SINGAPORE – It sits between her collarbones, a simple silver pendant bearing the Olympic five rings. Once a reminder of her 2016 Rio Olympic goal, the necklace weighs heavy on national rower Saiyidah Aisyah Mohd Rafa’ee’s neck now.
While it once motivated her on her road to Rio, it now reminds Aisyah of Tokyo 2020, a dream she has put on hold after deciding to take an indefinite break from competitive rowing.
But the necklace is not about to come off – despite her boyfriend’s urging – for the Olympic rower is not ready to step away completely from the sport that has been a huge part of her life since 2004.
There were no tears as Aisyah spoke to TODAY in an exclusive interview about her decision, but there was certainly wistfulness, as the 29-year-old talked about struggling to find motivation to carry on after achieving her dream of representing Singapore at the Olympic Games.
“Since 2013, I’ve competed none-stop at the SEA Games, Asian Games, Olympic Games and other races,” she said.
“Even after the Olympics, I didn’t really have a proper break and I went off to race at the Asian Championships. I felt guilty taking a break…I think I could have been burnt out, and it’s a lesson I learnt.”
The post-Olympics hangover experienced by some athletes, including American great Michael Phelps and national swimmer Joseph Schooling – who won a historic gold in the men’s 100m butterfly in Brazil – also caught up with Aisyah after Rio.
She added: “After the Olympics, I went to read stories of other athletes who faced post-Olympics (hangover), and I thought I was prepared. But after the Olympics, I struggled with what I want to do with my life.
“Whenever I got into the boat, the drive wasn’t there. I was so frustrated when I went back in the boat and I wasn’t improving. For the first few months of 2017, I struggled with whether to continue…after sitting on it, I realised my performance was not going anywhere and I made the decision in June (to give up her SpexScholarship).”
Coming to a decision about her future was not an easy one for Aisyah, who has been the face of Singapore rowing since the 2013 SEA Games, where she won a historic first-ever gold medal for Singapore in the women’s 2,000m lightweight single sculls.
Her road to Rio also captured many Singaporean hearts, after the 29-year-old used up all her savings last year and took to crowd-funding to raise money for her training and living expenses in Sydney to fund her Olympic dream. She eventually raised S$14,000, and her finances improved after she was awarded the SpexScholarship, which provides athletes with stipends and other support to help them achieve success at the Asian, world and Olympic level.
Those following her qualification campaign for Rio were also kept on the edge of their seats, after she failed to make the ‘A’ final at the qualifier – which would have earned her an automatic spot – in Chungju, South Korea. With just one shot left in the ‘B’ final, the rower claimed the final ticket to Brazil by finishing first in the race to clinch the seventh and final spot for Asia in her event. Aisyah, who was the first Singaporean rower to compete at the Olympics – put in a creditable performance at the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, finishing sixth in the quarterfinals.
Her tale of overcoming the odds has inspired many young Singaporeans, but it has also become a burden. “I wanted to keep my decision low key because I was afraid of what people might think,” she told TODAY.
“I didn’t want to disappoint them, especially Singaporeans who helped me in my journey with the crowd-funding. Finally I realised I needed to tell my story because I felt that people need to know, and it’s unfair if I just leave.”
Her indecision also led to a misunderstanding with the Singapore Rowing Association (SRA). SRA president Nicholas Ee had complained in The New Paper report last week that Aisyah did not sign the SRA athletes’ agreement nor provide training reports while she was training overseas before the Olympics.
Admitting that there was “tension” with the SRA, Aisyah said: “There is some tension with SRA because I wasn’t straight with them, and I wasn’t able to decide what I wanted to do, and that caused miscommunication.
“But I hope to work with them to develop the sport, as I really want to help the sport and it has so much potential. After Rio, I realised what makes me happy is that I get to inspire, motivate people. I want to develop that part of myself.”
THE NEXT STEP
Like many other professional athletes, Aisyah struggled to find her identity outside of the sport that she has been associated with for over a decade. But she has since channeled her energies into another sport, triathlon, and even took part in the Tri-Factor Triathlon two months ago.
She added: “I tried to up to put a stupid brave front, trying to show people that everything’s ok. I struggled to find myself out of rowing because people know me as a rower….but now I consider myself human first, and rower second. This is the chance for me to develop other parts of my life.”
While she participates in triathlon for leisure, her natural competitive streak honed from growing up in a family of four brothers creeps in occasionally, to the annoyance of her boyfriend, Briton Robert Rexworthy. Aside from triathlons and road cycling, she continues to train – albeit less intensively – in rowing, and will be representing Easter Rowing Club in a meet in Hong Kong at the end of the month. She has also taken up coaching courses, and plans to set up a rowing club in the future to introduce more people to the sport.
Time away from her rowing boat has also allowed her to spend more time with her family, particularly her mother, a divorcee who was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer last year.
“I’ve been neglecting my family so much…My mum was diagnosed with breast cancer right before the Olympics,” she said.
“I wanted to come home but she told me not to because I was so focused on the Olympics. I felt so guilty, so I make up for it by spending time with her now…making her walk with me while I run.”
She added, with a laugh: “I don’t need to convince her to exercise, I just make her step on the weighing scale!”
BACK IN THE BOAT
Since stepping away from competitive rowing, Aisyah has shed five kg from her previously muscular, 72-kg frame – she had to gain bulk in order to compete in a heavier weight class for the Olympics.
She may be grateful that she can now fit into her clothes from her pre-Olympics days, but Aisyah is not ready to shed her dream of competing in the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Insisting that she is not ready to retire, Aisyah said: “I don’t know what the future holds, but I want to continue doing what makes me happy, instead of doing what makes others happy.
“I want to be there in 2020, but the passion, motivation and drive has to be there. I have to rediscover it, and I think I will find it. I still have two Olympic cycles left in me, it’s whether I’m ready to make the sacrifices.
“I don’t know how long I’ll take to find the drive, but I believe it will find it someday.”