Bouncing Back from Adversity to Greater Heights


Once a lackadaisical learner in school, SIT’s Outstanding Male Athlete Johan Aw found his stride in university, balancing academia and playing for Singapore’s National Tchoukball team.

Despite multiple nominations, third-year Physiotherapy student Johan Aw never imagined himself a winner at SIT’s Sports Appreciation Night, where outstanding SIT athletes and sports teams were recognised for their achievements.

“Although I was at the peak of my game in Tchoukball then, I did not see myself as the best. At SIT, I would see posters of student-athletes from various national teams around campus, but I never considered myself one of them. So, I was taken aback to be the winner,” he recalled.   


Johan (front row, second from left) with his teammates from the National Tchoukball team.  (Photo: Johan Aw)

Yet, those who know the 27-year-old will think the accolade is well-earned. Son of hawker parents who ran a drinks stall at Newton Circus, Johan was an unmotivated student back in secondary school. After unsuccessfully trying to get into the business course he desired in polytechnic, he decided to study the subject at the Institute of Technical Education instead. However, he discovered that the course was not what he expected and decided to drop out after a year.

He then applied to study Sports Coaching at Republic Polytechnic (RP), as he was inspired by his Physical Education (PE) teacher back in secondary school and he had set his heart on going to the National Institute of Education (NIE) to study PE. The RP interviewers who reviewed his application saw a good fit for their Diploma in Outdoor & Adventure Learning course and offered him a place, which he accepted.

From Uncertain to Purposeful 

However, things did not pan out the way he wanted as his applications to NIE after graduation were unsuccessful. Uncertain about his next step, he considered signing on with the army or joining an outdoor activities company. It took a chance encounter with a friend studying physiotherapy at SIT to give him a new direction in life. 

Taking up her suggestion to consider physiotherapy as a career, Johan applied to SIT and got in. At that point, he was training and playing Tchoukball competitively. The freshman soon realised that balancing sports and studies was no walk in the park.


Johan learned that being disciplined and finding a balance in life was key to being successful on and off the court.  (Photo: Johan Aw)

“At my busiest, I was training five times a week. So, I found life in SIT really tough at the start. There were moments when I was close to breaking down,” he admitted. But he found himself motivated by an encouraging culture that celebrated students’ successes, as well as supportive peers who helped him to strive hard and excel academically.

Ever the determined athlete, Johan applied the lessons from sports to school. Taking the cue from his classmates, he started revising weeks before exams instead of mugging just a day before. He also ensured he understood each topic well before moving on to the next.

“I learned to make little sacrifices to carve out more time for my studies. I cut back on playing games or would sleep a little later and get up a little earlier. I would quickly finish my meal instead of lingering over it or surfing social media on my mobile phone”, shared Johan.

Discovering a Love for Learning and Life

Johan’s growing knowledge of physiotherapy also cemented his conviction about his chosen profession. An early encounter with the practice when he was recovering from a broken leg had left him with the impression that physiotherapy was largely sports-related, and that rehabilitation was expensive.

But three years in SIT has given him a better appreciation of the practice. He now sees physiotherapy as a way to restore normal function back to people and help them get back to their feet. To him, physiotherapy can be as diverse as helping someone regain their lung function, to stroke rehabilitation.

Even as Johan continues his studies, he has not forgotten to enjoy life. A keen traveller with countries like Iceland, Ireland and Cambodia already under his belt, he is looking to venture to new destinations to hike and explore. It is with the same adventurous spirit that he tries new food from the country of his travels  – the most notable of which is Hakarl, or fermented shark, in Iceland – a taste now seared into his memory. 


Johan is an avid traveller always looking forward to his next adventure overseas. (Photo: Johan Aw)

Reflecting on how far he has come in academia and life, he shared that he is at the phase where he has learnt to love learning. Being a little older than his peers at SIT has also given him a greater sense of urgency to establish himself in his career. He cannot wait to put into practice what he has learnt in school.

His advice to incoming SIT students is being thoughtful and balanced: “Make good friends, pace yourself, and enjoy your university experience. Try not to get so caught up in studies that you neglect everything else, but do not let yourself get so caught up with life that you neglect your studies”.

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