Rookie sailing pair quit school for shot at Olympics
SINGAPORE – When they first got together as sailing partners in August 2016, Elisa Yukie Yokoyama and Cheryl Teo could hardly have envisaged gunning for the Olympics.
But last month, less than a year after that initial meeting, the Singaporean pair have decided to commit to qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in the women’s 470 class.
Yokoyama, 20 and Teo, 18, will defer their studies until next August to chase the dream – and it all started from an Instagram message.
A month after winning gold with Samantha Annabelle Neubronner in the Under-19 double-handed 420 at the 2015 SEA Games, Yokoyama had to search for a new crew partner after the latter decided to focus on her studies.
Alerted to Teo’s availability by her coach, Yokoyama got in touch with Teo through the social media platform.
“I asked her if she wanted to try sailing with me for one day, so we just met here and we went sailing straight away,” she recalled during an interview with TODAY last week at the National Sailing Centre.
That message might just have salvaged the sailing career of Teo, who wanted to try out the 420 but saw her approach to another potential partner fall through.
“I thought ‘never mind, I’ll just retire from sailing’ and just focus on my ‘O’ Levels,” she chuckled.
The new 420 pairing discovered they “worked together quite well” as they finished a credible 11th out of 24 boats at the youth world championships that December.
That would spur them to reunite as a new 470 pairing last August, having gone their separate ways briefly as Yokoyama teamed up with Joan Poh to try for Rio 2016 in the 470, while Teo took a break before her studies started at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
Their commitment to the 470 programme impressed the Singapore Sailing Federation (SSF), who gave them more support and subsequently decided in December to send them to the upcoming SEA Games, where they are aiming for gold.
ALL OUT COMMITMENT
Preparing for the SEA Games prompted them to think about their goals beyond Kuala Lumpur, leading to them setting their sights on the Olympics.
“The future of the 470 (at the Olympics) is not certain beyond 2020,” Yokoyama explained.
“So to me, now is the best time to go all out for it.”
They were also encouraged by their showings at the Princess Sofia and European Championship regattas in March and May respectively, their first major international events.
They join fellow sailors Cecilia Low and Kimberly Lim, and Griselda Khng and Olivia Chen (both 49erFX) in committing full-time for Olympic qualification.
While she had previously brought up the topic of deferment, Yokoyama did not want her partner to feel any pressure to do the same. But Teo’s mind was made up at the European event when, emerging from the shower at their accommodation in Monaco, she told Yokoyama about her decision.
“In my first semester in year one, when I had no sailing and took a break, I topped my course,” said the business and social enterprise student, who has been sailing for eight years.
“Moving on to the second semester, when sailing came in, I wasn’t top in my class as I couldn’t put all my effort in… My decision became firm when I understood that if I want to excel in both, I just have to put aside my studies first.”
Teo will finish her current semester, which ends in August, before her deferment commences.
Yokoyama, a former Optimist world champion who has sailed for 11 years, was heartened by Teo’s decision: “I was happy that she thought the same way and had the same commitment level.”
An environmental studies student at National University of Singapore, who just completed her freshman year, Yokoyama, who is on an NUS Global Merit Scholarship, admitted the juggling act had been tough for her too. “I want to excel in both and I am also on a scholarship, which puts this additional pressure for my GPA to be up,” she said.
“Sailing is not just about water training, there’s a lot of land aspects as… Now that I am kind of a full-time sailor, I can really focus on taking care of myself.”
It is Yokoyama’s second attempt, having failed in her bid for Rio, and she has learnt from that experience.
“Reaching the Olympics has always been my ultimate dream, so I am always ready to do whatever it takes to reach that goal,” she said.
“Having gone through one campaign, I know I can make it through and succeed.”
Both expressed gratefulness for their schools’ support and hope to repay the faith.
While their parents are also supportive of their Olympic quest, Yokoyama said they want to be as self-sufficient as possible in terms of finances.
They will be fully funded by the SSF up until the SEA Games, after which the situation gets a bit trickier for the pair, who are aiming to qualify for the 2018 Asian Games as well.
They will not have funding for expenses like overseas training camps until they qualify for the Games, with the qualifying event expected to be early next year.
As such, they have put together a comprehensive training plan up until next August, which they hope will help convince sponsors to come on board. They are also not ruling out crowdfunding as another option.
“We want to be professional about this and not just drain our parents of all their life savings,” Yokoyama said.
“But it’s also quite hard for us because we are quite young and new to this. With the help of the federation and guidance of Singapore Sports Institute, we hope that we can do our best to raise enough money and reach our Olympic dream.”
Their first chance to qualify for Tokyo comes at the world championships in Aarhus, Denmark next year, which starts on July 30. There are expected to be at least two other qualifying events after that, but they plan to use the Denmark event as a benchmark to decide whether to carry on beyond that.
“We are excited (to embark on this quest), but it’s quite early to tell whether we can make it or not,” Teo said.
Yokoyama added: “But if we manage to carry out our plan in the next one year, I’m very positive that it will be a reality.”