Grit and Determination Steer Paddling Success


SIT Hospitality Business graduate Daniel Koh (Class of 2021) clinched a SEA Games medal on his debut.

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At the 31st Southeast Asian Games held in Hanoi in May 2022, Team Singapore consisting of (L to R) Jovi Jayden Kalaichelvan, Brandon Ooi Wei Cheng, Pan Congchang and Daniel Koh clinched the team bronze medal in the men’s K4 500m event. (Photo: SNOC/ Kelly Wong)

Within mere seconds into the men’s K4 500m heats at the 31st Southeast Asian (SEA) Games this year, kayaker Daniel Koh almost got an embarrassing mouthful of some Gia River water in Hai Phong, Vietnam.

The fired-up muscles were ready to paddle, but a frenzied mind had seemingly forgotten how to. “I lost my composure,” recalled the SEA Games debutant who also lost his balance, as he missed his second stroke and nearly toppled overboard. “It was the nerves – my heart rate was crazy.”

His choice of pre-race music had inadvertently contributed to the palpitations. “Usually I’ll listen to hardcore rap songs to hype myself up,” explained the 26-year-old. But American rock band Fort Minor had sent his brain into major overdrive. “That was a mistake then because I was already super pumped up.”

Fortunately, the early hiccup did not prevent Singapore’s four-man boat team from qualifying for the finals, where he decided to change tracks.

Instead of the hard-hitting beats of Mike Shinoda, he opted for the calming tones of a ‘random Christian worship playlist’. “A 180-degree change,” he said with a laugh. “I had to calm myself down completely.”

It worked, as the newfound composure reaped rewards: a team bronze. “Our execution was much better,” he said. For the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) Hospitality Business student who graduated last October, clinching that medal was also a moment of vindication after three strenuous years of juggling studies and sport.

And while he has secured silverware on his SEA Games debut, this competitive athlete still wants more. “There’s definitely room for improvement – this is not the best we have,” he said. “There’s still more to give if we train more.”

Stretched to the Limit

There is no denying that Daniel had given his all to seal a spot at the SEA Games since entering the national team in 2019. “I just wanted to represent Singapore really badly and I knew for that to happen, sacrifices had to be made,” he said.

This meant little sleep, long days, and lengthy commutes. Thrice a week, the alarm would ring at 4.45 am, before training at 6 am beckoned. Then, it was off from Kallang to the SIT@RP Building in Woodlands for 9 am classes. On some evenings, he would even return to the water for more paddling.

But it was in Year 3 that nearly saw him hit breaking point. Assignments had ramped up significantly, with the gruelling eight-month-long Capstone Project – a final-year project for all SIT students –  and other projects piling up on his to-do list.

mapletree challenge 2020 experience

Despite his hectic schedule, Daniel maximised his time as a student to participate in the Mapletree Challenge 2020, a sustainable innovation competition for SIT undergraduates. From left: Daniel Koh with team members Valda Ng, Lee Jun Wei and Jack Wong Jie Qing. (Photo: Daniel Koh)

The nights got even shorter, as five hours of sleep became commonplace. “It was just really tough,” he said. “I cried myself to sleep on most weekdays and prayed the next day would be better.”

COVID-19 also added to the mental strain. In 2021, the pandemic had caused the postponement of the SEA Games by a year, and the uncertainty became almost unbearable. “Was the SEA Games going to happen? We were not even sure when we were supposed to peak during training,” he said.

Pillars of Support

But the single-minded determination of donning the Singapore flag on his chest kept him going. Training continued as he religiously kept his body in prime condition. “I prayed a lot, ate a lot and slept a lot,” he recalled. “I’d sleep in between lessons, or take naps on the trains and buses.”

While sleep healed him physically, support in university helped mentally. His schoolmates would often check in on him, from asking about training to offering cups of coffee. They even arranged project meetings around his hectic schedule.

“My SIT professors and friends were very supportive of me in chasing this dream,” he said. “Credit goes to them for this success.”

Daniel with friends - Left to right - Wong Jie Qing Jack, Lee Jun Wei, Tristan Tan Wei Jie

Daniel Koh (2nd from left) graduated from the Hospitality Business (Hons) Degree Programme last year. His close buddies: (L to R)  Jack Wong Jie Qing, Lee Jun Wei and Tristan Tan Wei Jie were instrumental to his success. (Photo: Daniel Koh)

All the pain and suffering paid off when he finally found himself in Vietnam this May, achieving a goal that had been almost a decade in the making. “This (the SEA Games) is all I wanted since I started paddling nine years ago. It was a dream come true for me,” he said.

From Posh Hotels to Paddling

While Daniel had originally wanted to be a hotelier after being attracted to the glitz and glamour of the industry, he has since traded in his suit for sportswear to become a full-time athlete and part-time canoe coach.

“The last eight months of training full-time has made me feel like I can do a lot more,” he said. “I like to race. I like the competitiveness and adrenaline.” Now, his sights are set on bigger tournaments, starting with the World Championships in August.

And, thanks to his time at SIT, he has honed an invaluable trait that will put him in good stead to chase more medals: persistence. “I stayed mentally strong and kept going, even though it was super tiring,” he said. “This was what I took away from the three years spent at SIT and training.”

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