SINGAPORE — Sports began to inch its way back to normalcy amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, but it has by no means been a smooth transition.
Outbreaks, new coronavirus variants and cumbersome but necessary safe-distancing measures have made the return as challenging for the fans as it has been for the athletes around the world.
So it has been heartening to know that, despite such tough conditions, there were still exceptional sporting feats that were achieved by Singapore athletes this year. Here are 10 of their best sporting moments:
In the last couple of years, Loh Kean Yew had shown flashes of brilliance as he toured the world badminton circuit, occasionally beating higher-ranked opponents but prone to errors in his eagerness to win. His form was still good enough for him to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
But it was after the Tokyo Games that the men's singles player truly exploded into public consciousness, following a fruitful training stint with Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen. First he won at the modest Dutch Open, before picking up another win at the more competitive Hylo Open in Germany.
Then came the prestigious Indonesia Open in November, when Loh caused jaws to drop with a stunning upset of world No.1 Kento Momota in the round of 16. He battled all the way to the final but unfortunately found his match in his mentor Axelsen.
Then came the barely-believable climax in the Spanish city of Huelva in mid-December.
Still ranked at a modest world No.22 at the BWF World Championships, the 24-year-old Loh shocked the world in the opening round when he turned the tables on Axelsen, who had ascended to world No.1 after his Indonesia Open win. He then won again, and again, until the whole of Singapore realised that he could become the city-state's first-ever badminton world champion by beating India's former world No.1 Kidambi Srikanth.
And Loh seized his chance with aplomb, coming back from deficits in both sets to beat Srikanth 21-15, 22-20 in the final to create one of the biggest sporting moments for Singapore, on a par with swim star Joseph Schooling's Olympic triumph in 2016, or the national women's team's shock final win over China at the 2010 World Team Table Tennis Championships. His permanent place in Singapore's sporting folklore is assured.
Kudos too to women's shuttler Yeo Jia Min, who had also quietly compiled a superb season to become the first Singaporean to qualify for the season-ending Badminton World Federation World Tour Finals. She and Loh are two gems for badminton fans to look out for in the years to come.
For para-athletes, the pandemic has been extra tough as they sought to train under a cloud of uncertainty on how COVID-19 would affect their existing conditions.
Yet, Yip Pin Xiu rose above such adversity at the Tokyo Paralympics to repeat her two-gold performance at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, making her the most successful Singapore Paralympian by far with five golds and one silver. The 29-year-old's teary moment when the Singapore national anthem was played after her first Tokyo gold showed how much the triumph meant to her, after she endured rough preparations ahead of the Paralympics.
Yip's stellar efforts sparked a lively debate on the disparity of cash rewards between gold-winning Paralympians and Olympians, and eventually DBS Bank stepped in to double the cash awards for para-athletes at major Games. Yip was also conferred the new President’s Award for Inspiring Achievement, recognising her inspirational triumphs over adversity.
A truly magnificent athlete who has consistently overcome all the bad hands dealt to her in her life.
Perhaps no other Singapore athlete has embodied sporting triumph over immense COVID-19 obstacles better than rower Joan Poh. A nurse by profession, the 30-year-old had been chasing her burning ambition of making the Olympics when the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year.
Despite having already taken months of no-pay leave since 2019 to pursue her dream, Poh decided to return to her nursing job amid the health crisis, juggling long training sessions with eight- to 10-hour shifts at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Her perseverance and dedication were rewarded in May this year, when her 12th-place finish at the Asia and Oceania qualification regatta was enough for her to make the cut for the Olympics.
Despite finishing 28th out of 32 competitors in Tokyo, Poh's extraordinary journey was lauded by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his National Day Rally this year as a shining example of what it means to be "the best of being Singaporean".
Aloysius Yapp's talents have been evident ever since he burst into the international pool scene in 2014, when he became junior world champion at 18 years of age. Yet the giddy highs of his career – such as clinching the 2017 SEA Games gold medal in nine-ball pool singles – also came with demoralising lows, such as going through the entire 2016 without any title wins.
This year, however, the 25-year-old scaled unprecedented heights after taking an extended break amid the pandemic to work on the mental aspects of his game. When he resumed playing in June, his results got better and better; first was a third-placed showing at the World 10-Ball Championship in September, then a second-placed finish at the US Open 9-Ball Championship in Atlantic City later that month.
When Yapp clinched the Michigan 10-Ball Open for his first senior international title, his consistently-strong performances finally culminated in him reaching the coveted world No.1 spot on 5 October – the first Singaporean to do so. It was vindication of his decision to drop out of school at age 15 – with his mother's approval – to become a full-time pool player.
