By Sean Shagaran
Realising a childhood dream
Growing up watching Paralympic medallist Theresa Goh, Nur’Aini Mohamad Yasli always wondered what it would feel like to wear Singapore’s colours and represent the nation on a global sporting stage. Now, having been selected as part of Team Singapore, the 29-year-old para-powerlifter is just weeks away from making her Paralympic debut at the upcoming games.
“To be able to do the same now feels surreal. I get emotional when I think about my childhood dream finally becoming a reality,” she said.
Photo credit: Singapore Disability Sports Council
At the age of six, Aini was diagnosed with multiple epiphyseal dysplasia, a condition that affects the bones, and has been doing sports ever since. She began swimming after her doctor suggested to her mother that it would strengthen her knees. She continued to showcase an affinity for sports throughout her student life as she participated in the swimming elements of biathlons and triathlons while in secondary school, learned archery as a polytechnic student and joined the dragon boat team at NTU.
Aini recalls meeting many inspiring individuals during her student days at NTU, who encouraged her to try new things, and gave her the opportunities to do so. “I would like to say a big thank you to NTU Women’s dragon boat team captain, Jalyn Soh, who welcomed me with open arms into the team. I always wanted to try out dragon boating but was intimidated by the tough training. One day, I decided to send Jalyn an email explaining my condition and my interest to join the team. Jalyn replied promptly and told me to come down for their next training session to try out the sport,” she said.
“There were a few modifications made to my training programme while I was on the team. For example, when the team went for their warm-up runs around the school, I would warm up on the rowing machine as I am unable to run”, said Aini, who remembers how the team was accommodating and spared no effort in adjusting their training to involve her.
Although Aini was approached by fellow Team Singapore para-powerlifter, Kalai Vanen in 2015, it was not until she completed her undergraduate programme in 2017 that she decided to properly pursue the sport. Eventually making history by becoming the first female para-powerlifter to represent Singapore at the 2017 ASEAN Para Games and 2018 Asian Para Games, Aini was initially overwhelmed by the change of pace in her sporting career. “Although I have been doing sports since young, it was more for recreation than competition. When I first started competitive para-powerlifting, I was overwhelmed emotionally, physically and mentally. On top of that, I put too many expectations on myself,” she said.
“Initially, I did not want to share the struggles I felt, hoping they would go away. But over time, I learnt to communicate my worries and concerns to my coach, my family, and friends. Through these conversations, I realised that I felt a lot better when I shared my thoughts,” said Aini, who bounced back thanks to the help she received from her friends and loved ones.
Leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, Aini has started intensifying her training in hopes of performing beyond her best and achieving a new personal record. “I train three times a week, for two hours each day. The first hour of training is focused on bench press training while the second hour involves gym work. My coach designs the training programme so that we focus on different techniques on each training day,” she explained.
“As this will be my first Paralympic Games, I would like to take this as a learning opportunity to better myself. I hope to improve my personal best at the Paralympic Games,” said Aini.
A second shot at a Paralympic medal
For Aini’s fellow NTU alumna and teammate, Nur Syahidah Alim, Tokyo 2020 marks her second appearance at the Paralympic Games. Having made headlines by reaching the quarter-finals in para- archery at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, Syahidah, who is currently ranked world No. 1 in the sport, is now aiming for her first Paralympic medal.
World No.1 para-archer Nur Syahidah Alim taking aim (Photo credit: Singapore Disability Sports Council)
Born with cerebral palsy, Syahidah’s condition affects the lower half of her body. This compromises her mobility, balance and posture, and makes it difficult for her to walk or stand for extended periods of time.
Although she had always been interested in sports, it was not until Syahidah was first introduced to archery at a para-sports expo organised by the Singapore Disability Sports Council (SDSC) that she found her calling. In an online interview with the SDSC, Syahidah recounts how she found archery to be a sport that was most suited for her and offered her the most satisfaction. Responding to why she fell in love with it, Syahidah said: “Number one, I really like to see all my arrows at the centre, it gives me a sense of achievement. Second, archery is associated to be a masculine sport because it requires a lot of strength to pull the bow and I wanted to do something uniquely for me.”
Overcoming the odds that were stacked against her, Syahidah has never allowed her medical condition to limit her athletic capability. Encouraged by her mother to join Singapore’s national para-archery team, she burst onto the sporting scene in 2015 during her first competitive outing at the ASEAN Para Games (APG). There, Syahidah claimed her first-ever gold medals and has since continued to improve on her aim.
In 2019, she became Singapore’s first world champion para-archer after winning the compound women’s open competition at the World Archery Para Championships in the Netherlands, which secured her a spot in the Paralympics.
Speaking to The Straits Times after claiming the gold medal at the event, Syahidah expressed her desire to do better at this year’s games. "The next thing after this is to get back to Singapore and start preparing for the Paralympics... I'm aiming for a podium finish." For her recent outstanding performances, Syahidah was also crowned Sportswoman of the Year in 2020 at the Singapore Disability Sports Awards (SDSA) presented by Haw Par Corporation.