With her Olympic dream on hold, this Singaporean has swapped her rowing oars for hospital scrubs

Matthew Mohan

SINGAPORE (CNA) – For nurse Joan Poh, the last few months have been a roller coaster of emotions, as she faced the reality of saying goodbye to her sporting goal.

Poh recalled how she experienced the five stages of grief – similar to the model that psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first introduced in her 1969 book On Death And Dying.

First came the denial. “I was in full denial that I could not believe that this was happening. It felt like everything I’ve done was going down the drain,” Poh told CNA.

Then came the anger and the bargaining. “(I was) angry at everything and, and everyone that was not saying something that I would have liked to hear,” she said. “I told myself that it was (happening), I believe that it was (happening) and I even got upset at reading the news.”

Then came a sense of depression – not clinical, but nonetheless, a sadness that manifested in the lack of motivation to wake up in the morning to begin a daily routine, recalled Poh.

And as she finally accepted the fact that her dream of qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would have to be put on hold, Poh realised she had in fact been grieving.

Nurse Joan Poh, 29, works in Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s renal unit. PHOTO: TTSH

GRIEVING THE LOSS OF A DREAM

“I think that if I look at it this way and that I have actually gone through these phases, I can say that I was actually grieving – I was grieving loss,” explained Poh, who had been hoping to become only the second local rower since Saiyidah Aisyah to qualify for the Olympics.

“When people think about grieving, they think about only death. You don’t have to have someone dying to feel like you’re grieving or that there’s a sense of loss. A sense of loss can be the loss of opportunity, or the loss of a goal.”

A LOST CAUSE

Having qualified for and competed in the 2018 Asian Games in Palembang, Indonesia where she finished ninth in the women’s 2,000m single sculls, making the cut for the Olympics had been Poh’s next target.

“Initially it started as a dream for the Asian Games. And after that, I just kept moving on to wanting to qualify for the Olympics,” she said.

“My direct supervisor would allow me flexibility in shifts. For nurses with our shifts, we have to plan our leave in advance, but they allowed me to take leave on an ad-hoc basis, with the understanding that I am training for national representation and I do not face trouble taking leave for competitions,” she said.

But to fully focus on making the Olympics cut, Poh went on unpaid leave from the start of 2019. She spent time training in Hong Kong, China, Greece, Canada, Australia.

“Beggars couldn’t be choosers, I put myself out there because I needed coaching and I needed people to coach me. These were the people who put their hands up to say that they were willing to train me either at no cost or very little cost,” recalled Poh, who wrote in the World Rowing Federation, who helped her arrange these stints.

She supported herself on savings, loans from friends and eventually set up a Go-Fund-Me campaign. Later in her journey, Sport Singapore also supported her through the spexGlow scheme, a grant which saw her receive SGD3,000 a month.

“If all stars had aligned, it (the leave) would have been until the Olympics (was over), if not it was supposed to be until the end of April when I was supposed to do the qualification,” she said.

But as the clock ticked down on the Olympics, it became clear that the qualifiers would not be happening, much less the actual event.

“Had it not been … for a cause that I’d been fighting and holding on to so much and so for so long, I would have already known that it was a lost cause,” she said. “But because this mattered so much to me, this was my life for a year and three months … It was not the easiest thing to let go of.”

A joint-statement issued by the International Olympics Committee (IOC) and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics organising committee in March said that the Games “must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021”. It was later announced that the Games would begin on July 23, 2021.

Singapore already has a number of athletes who qualified for the Games, including swimmers Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen, as well as gymnast Tan Sze En. Schooling was due to defend his 100m Butterfly gold in Tokyo.

Poh returned to work in April, a decision which she said was not a difficult one.

“I talked to myself a lot with this ideation that if I can, then I must. This helped me when I was training that I could do it because I had the support of my hospital, the support of my family and my loved ones,” she said.

“With the sporting scene coming to a standstill and at the time the numbers were piling up – the country was recruiting nurses, retired nurses – you just know that there was a need, there was an urgency and there was a demand for (healthcare workers). You really know that no help is too much or no extra hand is too little. I felt compelled.”

As part of her role as a staff nurse in Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s (TTSH) renal unit, Poh is part of a team of six which assists dialysis patients, particularly those on peritoneal dialysis, a treatment for kidney failure.

About 200 patients undergo peritoneal dialysis in TTSH, the hospital told CNA.

“It’s unlike other disciplines because when you have renal failure, your condition is to a point that you cannot wait. Even with the COVID-19 situation, people are still falling down getting fractures, people are still having kidney failure, people are still having their diabetes,” said Poh. “We’ll have to try and see the patients who need to be seen during this period.”

Returning to the hospital in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic might faze others, but Poh had no qualms returning.

“Going back to work has become like a respite to me, allowing me to slow down and then now to re-strategise, re- plan, take a breather and make plans going forward from here,” she said.

“While sports and all that is important, health comes first, without which you can never pursue a sporting career. With everything coming to a standstill for the sporting scene, it just seemed like the next right thing to do.”

But Poh admitted that adjusting to working life has not been easy, given the time spent away from the hospital. She compares training for competitions as similar to a high intensity workout, and working in the hospital more like a marathon.

“I actually end up thinking about my patients all the time even when I’m not at work because you build that bond you feel accountable for the things that you do,” she explained. “Both are tiring in their way – one is like a HIIT (high-intensity interval training), like a sprint, you get rest in and food in between and then you do a second session. But for work – it’s like for the long haul.”

THE LOSS OF IDENTITY

One of the things Poh struggled with was the loss of her identity as an athlete, she shared.

“What was not easy was this idea of losing my identity as a rower. The loss of potentially losing the opportunity to compete in the Olympics. Sometimes I still find myself looking for news that’s got the Olympic logo or about the Olympics,” she explained.

“At a time like this I have to temporarily shelve my aspirations as a rower, while I put myself out there to support the healthcare system and serve. And then as the pandemic resolves and as we get to know more about what is going to happen to the Olympics and the qualification procedure then things will start to change in that way.”

Poh is now juggling her job and training sessions, putting in about 20 to 30 hours of training a week. This allows her to maintain what she calls a “basic” level of fitness.

“There are days where I do training two times a day – if I end at four, I’ll go home and put in a second session … On days that I have to work from Monday to Saturday, then I’ll train on Sunday. Basically I play around to train for at least 20-30 hours in a week. That is the basic requirement to be a full time athlete, (and I) need to maintain a basic requirement,” she added.

And with a year until the Olympics, Poh has her doubts over whether the Games will proceed as planned. The COVID-19 pandemic, she believes, has not shown much sign of abating.

“What I am doing now is setting my sights beyond 2020, I’m looking at 2024 Olympics, Asian Games 2022. With this I feel like every step of the way I am doing the right thing, thinking that I am now training for something beyond 2021,” she added.

“I feel like I’m at the right pace to be gearing towards the next Olympics cycle. If it happens, good, then we all have our fighting chance and because when I’m not in my scrubs I’m in my training attire, I’m doing my best with whatever I can to make the best of the next arising opportunity.”

So, she is determined to press on.

She added, “So I think that … it just feels right. I just feel like this is supposed to be (what I should do) at this time.”