Kayaker Seah beats the odds
Kayaker Seah overcomes eating disorder and self-mutilation to become SEA Games champion
As a national canoeist, Suzanne Seah has steered her kayak through some of the choppiest waters amid unpredictable condition.
She has three SEA Games gold medals in the K2 200m and 500m events to her name, but the 24-year-old's biggest victory may just be staying afloat when an eating disorder and a self-harm problem threatened to pull her under.
By sharing her story, Seah hopes to encourage those who are facing similar issues to seek help and appreciate life.
"I was in a girls' school, and there were a lot of skinny girls. My school was next to a boys' school. Boys like skinny girls, so you do the math," she told The New Paper.
"It could have been something a boy said, or his body language, I can't really remember because it happened when I was around 15, but I started to feel like I needed to be thin to fit in.
"And so I started eating only an apple a day for about six months. To suppress my hunger, I drank a lot of water."
Seah lost 15kg, but instead of feeling happier, things almost spiralled out of control.
When she graduated to junior college, her self-harming behaviour escalated as Seah started to cut herself.
"I'm quite a non-confrontational person," said Seah. "For example, when someone is making remarks about me and it gets irritating and I can't rebut him, or when something bad happens and I can't do anything about it, I'll cut myself."
Seah continued to battle her demons even after she was drafted into the national team, as her parents, coach Balasz Babella and K2 partner Stephenie Chen were worried about her well-being.
"I used to smack her damn hard, and told her: 'You want pain? I'll smack you," said Chen.
"She needed to realise for herself and, thankfully, she did."
What Seah began to see was that if she had not changed her ways, she would never be the best canoeist she could be.
She said: "My eating problem affected training because I was not as strong as I should be. My cutting problem also meant that the wounds would re-open when doing weights and, because we are often in the water, they get infected and never healed properly.
"If I keep this up, I won't be good at my sport, but I really want to be good at it."
Through her own determination and support from family, friends and teammates, Seah started eating better and stopped cutting herself.
As Seah starts her SEA Games campaign today, where she is aiming to strike gold once again, she wants to send a positive message to people who are struggling with eating problems and self-harm issues.
"Stop telling yourself no one cares. Go and get more friends, surround yourself with more positive people, and you will see that life isn't so bad," she said.
"Eat what makes you comfortable, and work your way up from there. It's difficult, but it will be worth it."
- When: Today to Tuesday
- Where: Marina Channel (free)
- On offer: 17 gold medals
- History: 4 golds, 11 silvers, 11 bronzes
- Milestones: For a sport that won its first SEA Games medals in Jakarta 1987, canoeing has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years, with all four of their medals coming from the last two SEA Games. Geraldine Lee created waves at the 2011 Games, also in Indonesia, when she won the K1 500m race in Palembang to record Singapore's first canoeing gold medal at the SEA Games.
- The team: Lucas Teo, Mervyn Toh, Brandon Ooi, Bill Lee, Syaheenul Aiman Nasiman, Tay Zi Qiang, Jonathan Chong, Benjamin Low, Luke Yap, Jori Lim, Chong Koi Kiat, Tan Chin Chuen, Stephenie Chen, Sarah Chen, Suzanne Seah, Annabelle Ng, Geraldine Lee, Soh Sze Ying, Christine Chia
- Did you know: The letters and numbers in the event name indicate what types of boats and how many athletes are involved. For example, there will be four paddlers in a kayak for K4 events, and two in a canoe for a C2 1,000m race.
- The New Paper's medal prediction: Familar waters should prove an advantage for Team Singapore, who won two of each colour from canoeing in Myanmar two years ago. Winning three golds is a realistic target and would represent a record haul, and they certainly have the potential and ability to top that.
Unorthodox formation works for Chen and Seah
PARTNERSHIP: Suzanne Seah (left), with partner Stephenie Chen (right). - PHOTO: JEREMY LONG
In K2 (two-man kayak) races, you don't often see the heavier paddler sitting in front because it tilts the boat forward and creates extra resistance that could mean the difference between gold and silver.
But, since their partnership began in 2010, this unusual strategy has been working a treat for Stephenie Chen and Suzanne Seah, who are aiming to cut through the Marina Channel faster than the rest of their Asean rivals at the SEA Games.
Together, they have won three gold medals at the 2011 and 2013 SEA Games, twice in the K2 200m and once over 500m, contributing 75 per cent of the four canoeing gold medals Team Singapore have won in the history of the Games.
Usually in the doubles, the stronger paddler sits behind to provide power for the front paddler who is in charge of rhythm and direction.
Almost telepathically, the duo succinctly explained in unison why this doesn't work for them, after two failed attempts to paddle in the more orthodox formation.
"If I sit behind, I cannot follow," said 23-year-old Chen, who stands at 1.63m, three centimetres taller than her partner.
"And, if I sit in front, I cannot go straight," said 24-year-old Seah, who at 49kg, is 11kg lighter.
As national canoeing coach Balasz Babella puts it: "Steph is stronger than Suzie but somehow Suzie has a very good sense for following so she can follow Steph extremely well, and that's why they work well together."
In order to make the boat as flat as possible to reduce resistance, they now race in a custom-made special boat which is still within competition standards.
Chen, who also competes in the K1, added: "Normal kayaks weigh 12kg, but ours is 10kg, and so we place a 2kg-weight at the back of the boat with Suzie. We also sit as far back as possible to achieve a flatter boat."
They also debunked the myth that their sport is all about brute force.
While upper body strength is a basic requirement - these girls easily put most men to shame by completing 10 chin-ups easily - Seah added: "Actually canoeing involves a lot of legwork. We have to kick the foot rest in the kayak, and our power is mainly generated from the legs. The arms are supposedly like a piece of rope that pulls the paddles, using the power generated from the legs.
"With the torso connecting our legs and arms, it's really a full body workout that is all about the kick-and-pull technique."