While many of its competitors spent their days preparing for the Olympics, Joan Poh has spent much of the past year helping Singapore fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Ms. Poh, a 30-year-old rower representing Singapore at the Tokyo Games, was training and competing full-time in preparation for the event. But she put that on hold in April last year when she returned to her job as a nurse after the government called for frontline medical reinforcements.
“During a time of pandemic, it felt like a calling to get back to work,” she says. “When I’m at work, I’m 100 percent a nurse. When I’m training, I’m 100 percent a rower. It is always about finding that balance and making it work.”
Ms. Poh looked for ways to continue exercising and got up at 5 a.m. to train for 10 a.m. shifts in the kidney ward at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. After she finished work, she rushed to the gym for masked workouts that she jokingly compared to “oxygen deprivation exercises” for making her feel light-headed.
Although Ms Poh did not work in a Covid ward, her return freed others to focus on the virus. As one of the few specially trained dialysis nurses in the hospital, she often had to treat patients suspected of having the virus and feared she would contract it herself.
The rigors of the job also forced her to adapt to an unpredictable schedule. When she was working out full-time, Ms. Poh had followed strict eating and sleeping regimens. When she returned to the hospital, skipping meals and running emergency services in the middle of the night proved challenging, but her drive only increased.
“I understood from an early age that sport is a luxury,” she said. “Chasing your dream is a luxury. And therefore, if you can, then you should.”
The pandemic has left the Tokyo Games, which started this week after being postponed a year, unlike any other as organizers seek to minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission. Spectators are barred from most events and athletes are discouraged from giving hugs, high-fives and handshakes.
Of the tens of thousands of people traveling to Japan for the Games, scores have tested positive for the virus, including several in the athletes’ village. Some athletes have withdrawn for safety reasons.
Ms. Poh plans to apply her nursing experience in taking precautions against infection. Her manager, Koh Yu Han, who traveled with her to a qualifying race in Tokyo in May, said they make it a point to always wipe down equipment and tables and carry their backpacks to avoid being put where they are. can become infected.
Once, she and Mrs. Poh were the only passengers on a bus full of athletes sanitizing their seats with alcohol, provoking stares.
Singapore sent only 23 athletes to the Tokyo Games and Ms Poh is the only female rower. She is only the second Singaporean rower to reach the Olympics, finishing 12th in the qualifying regatta.
She finished sixth out of six in her first round of the women’s single scull on Friday, but will compete again on Saturday.
Rowing was not an obvious calling for Mrs. Poh, the oldest of three children who grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in a family that often ate instant noodles for a meal.
Her parents were constantly working and didn’t have the money or time to develop her interests in outdoor sports, but she still found ways to pursue what became her love of being on the water.
Mrs. Poh joined a dragon boat team when she was 17 and honed her paddle skills on a traditional long boat, in what her first introduction to rigorous coaching.
She learned to row a single scull in 2015 and won a bronze medal in the women’s rudderless pair at the Southeast Asian Games hosted in Singapore later that year.
Essential Summer Olympics
Mrs. Poh’s athletic aspirations often took her abroad, where she sought coaches and races, poured into savings, and depended on loans from friends to cover expenses. In 2019, she took an extended leave of absence from her hospital job to train and compete full-time in Australia.
Of the various water sports she’s tried over the years, Ms. Poh said she found rowing particularly stimulating because of the discipline it takes to perfect every stroke and leg push. “I feel empowered when I’m rowing,” she said.
Her coach, Laryssa Biesenthal, said that while Ms. Poh’s height of 5 feet 5 inches put her at a disadvantage against taller rowers, she didn’t let her goals limit her. “She is doing everything she can to get the boat going as quickly as possible,” said Mrs. Biesenthal.
Ms. Biesenthal, a Canadian who won Olympic bronze medals in rowing in 1996 and 2000, coached Ms. Poh for free from Vancouver Island for the past year, reviewing her rowing videos and designing training programs before traveling to Singapore in June to teach Ms. Poh personally after she qualified for the Games.
In the spirit of giving back, Ms Poh recruited a team of amateur rowers in Singapore in hopes of competing internationally in the women’s eighth race category. She worked with the Singapore Rowing Association to develop the team, demonstrating techniques in between her own weekend practice sessions.
“How we define success is always about medals, but it’s not just about winning,” Ms Poh said. “Yes, winning is important and I hope to get close to that in the next cycle, but seeing this team that we have built is a step in the right direction. It’s also the way I would like to define success.”
Ms. Poh said she was driven by a desire to transcend childhood and create opportunities for others along the way.
“In retrospect, I didn’t want my lack of resources earlier in life to permanently dictate what I could do,” she said. “Even if we don’t have a good start, we can always try to finish strong.”