA Games, taking care not to “romanticise” the lifestyle of a professional athlete.

“If I wanted to quit, I could have,” said Nicole. “He never forced me – I just fell in love with it… I don’t know what (else) I’d do apart from fencing.

“I never actually feel much pressure to be like him because he’s always told me to do what I like… he’s never scolded me for doing badly, ever.”

Her parents have not been to watch her compete since she was 15 to avoid giving her any pressure. Instead, they follow her bouts via live streaming whenever possible.

Nicole does not mind that her parents are not there to support her, as she added: “I know they are always cheering me on. So often I’m alone in far-off countries, but I know that they are there.”

She will be fencing closer to home later this month at the SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, and Nicole is aiming to better her quarter-final finish in the individual foil two years ago on home soil.

“The goal is definitely to medal,” she said. “The last edition in 2015 was my first time and I got into the top eight, so this time I’ll be more experienced and I want to get a medal.”

Her ultimate goal, however, is to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. To achieve her dream, Nicole has spent the last two years studying at Masters School in Westchester County, north of New York City, travelling three hours daily by train to Manhattan for training sessions at the Fencers’ Club, which has produced Olympic medallists and world champions.

The first few months were tough as she juggled studies and training, along with a curfew at night.

“In the last two years, I’ve adjusted to the culture… I’d always go out with friends on the weekend but I never missed a practice,” she said.

“Obviously there are sacrifices… but he (my father) never told me to stay at home and make me give up a big part of growing up.”

Wong had no qualms about sending his eldest daughter overseas as, apart from a higher level of sparring – Nicole is already the most senior Singapore female foilist – he believed it would build up her resilience.

“In winter, she’d trudge up the hill back to school for about 15 minutes, in the dark, after training,” he said. “I knew this would make her stronger because Singapore is a very comfortable environment, so the intrinsic motivation needed to be built up in a different way.

“I believe an athlete should take charge of her own development and career… Being on her own, the self-development will help her in fencing and also in life.”

Nicole plans to enroll at the University of Pennsylvania after the Games and she is excited about the prospect of competing at the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournaments. The Olympics in Tokyo is the long term goal, as she added: “Tokyo 2020, that will be difficult but that’s okay,” she said. “I think it’s okay to have a goal that’s a bit harder to reach.”

Whatever the outcome, Nicole knows her father will always have her back. “The best advice he’s given me is to just focus on myself,” she said. “Always trust and believe in yourself, don’t care what other people are doing… and everything will follow.”