Rower Aisyah's arduous journey to Rio
Despite mother's objection and funding issues, feisty rower makes Olympic dream a reality
Saiyidah Aisyah Rafa'ee wears a symbol of her five-year sporting dream around her neck, in the shape of an Olympic-rings necklace.
But the trinket the rower wears today, exactly a week before her dream becomes a reality in Rio de Janeiro, is not the original one she got in 2010 when, inspired as a volunteer at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, she decided to aim for the biggest sporting stage of them all.
"This is a new necklace," Aisyah told The New Paper with a giggle.
"Before I left for South Korea (for the Olympic qualifying races in April), I had a small club race in Sydney and I didn't do very well in that race.
"My coach told me, 'If you continue to perform like this, we might as well cancel our trip to Korea'.
"I was so frustrated with my performance that I threw my necklace away. Then I couldn't find it. When I went home after the race, I regretted throwing the necklace away.
"I thought about how far I've come - 12 years of rowing - and just because of one setback, I was going to throw away my dream? Surely not.
"So that was a turning point for me."
The replacement one she wears now was a birthday gift after she achieved qualification in Chungju, South Korea.
Making the cut was by no means straightforward.
After failing to make the 'A' final, which guaranteed automatic qualification, she had only one last shot - finish top of the 'B' final.
She did just that, finishing ahead of two others who had beaten her in the semi-final, to clinch the seventh and final qualification spot for Asia in the women's single sculls.
The feat made the 28-year-old the first Singaporean rower to qualify for the Olympics.
Not bad for someone who took up rowing only in her teens, when a talent scout from the Singapore Rowing Association spotted her during an inter-class rowing machine competition in her school - Bukit Panjang Government High School.
Aisyah said that qualifying for the Olympics ranks as her greatest sporting moment so far.
It is the culmination of many years of hard work and perseverance.
In her quest to make the Olympics, she has been on long-term no-pay leave from her job as a student development officer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic since August last year to move to Sydney to train full-time, up to three times a day and six days a week, under coach Alan Bennett.
Having used up most of her savings to fund her sporting ambition, Aisyah set up a crowd-funding campaign earlier this year in an effort to complete her final push, and raised $14,000.
Growing up with four brothers made her naturally competitive, but her biggest challenge was to convince her mother to support her Olympic goal.
"My mum is not very supportive of my rowing because I'm her only daughter and I'm always not around," said Aisyah.
"As with all mothers, she wants me to graduate with a degree and find a job.
"But I've done both things and I told her that I want to reach for my goals, which are in rowing."
In the end, her mother relented and even offered to sell the family's flat to fund her qualifying campaign. But Aisyah disagreed and set up her crowd-funding campaign instead.
Perhaps watching Aisyah compete at the Olympics might soften her mum's heart further.
After all, when she gets into the water at the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon on Aug 6, against the backdrop of the famed Christ the Redeemer statue, Aisyah will become Singapore's first Malay Olympian since shuttler Zarinah Abdullah competed at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Aisyah's target in her maiden Olympic outing is a modest one.
"I've discussed this with my coach and we have to set realistic goals," she said. "My goal is to perform to the best of my abilities.
"There are a few finals, from 'A' to 'E'. I aim to be in the 'D' final and make the top 20.
"I have some people telling me, 'Good luck, may you stand on the podium with a medal'. Of course, every athlete wants to win an Olympic medal, but I have to be realistic.
"I want to reach that podium, but trying my best is what I can do at this point."
- Name: Saiyidah Aisyah Rafa'ee
- Event: Rowing, women's single sculls
- Date of birth: April 20, 1988
- Previous Olympic experience: nil
- Bronze, 2007 Jakarta SEA Games, women's lightweight single sculls
- Bronze, 2011 Jakarta SEA Games, women's pair
- Bronze, 2011 Jakarta SEA Games, women's single sculls
- Gold, 2013 Myanmar SEA Games, lightweight single sculls
- Bronze, 2015 SEA Games, lightweight single sculls 500m
- Bronze, 2015 SEA Games, lightweight single sculls 1000m
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Crazy Pogba bid puts Mourinho in a position he can't afford to fail
On British sports radio stations, even Manchester United fanatics conceded the obvious point.
Paul Pogba isn't worth £120 million ($214m) or £100m or 100m ($150m) euros. Whatever the final transfer fee proves to be, it's still too much.
United's powerbrokers will inevitably argue that £100m plus is the going rate in a cash-rich, sellers' market, where English Premier League clubs literally have more money than sense.
But it really isn't. Pogba's fee is the going rate for a rattled club and coach who know that time is no longer an ally.
After three years of failure, patience isn't a virtue, but an abstract value that United can no longer indulge in.
So the club's executives, working in tandem with an erratic Jose Mourinho, are spending like there's no tomorrow because if these moves fail, there is no tomorrow.
As United prepare to face Galatasaray in a friendly tomorrow morning (Singapore time), their manager continues with a risky strategy that leaves no room for manoeuvre.
He's throwing all his chips in on the first hand, frantically hoping he holds the right cards.
Honestly, he has no idea if he does. How could he? After the farcical postponement of the Manchester Derby in China, United are two weeks from the start of the season, with just two friendlies played.
The first was a benign stroll with the kids against Wigan, the other was a chastening experience against Borussia Dortmund's second stringers; a stark reminder of the mess that Mourinho inherited.
Even the cliche about friendlies being about fitness rather than results doesn't hold because Mourinho hasn't achieved either.
Just a week from the Community Shield against Leicester City, Mourinho is yet to see Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David de Gea, Chris Smalling, Wayne Rooney, Morgan Schneiderlin, Anthony Martial, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Marouane Fellaini and Matteo Darmian in a competitive fixture.
After the Chelsea sacking, Mourinho's desire to make amends at any cost is evident and clearly visible in Turin, where Juventus and Pogba powerbrokers are shouting random numbers around like a delirious bingo caller.
But Mourinho may also be betting the farm on one shepherd without having a good look at the sheep first.
Several British newspapers are reporting that nine players are shuffling towards the exit at Old Trafford.
Schweinsteiger appears to be off, along with Tyler Blackett, James Wilson, Will Keane, Andreas Pereira, Paddy McNair, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Adnan Januzaj and Timothy Fosu-Mensah.
Some are expected to be loan deals. Others probably had no realistic future at United in any case.
But the thought of the Mourinho juggernaut slashing its way through the dressing room with the mechanical coldness of a combine harvester lopping the heads of its wheat crop must be a shock to the system.
Of course, the Portuguese trophy hoarder could still do it again. His resume glows with a silver sheen.
Mourinho always targeted specific square pegs for square holes in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain and his short-term strike rate was phenomenal.
And the signings of Ibrahimovic, defender Eric Bailly, and attacking midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan certainly fit the Mourinho mould.
But an air of slight desperation hangs across a muggy Manchester.
The protracted Pogba affair, along with rumours of a mass cull, feels distinctly different.
It's not a typically calculated gamble, but a dangerous one, as if Mourinho has no other alternative so early in the job.
Playing such a high-stakes game, he puts himself in a position where he simply cannot fail two weeks before a Premier League ball has even been kicked.