In a small pragmatic society like Singapore, where dreams and pursuits of sports ambition often appear hopeless and impossible to reach, it is heartwarming to witness a remarkable athlete overcome the odds for our nation.
Ryan Lee, who made history by winning Singapore’s first-ever gold in the 2017 ASEAN School Games Boys’ gymnastics team event when he was only 18, shares his insights and life experiences as a budding student-athlete.
Lee’s story is not just about balancing on high beams, but just like many of us, he was a student grinding between his passion and school commitments. In Catholic Junior College, he was elected Sports Leader and Patrick House Captain. Lee also achieved numerous medals for his school at the National Inter-school Artistic Gymnastics A Division Championships and attained first all-around in 2016 and three gold medals in 2017.
Lee also received honorable mention for his academic excellence, one which he buckled down in the later parts of his education to achieve.
Success, as we know it, is never a smooth-sailing journey.
The Academic Dilemma
The road to glory is one that entails a blend of struggles, and Lee has had his fair share. An avid competitor in the 2016 and 2017 ASEAN and SEA games, he realized that his dedication to the sport had often compromised his academics. Despite efforts to strike a balance, the commitments to training were often merciless.
“They (Gymnastics Organisation) expected you to train six times a week and these training are about four to five hours. But the problem with that was that they started training at 5pm but most of the days I end school at that time. I make up for lost time by staying later to train. By the time I end, it’s about 10 P.M. It’s like a whole cycle, and there’s really no time. Plus, by year two, I didn’t have a lot of breaks either.”, the now 20-year-old gymnast reflected.
“It was really impossible to do both at the same time,” Lee acknowledged.
The dilemma between prioritizing gymnastics or his studies and how the unsettling emotions of feeling lost started to set in. Tied between two big responsibilities, Lee felt conflicted as he could not find the equilibrium between pleasing the National Gymnastics Association and meeting school expectations.
“As an organization (NGA), you want your athletes to focus on the sport but in Singapore, that’s very hard. Especially because we know that in our society, it’s almost a pre-requisite to have a degree or whatever and that’s very important. But somehow, they (the sports organizations) have this mindset that you can study later which is true but it’s going to be much harder. I guess that is a sacrifice that we all have to make.”
“But I couldn’t bring myself to do that.”
“I really needed to catch up on my studies. I was really not doing well, borderline passes. I told myself that this holiday was the time to catch up on my studies but that never happened. During that holiday, I was flying to Japan for almost a month for training. I brought a piece of luggage full of books and lecture notes but the thing was throughout the whole trip, I kept giving myself excuses and didn’t pick up a single book. I started regretting almost immediately, asking myself “What am I gonna do now? I haven’t studied.” There and then, I just decided to retain.”
In order to make way for his academics and also participate in the 2017 SEA games, Lee stayed back an extra year in junior college in order to catch up with his academics in preparation for the National ‘A’ Level Examinations. The gymnast expressed it as a difficult decision but a blessing in disguise as it gave him more time to focus on both commitments.
Lee’s decision to retain is commonly seen as a taboo in our fast-paced academic-oriented society, which stirred doubt among his family members when he requested for the extra year.
“I was really insistent so in the end, they gave in. At the start, they were still very unsure. But throughout the year, I proved to them that my studies really got better and I managed to pull my grades back up while performing to requirements in the gym.” Lee added.
“There will always be people who doubt you. That’s when I realized that self-believe is very important.”
Lee started gymnastics when he was five and participated competitively when he was nine, but fought a constant battle to stay motivated in the sport. Not known by many, Lee shared the fear factor and risks of gymnastics.
“Sometimes I compare with other sports, and how they don’t have to be afraid of going to training and fear that they’ll die. I mean they have their own struggles and will feel exhausted and tired but not fear the possibility of death. The fear of death has always been at the back of my head when I’m in training. It’s not that it’s insanely tiring but it’s because gymnastics, in order to learn new moves and skills, you need very good air awareness and coordination. I don’t think I have very good coordination, so sometimes I feel lost in the air and it’s scary because you don’t know where you are and what you’re doing.”
“I wasn’t afraid of the tough training, but it’s really scary. Sometimes I can’t sleep because I don’t know what to expect in the next training.”
Lee also spoke about the difficulty of finding the passion to train during off seasons, and as do many sportsman, question their existence in the field.
“Training gets really hard especially when there’s nothing to aim for. When there are no competitions coming up or you’re injured, can’t really do much, you feel stuck and don’t know why you’re doing this. You just keep questioning if it’s even worth it.”
Despite being a seasoned and experienced gymnast, trying to keep up with the right form was quoted as one of the biggest struggles for him during his competitive seasons. He compares the feeling of being in the right form to the likes of feeling ‘light’, and states that its really dependent on luck so it is a struggle to be in the right form all the time.
However, Lee shared how his gymnastics teammates have been able to push him through all the odds and challenging moments in the sport. Although gymnastics is more often than not, an individual sport, Lee has always seen it as a team one.
“Training with them was really helpful because they experience the same things as me, complain about the same things, they just understand and it really helps. They also have their own struggles and they are people that I can relate to.”
“The closest thing we have to be a team is the team events. And those, in that point of time are the most inspiring moments and I feel those are the moments when it goes beyond myself and I feel that I really cared about others and how they do.”
Captain of the ASEAN School Games Men’s Gymnastics Team, he led his team to a Bronze medal in 2016 and 2017, when his team achieved the best performance ever at the 2017 Games, with a total of eight individual medals and a team medal.
“In team events, you compete one after the other. It’s like passing on the baton, like a track event. Team event is about being able to compete after another and watching each other perform successfully one after the other, its a very inspiring and nice feeling.” Lee articulated.
Inspiring Other Athletes
On the topic of inspiration, Lee hopes that his achievements would shed light to aspiring local gymnasts and athletes to pursue their sports dreams.
“You’d never know what you can do that will inspire others. I feel that gymnastics is a niche sport for Singapore. The problem with gymnastics in Singapore now is that its getting smaller. Very few people do it now.”
“People say that Singapore is very small and that we lack talent. But I honestly feel that Singapore has a lot of talented people but it’s just that they don’t do sports. For sports, talent-wise, you don’t need that much. You just need to train very hard and be motivated. I feel that’s what makes a good athlete. I’m pretty sure everyone can do sports, it’s just a matter of whether their parents expose them to sports and send them to further their abilities or talents.”
As a national athlete, Lee speaks about how being able to represent Singapore, standing on the podium and singing the national anthem, have no doubt instilled a greater sense of patriotism and high hopes for the country.
With that, he stands tall and hopeful that Singapore can reach greater heights and glory if we all make an effort to dispel the defeatist mentality in our sports scene.
“We grow up in a society where we feel like we are worse off than many other countries in terms of sports and talent. I can’t say for everyone, but many lack the self-belief that they can reach greater heights.”
“As for being able to compete strongly on the international platform, I feel that’s possible. I remember I mentioned about self-belief right? When you believe you can do it, somehow you will try harder.”
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