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Aisyah wins rowing gold medal

NAYPYIDAW — Hours after her triumph at Ngalaik Dam, where she won the women’s 2,000m lightweight singles sculls, Ms Saiyidah Aisyah Mohd Rafa’ee was at Wunna Theikdi Stadium cheering on Ms Dipna Lim-Prasad — her SEA Games Village room-mate for several nights — in the women’s 400m hurdles.

NAYPYIDAW — Hours after her triumph at Ngalaik Dam, where she won the women’s 2,000m lightweight singles sculls, Ms Saiyidah Aisyah Mohd Rafa’ee was at Wunna Theikdi Stadium cheering on Ms Dipna Lim-Prasad — her SEA Games Village room-mate for several nights — in the women’s 400m hurdles.

Unlike her own victory yesterday morning when there were few Singapore supporters in sight, Ms Aisyah was determined to be there for her friend, even if Ms Lim-Prasad’s event had a far bigger audience.

For the 25-year-old though, the journey since her SEA Games debut in Manila in 2005 has often been a lonely one. The rowing community in Singapore, while active, remains small and attrition at the elite level is high.

At the last Games, Ms Aisyah had a doubles partner, Ms Joanna Chan, with whom she achieved a bronze medal, to add to individual bronzes from that and the 2007 Games. This time around, with Ms Chan taking a break for tertiary studies, Ms Aisyah was left to fight the battle alone — something the student development manager at Ngee Ann Polytechnic does with little regret or recrimination.

Even when funding was cut for rowing, Ms Aisyah found a way to carry on and her persistence has rewarded her with the honour of becoming the nation’s first singles sculler to win a SEA Games gold. It is a victory she savours as deeply as her desire to see the sport flourish.

“In the hour before the race, when I was doing my mental preparation, I thought about all I’ve been through. Other watersports have overshadowed rowing but if I were to stop, then rowing will never grow. My dream is to see rowing grow in Singapore,” she said.

Victory came not without drama as Ms Aisyah trailed halfway into the race although she felt she was in good form. Overcoming her admitted weakness for fading in the second kilometre, she upped her work rate after seeing the leading boat of Thailand’s Phuttharaksa Neegree creep into her peripheral vision on the right.

As the Thai Olympian faded down the stretch, Ms Aisyah was able to pull ahead in the final 300m, reaching the line in 8mins 8.94secs, ahead of Indonesia’s Maryam Makdalena Daimoi (8:10.47) with Myanmar’s Shwe Zin Latt in third (8:14.85). “The last 100m was the most painful thing ever. I couldn’t feel my legs at all or walk properly after getting out of the boat,” she said. “But it was all worth it. It means the world to me especially after I had put aside a lot for this — my work, my family and even my brother’s wedding in November.”

Playing their part in Ms Aisyah’s achievement are two coaches — Mr Goken Sakamoto who worked with her on weekends and who introduced her to Australian Alan Bennett, who has a history of working with Singapore rowers.

Both have trained Ms Aisyah for free as she receives no funding apart from S$10,000 from the Peter Lim Scholarship, which she used for a two-and-a-half month full-time training stint in Sydney with Mr Bennett.

“Alan’s brought a new confidence into my rowing,” said Ms Aisyah, whose training there involved waking up at 4.30am to train from 5am to 8am, as well as an evening session.

“I also went through a lot of races and learned new things from each race, and we would have a debrief after every race on what I could improve on and that really helped me. I hope to be able to defend this gold medal in Singapore.”

While rowing is still under consideration for inclusion into the 2015 SEA Games, Ms Aisyah’s gold medal may have just tipped the decision in her sport’s favour.

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