She has been a mainstay with the national bowling team for much of the past decade, notably winning the 2012 QubicaAMF World Cup and then earning the nod for the 2014 Singapore Sportswoman of the Year. Yet Shayna Ng has admitted that even she was affected by the pandemic, struggling for motivation amid the lack of competitions.
The 32-year-old's resolve was rewarded in November, when she became the first Singaporean bowler to clinch the women's singles gold medal at the International Bowling Federation (IBF) Super World Championships in Dubai, pipping compatriot and 2020 Sportswoman of the Year Cherie Tan in the final.
"It means the world to me," an emotional Ng said after the victory in her first major competition since 2019.
Soh Rui Yong is a man of immense conviction, and he has polarised opinions among the Singapore sporting fraternity with his unshakeable belief.
On one hand, it gives him the confidence to succeed beyond all expectations in one of the most gruelling races in athletics. This year, he set his sights on the Hangzhou Asian Games in 2022 – and duly made the qualifying times for both the 10,000m and the marathon events in November. In becoming the first Singaporean to make the marathon qualifying mark for the Asiad, the 30-year-old also smashed the national record which he set in Seoul in 2019.
On the other hand, Soh's conviction had also landed him in a protracted defamation lawsuit with fellow marathoner Ashley Liew, which he lost in September pending appeal. Such duality has made him a fascinating and outspoken figure, and it seems likely that he will continue to be among the headlines – controversial or not – in the years to come.
Yu Mengyu has been an enigma in Singapore table tennis for much of her career. A shy and reticent figure who is content to let other teammates take the limelight, the 32-year-old has also been beset by debilitating injuries that robbed her of any major progress in her stop-start career.
When she hinted ahead of the Tokyo Olympics that it would be her final Games outing, many wondered about a career that might have been. So it came as a surprise that the world No. 47 emerged fearless and positive as she smashed her way to fourth place in the women's singles competition, eliminating top-10 seeds Cheng I-ching of Taiwan and Japan's Kasumi Ishikawa along the way.
Yu also opened up off the courts, speaking eloquently to journalists after every match, as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. She said that, in leaving everything out on the court, she has no regrets of her injury-blighted career. A classy swansong for an unassuming athlete.
Many Singapore athletes' training plans were severely disrupted during the pandemic, as global border restrictions add extra layers of difficulty in travelling for competitions.
In the case of Olympic-bound sailors Kimberly Lim and Cecilia Low, they had to stay at their training base in Portugal for eight months as travelling had become far too inconvenient amid the pandemic. Yet, both of them took their sacrifices in stride, just like they had done when they postponed their university courses to focus on training for the Olympics.
And it paid off in Tokyo, as the 49er FX duo became the first Singaporean sailors to qualify for an Olympic medal race, which is the final race to determine the sailing class' medal winners. The Asian Games champions followed it up with a 10th-placed finish in the medal race, which is the best-ever Olympic performance by Singapore sailors.
A curious football streak began in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) in 2015, as Brunei-based DPMM FC and Albirex Niigata – a Singapore-based satellite team of the Japanese sports franchise – took turns in winning the league title ahead of the local clubs.
As the streak went on, there was consternation among the football fraternity over the local clubs' inability to match the professional levels of DPMM and Albirex, both on and off the pitch. But when the Lion City Sailors became Singapore's first fully privatised football club in 2020, after billionaire Forrest Li bought out the stakes of the former Home United, there was hope that they could have the financial strength to finally end the streak.
It took the Sailors two years, but they finally succeeded, winning their first title in October by pipping Albirex in the final match of the season. While they made expensive signings such as Brazilian playmaker Diego Lopes, it was a decidedly Singaporean spine (national-team stalwarts Hariss Harun, Shahdan Sulaiman and Gabriel Quak) that ended the domination of foreign clubs.
Indeed, the Singapore national football team also began to show signs of improvement after nearly a decade in the doldrums. It culminated in the Lions reaching the AFF Suzuki Cup semi-finals for the first time since 2012, giving their long-suffering fans hope that they could finally see progress in this popular sport.
There are certainly plenty of detractors who decry professional wrestling entertainment as a "fake sport", but even they cannot deny that it takes years of hard physical training to perform the punishing stunts and make them entertaining enough to watch.
So when Sean Tan appeared in his Dante Chen moniker during a 22 September episode of NXT – a weekly show by major wrestling company World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) – he created a slice of sporting history as the first Singaporean to be featured in a televised WWE show.
It was a culmination of nearly a decade of cutting his teeth amid the small Singapore wrestling scene, and months of training with all the up-and-coming talents at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando. Tan deserves mention for his perseverance in giving Singaporeans a cool wrestling moment as the announcer bellowed, "From Singapore!"
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