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How a Frontline Nurse Trained for the Olympics in a Time of Pandemic

As many of her competitors spent their days preparing for the Olympics, Joan Poh spent much of the past year helping Singapore fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Ms. Poh, a 30-year-old rower who is representing Singapore at the Tokyo Games, had been training and competing full time in preparation for the event. But she put that on hold in April of last year when she returned to her job as a nurse after the government put out a call for frontline medical reinforcements.

“In a time of pandemic, going back to work felt like a calling,” she said. “When I’m at work, I’m 100 percent a nurse. When I’m training, I’m 100 percent a rower. It’s always about finding that balance and making it work.”

Ms. Poh sought ways to continue training, rising at 5 a.m. to work out before 10-hour shifts in the renal unit at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. After finishing work, she would rush to the gym for masked workout sessions she jokingly compared to “oxygen deprivation exercises” because they made her feel lightheaded.

Though Ms. Poh did not work in a Covid ward, her return freed others to focus on the virus. As one of a handful of specially trained dialysis nurses at the hospital, she often had to treat patients suspected of having the virus and feared she might contract it herself.

The rigors of the job also forced her to adapt to an unpredictable schedule. When she had been training full time, Ms. Poh had followed strict regimens for eating and sleeping. When she returned to the hospital, having to skip meals and take emergency shifts in the middle of the night proved to be a challenge, but only increased her drive.

“I understood from when I was young that sport is a luxury,” she said. “To be able to pursue your dream is a luxury. And therefore, if you can, then you must.”

The pandemic has made the Tokyo Games, which started this week after being postponed for a year, unlike any other as organizers try to minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission. Spectators will be barred from most events, and athletes are discouraged from giving hugs, high-fives and handshakes.

Out of tens of thousands of people traveling to Japan for the Games, scores have tested positive for the virus, including several inside the athletes’ village. Some athletes have withdrawn out of safety concerns.

Ms. Poh plans to apply her nursing experience when taking precautions against infection. Her manager, Koh Yu Han, who traveled with her to a qualifying race in Tokyo in May, said they make a point of wiping down equipment and tables and carrying their backpacks at all times to avoid putting them somewhere they could be contaminated.

On one occasion, she and Ms. Poh were the only passengers on a bus full of athletes to sanitize their seats with alcohol, attracting stares.

Singapore sent just 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, placing 12th in the qualifying regatta.

She finished sixth of six in her first heat of the women’s single sculls on Friday, but will compete again on Saturday.

Rowing was not an obvious calling for Ms. Poh, the oldest of three children who grew up in a one-room apartment in a family that often ate instant noodles for meals.

Working constantly, her parents did not 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.

Ms. Poh joined a dragon boat team when she was 17, honing her paddling skills on a traditional long boat, in what was her first introduction to rigorous coaching.

She learned how to row a scull in 2015 and won a bronze medal in the women’s coxless pair at the Southeast Asian Games hosted by Singapore later that year.

Ms. Poh’s athletic ambitions often took her abroad, where she sought out coaches and races, dipping into savings and relying on loans from friends to cover expenses. In 2019, she took an extended leave from her hospital job in order to train and compete full time in Australia.

Of the various water sports she has tried over the years, Ms. Poh said she found rowing particularly invigorating because of the discipline needed to perfect every stroke and leg push. “I feel empowered when I am 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 did not let that limit her goals. “She’s doing all she can with what she’s got to make the boat go as fast as possible,” Ms. Biesenthal said.

Ms. Biesenthal, a Canadian who won Olympic bronze medals in rowing in 1996 and 2000, coached Ms. Poh for free from Vancouver Island in the past year, reviewing her rowing videos and designing workout programs before traveling to Singapore in June to train Ms. Poh in person after she qualified for the Games.

In the spirit of giving back, Ms. Poh recruited a team of amateur rowers in Singapore in the hope that they could compete internationally in the women’s eight racing category. She worked with the Singapore Rowing Association to develop the team, demonstrating techniques between her own weekend training sessions.

“How we define success is always about medals, but it’s not just about the winning,” Ms. Poh said. “Yes, winning is important and I sure hope to come close to that in the next cycle, but seeing this team we’ve built is one step in the right direction. It’s also the way I’d like to define success.”

Ms. Poh said she was driven by a desire to transcend her childhood circumstances and wanted to create opportunities for others along the way.

“On hindsight, it was me not wanting my lack of resources earlier in life to permanently determine what I could do,” she said. “Even when we don’t have a good start, we can always aim to finish strong.”


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