Team Singapore heads to the 29th SEA Games later this month with a roster of established athletes, as well as several youngsters who will be looking to make a name for themselves in Kuala Lumpur. TODAY is counting down to the event by profiling some of our stars of the future. Here we focus on teenage sailors Daniel Toh and Simone Chen.
SINGAPORE — One moment from the 470 World Championships earlier this June stands out for sailor Daniel Ian Toh.
In one of the races, Daniel and his partner Xavier Ng rounded the first mark ahead of Australians Mathew Belcher and William Ryan and Greece’s Panagiotis Mantis and Pavlos Kagialis — the silver and bronze medallists respectively from the Rio Olympics.
The experience in Thessaloniki, Greece, thrilled Daniel, who made the switch to the 470 only seven months ago.
“One year ago, I’d have never dreamt I would be competing with all these sailors I’ve idolised,” recalled Daniel, who turns 16 this December.
“That was sort of an achievement. Eventually they still passed us, but it was a good feeling knowing that we could keep up with them.”
It was a “very bold” decision to step up to the Olympic class for the Raffles Institution student, having sailed the junior Optimist class two years ago at the SEA Games, where he won an individual bronze and a team silver on home soil. Daniel subsequently moved to the 29er youth class, but jumped at the chance to sail the 470 at this year’s Games when the opportunity arose.
“It definitely fast-tracks our development,” he told TODAY.
“We also have a very good support system as many of the coaches are past 470 sailors, so they always give us tips and advice on how to improve.”
He is not the only one from Team Singapore’s 21-strong sailing contingent to move to a senior class.
Simone Chen has transitioned from the youth Laser 4.7 class to the Laser Radial despite having only turned 14 in May.
The Nanyang Girls High School student is one of 13 Games debutants and will take part in the team racing event in Kuala Lumpur.
“I considered switching only at the start of the year as ... if I got in (to the team) then I’d be able to gain Games experience as I think it’s something a lot of people need before reaching a higher level,” she said.
“I didn’t really expect to switch to a senior class at 14, but I had also switched from Optimist to 4.7 at a young age.”
Mature beyond their years, the duo are unfazed by the challenge of sailing at a higher level.
“It has definitely been challenging physically, mentally and technically,” said Daniel.
“But my partner and I have prior double-handed experience in the 29er, which has helped us to transition much faster.
“I especially enjoy the technical and tactical aspects and I feel we are definitely adjusting well. The 470 girls, Yukie (Yokoyama) and Cheryl (Teo), are more experienced so they also help us with the transition and give us advice.”
For Simone, apart from the tougher competition and higher expectations, her challenge is to put on weight to cope with the bigger sail of the boat.
“That means longer gym hours, more weights (sessions) and eating more to bulk up,” she said.
Aside from clocking in more hours in the gym and eating more, she also puts in daily and weekend training sessions on the water. Juggling all that with studies is a challenge, but it is something they are used to, having taken up the sport as a co-curricular activity at eight.
“We started travelling around the world for competitions when we were 12, 13,” said Daniel.
“You have to sacrifice some stuff, like your social life, but it feels very rewarding.”
While Simone describes losing as a “horrible” feeling, it only spurs her to come back stronger.
“The love for the sport keeps you going,” she added.
“We don’t want to let down coaches who have been supporting us since day one and our parents, who have spent so much time and energy into (supporting) our passion.”
The young upstarts are aware of their underdog status in Malaysia, but perhaps it is a sign that their idols are sailors who have surmounted incredible odds.
Daniel admires Santiago Lange, the Argentine who as the oldest sailor in Rio last year at 54, won his first ever Olympic gold on his sixth Games appearance in the Nacra 17 — having been diagnosed with cancer the year before.
Simone is inspired by China’s Xu Lijia, who was born nearly deaf in one ear and nearly blind in one eye, and missed the 2004 Olympics because of surgery to remove a tumour but came back to win Radial bronze in 2008, and gold in 2012.
Simone summed it up simply: “We all want the gold (medal).”
WHO ELSE TO WATCH OUT FOR
*Khairulnizam Afendy (Malaysia) The 24-year-old competed in the last two Olympics and is the favourite to reclaim the Laser Standard individual gold he won in 2013, in the absence of reigning champion Colin Cheng of Singapore.
*Ryan Lo (Singapore) Afendy will face stiff competition from this 20-year-old, who is competing in his second Games and is one of Singapore’s brightest prospects.
*Siripon Kaewduangngam (Thailand) The 2015 silver medallist in women’s windsurfing, the 23-year-old finished a credible 18th out of 26 competitors at the Olympics last year and will be looking to claim the crown this time.
*Nur Shazrin Mohamad Latif (Malaysia) A gold medallist in both individual and team Laser Radial events from 2015, the 19-year-old also became the first Malaysian female sailor at the Olympics last August and is favourite to defend her titles.