DPA Interview with Paralymic Medal Winner Ms Laurentia Tan

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Laurentia (7th from left) drops by DPA! (photo by DPA)

Miss Laurentia Tan recently competed in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, England, representing Singapore in the equestrian events and winning Singapore’s first medal in those games. She rode off with a bronze medal in the dressage Individual Championship Test (class Ia) and a silver medal in the Individual Freestyle Test (class Ia).

However, these are not Laurentia’s first Paralympic medals. At the 2008 Paralympic Games, she was awarded bronze medals in the Individual Championship and Individual Freestyle Tests (class Ia). Those were Singapore’s first Paralympic medals as well as Asia’s first equestrian medals at the Paralympic Games. To acknowledge her contributions to sport in Singapore, Laurentia was awarded the Public Service Medal from then-President S R Nathan on 20th September 2008.

Although Laurentia is based in England, Disabled People’s Association was lucky enough to be able to catch up with her and her mother, Mrs Jannie Tan, when Laurentia was in Singapore to receive the Public Service Star from President Tony Tan in November 2012.

DPA:
How do you think that your success at the 2012 Paralympic Games has raised the profile of athletes with disabilities in Singapore?

Laurentia:
I hope the games and the fact I won these medals has raised the profile of athletes with disabilities in Singapore and abroad. Yet, I could only have done so with the help of my team, coach, horse, doctor, physiotherapist, parents and team mates. It shows what can be achieved given the right support.

DPA:
What does winning the Paralympic medals in Dressage (Individual championship test and Individual Freestyle test) mean to you personally?

Laurentia:
It means a lot to me as it is a representation of all the hard work I have done. It shows I have improved over the years, which is especially significant given that the level of competition has also risen.

DPA:
What kind of time commitment and training is required to compete at your level? How many hours a week do you train?

Laurentia:
When I am preparing for an upcoming competition, I go to Germany to train. Once over there, I train every day, three times a day. I try up to eight horses in a day to see which is best suited to my needs and that we are a good pairing. In between competitions, I travel fifty kilometres, about an hour’s drive, to get to my training ground four times a week. There I will train for one and a half hours and then groom the horse and clean out the stable. The whole process can take up to five or six hours.

DPA:
How do you manage to keep a balance between training and your other commitments?

Laurentia:
When I was working full-time, it was hard to keep a balance between my work and training schedule. In the end, it was too tiring to do both. That is why I quit working in order to focus on training.

DPA:
What would you say has been your biggest obstacle in competing at your international level and how did you overcome it?

Laurentia:
There are two obstacles that I face in competing in my events.

The first obstacle is keeping in time to the music because I cannot hear it and slow or speed up the sequence accordingly. The only way to try to get the timing as close as possible is to practice the musical sequence over a hundred times a day in the lead-up to the competition. My coach will let me know if I am behind or in front of the music at the end of the sequence, and I just have to memorise how fast the horse and I should go through the sequence.

The second difficulty I have encountered is in finding the right horse to partner with. Each horse has his or her own character and personality, much like partnering with a human, but without the ability to communicate properly with each other. The horse has to understand the rider’s movements because she cannot coordinate her movements as well as some riders who do not have disabilities and who use whips or stirrups. On top of all this, the horse has to have the ‘wow factor’ in terms of its look and walk.

DPA:
With so many horses to try, how do you know which one is the best for you?

Laurentia:
The horse that I rode in the 2012 Paralympic Games was called Reuben James and by the time of the games I had only been riding him for ten months. Yet, I fell in love with him within five minutes of riding him. He seemed to know my movements and we just clicked. Another horse I tried out immediately did not take to me and kept shaking so in that case I know it was not the right horse for me.

Rueben is based in Germany, so I go back on weekends to train with him and other able-bodied people exercise him during the week, but no other Paralympic athletes ride him. A teammate of mine tried riding him, but Reuben did not like it because he did not have as much strength in his legs as I do.

DPA:
Do you get any support with maintaining your horse?

Laurentia:
Banyan Tree sponsors the upkeep of my horse, but I need to look for more sponsorship as it is expensive to take care of him. There are vet checks to consider and horse shoes need to be changed every six weeks. Reuben also needs rugs to put over him to keep him warm in winter and lighter ones for summer, and there is also his feed and shavings in his stable that need to be changed every few days. All in all, there are many costs that come with keeping a horse that I need sponsorship to cover.

DPA:
What do you think is the biggest issue that athletes with disabilities face and what advice do you have for overcoming that obstacle?

Laurentia:
In terms of my event, I think that people with disabilities get nervous about getting on a horse. Horses can sense that nervousness and shows a new horse you are not confident. In my case, I have been riding since I was five to strengthen my core muscles and improve my posture so I have never been afraid of it. My advice is to overcoming that fear is to pretend and act like it is a horse you know already.

DPA:
Do you think that the education you received set you up for your later success at the Paralympic Games?

Laurentia:
When I was at school, the Mary Hare Grammar School, there were accommodations made for my disability as it was a school for people with hearing impairment. These include special coloured lights in my room that lit up to signal different things – green for the doorbell, red for a fire alarm and blue for the phone ringing. All my friends were deaf, the television showed programmes with subtitles and the librarian would record shows with subtitles as well. Once I left school and went to university (Laurentia studied at Oxford Brookes University and has a degree in hospitality management and tourism), I found it difficult to adjust at first.

At university I had to keep reminding the lecturer to turn around when speaking so I could lip-read, but did not want to do this too much as it was disruptive to the class. On the other hand, there was a lot of accommodation made for me. I received a grant from the government that covered a note taker to overcome the issue of having to lip-read the lecturer and I also asked to be given the lecture notes beforehand. I was also provided with a special chair, a laptop and a book allowance so that I did not need to go to the library to get my course books. Going to the library is not that convenient and the books are only available on short loan. In terms of exams, I was given a bit longer to complete them.

Later when I went to work, accommodation was made me in the workplace. An interpreter was provided. I was given a more supportive chair and a laptop and a parking space right outside the office.

DPA:
What changes have you seen in Singapore and in the attitude towards disability over the years? What have you especially noticed and liked?

Laurentia:
When I first came back to Singapore, people would look at me on the MRT because they were not used to seeing someone with a disability. Back then, I wished that people who had questions would come up and ask me, rather than just looking. I think that people were not educated as to how to help persons with disabilities.

Over the years, I have seen an improvement in the support provided for persons with disabilities such as lifts in HDB and other buildings, more ramps and parking spaces allocated for those with disabilities. I have heard about the work schemes for persons with disabilities and I have also seen a slight improvement in terms of those with hearing impairments in that there are more subtitles on television.

A lot has been done to catch with other more accessible and inclusive countries, but these efforts are not always consistent. There needs to be more information for persons with disabilities regarding kinds of services and facilities are available to them.

DPA:
What advice do you have for aspiring Singapore athletes and other people with disabilities in Singapore?

Laurentia:
When you enjoy something, follow your passion and never give up because you never know where it could take you.

***

Laurentia Tan personifies what can be achieved with the right kind of support and with reasonable accommodation for a person’s disabilities. DPA hopes that Laurentia’s success will not only motivate other persons with disabilities to pursue competitive sports, but also create awareness in Singapore about the need to nurture that talent, both in terms of sponsorship and within the curriculum of our institutions of education.

The inclusive and accessible nature of her formative years and education no doubt contributed to Laurentia’s success. DPA hopes that her story can replicated in the next generation of persons with disabilities in Singapore.

For more photos from Laurentia’s visit to DPA, please go to our Facebook page.

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