First person - Olympic dreams

  • Oxford Brookes graduate Laurentia Tan is a London-based Paralympian who competes for Singapore in equestrian events.

    EquestrianLaurentia, who developed cerebral palsy and deafness after birth, became the first Singaporean to win a Paralympic medal and the holder of Asia's first Paralympic equestrian medal, after she won two bronze medals at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

    We caught up with her to find out about how she rose to the top levels of her sport and her hopes for London 2012:

    Oxford Brookes: Hi Laurentia, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Firstly, where did you spend your childhood and how did you get into horse riding as a girl? What were those early experiences of horse riding like? Was it something you fell in love with very quickly and had a strong affinity for?

    Laurentia Tan: I was born in Singapore, and moved over to London when I was three. I started riding as a form of physiotherapy and absolutely loved it! Although I went to boarding school at 11, I came home regularly during weekends to continue riding.

    I remember loving the feeling of being on the horse. As a little girl, I enjoyed riding and swimming for the freedom they gave me. On a horse and in water, I had the freedom, movements and energy that my own body cannot do. Through sports, I was able to do things that I would not otherwise do.

    OB: How effective is riding as physiotherapy?

    LT: Due to my cerebral palsy, I was really floppy and could not sit or walk properly when I was younger. Riding has helped straighten and strengthen my back, improve my mobility, my co-ordination and given me confidence in myself. It has also improved the tone of my movements and the suppleness of my body.

    Riding at international level has also taught me a lot about life; about teamwork, the importance of communication, partnership and trust. Without the team and the support of everyone behind the team, the support network, I would not have achieved as much and would not know where I'd be today.

    OB: When did you start to compete in equestrian events and how did you progress through the ranks?

    LT: It was when Penny Pegrum, my current trainer, and Judy Lord, my previous trainer, encouraged me, that I started dressage competitions in 2006. This quickly progressed to National level.

    OlympicsThen, it was the Singapore RDA (Riding for the Disabled Association) who invited me to represent Singapore at the World Para Dressage Championships in 2007. That was my first international competition. I went just for the fun of it and to enjoy the experience. All my scores were 63% and above, which meant I made the qualifying score for selection to the Paralympics. And the rest, as they say, is history!

    I enjoyed competing, and with my love for riding horses it was more of a natural progression that I ended competing at an international level. I didn't consider riding as a profession until I started competing and doing well. It was only then that I started to think about it as an option. It was after the Paralympics that I finally decided to ride professionally because I enjoy riding so much and wanted to do more competitions at international level. I feel very lucky that I am able to do what I love.

    OB: Who were the famous riders that inspired you as a child?

    LT: As I was growing up, I would often watch the advanced riders with admiration. There are a number of people who inspire me but in the world of para dressage, it has to be GB's Lee Pearson. He has won gold medals in all his events at the last three Paralympic Games. I would love to be able to do what he can do, that is, ride with a high level of dressage skills and perhaps compete with the able bodied as well.

    OB: Is horse riding a difficult sport to master?

    LT: I believe anybody can ride a horse. The difficulty is how well one can ride, in dressage in particular, as it is the consistency in rhythm, the precision and accuracy in performing the movements that is judged.

    Dressage at the highest Grand Prix level will show the harmonious partnership between the horse and rider, with the horse seeming to perform the movements with minimum aid from the rider so the horse looks as though it is making the performance and the rider is 'just sitting there'!

    For me, one of the most challenging parts of riding is the Freestyle to Music test. I am profoundly deaf and cannot hear the music at all, let alone when the music is trailing off. I cannot hear where I am in the timing of the music, never mind if I have more time or less time to do a certain movement, although some may say that it is a blessing in a way as I can just concentrate on the horse, the movements and the physical performance.

    One of the most common questions I get asked is: "How do you know when to start or finish if you are not able to hear the music?" I would need someone with me near the arena to tell me when the judge's 'bell' goes, indicating that they are ready and I may start. It is easier to know when to start because usually in "Freestyle to Music" or "Kur", the riders would put their hand up to indicate to the sound technician to start the music. In my case, I am allowed to have someone with me to indicate to the sound technician on my behalf. I start when his other hand comes down.

    However, even with assistance, it is much harder knowing when to finish.

    It is just training; practice... practice... and more practice. I have learnt to 'feel', calculate and think positive! I learnt through my 'feelings' of the horse's steps and rhythm, I can work out if we will be ahead or behind the music. At the end of the day, I hope for the best and pray that the angels are with me to help me finish on the right timing!

    OB: What is your training regime?

    LT: My training sessions used to be mainly in Kent, either at my coach's place or where Harvey [Laurentia's horse from Beijing] is, in Kent. However, with Harvey's retirement and my horse being based in Germany, I now travel to Germany regularly to train with Singapore's national coach.

    In Germany, I ride almost every day! Also while in the UK, I go riding three times a week at the Diamond RDA (Riding for the Disabled Association) centre and at my coach's place to train on different horses. This helps me develop different skills required by different horses. When I am not riding, I am busy in the gym doing my physiotherapy exercises and stretches. Like a ballet dancer, I have to do my exercises every day to help me with my balance, become more supple, develop my core muscles and gain more stamina.

    OB: What events are you going to be competing in at London 2012?

    LT: I will be doing the Team Test (Friday 31 August), the Individual Championship Test (Sunday 2 September) and the Freestyle to Music "Kur" (Tuesday 4 September).

    OB: Who else competes in your team?

    LT: This is the first time we have a Para-Equestrian team, so I will be riding with Gemma Rose Foo and Maximillian Tan.

    OB: What is it like to compete in the Olympics? How pressured is the event and how nervous do you get beforehand?

    LT: The Olympic and Paralympic Games is the pinnacle of many sports. The Games will always be special and it is a great honour to be part of it. In 2008, I remember entering the huge arena with a lot of audience, and I could catch the live broadcast of me on the big screen in the corner of my eye, but I dared not look at it! I could feel everyone's eyes watching and all the cameras following me, and I got even more nervous that I had to tell myself to pretend I was 'only training' at "Penny's place"!

    At international events, I still do get nervous but I try to treat it as a demonstration of passion and care about what I am doing. As long as we do not let the nerves get the better of us, it is a normal process. I am usually more nervous before I get on the horse, as I do not know how the horse is feeling until I am in the saddle and warming both of us up!

    The London 2012 Games will be very special to my heart as it is the city where I grew up, it is like home to me, and I will be performing in front of my family and friends here.

    OB: What kind of support team do you have during the Olympics?

    LT: In the para equestrian team, we have the coaches, the grooms, the vet, the riders, the carers, my British Sign Language (BSL) Interpreter(s) and, of course, the horses and their owners!

    Because of the high level competition, we will also have other officials such as the medical doctor, secretariat and team managers to support us in various areas to ensure that the team can focus on the competition in the best way possible.

    OB: What are Olympic days like? Is there a typical day? How long or arduous are they? How do they map out and how are events scheduled?

    LT: Every day at the Paralympic Games is a whole new experience, because of the scale and level of standard of play, as compared to other international competitions. There are many stages to go through, like transporting and fetching the horse, going through anti-doping tests, stabling, training and test events. Besides these technical details, we have to maintain ourselves in top form, be it in nutrition, body and mental wellness.

    It is definitely exhausting to keep up sometimes, especially when there are different timings scheduled for various activities, not just our competitions. For example, we can't all squeeze into the same arena for practice at the same time.

    My competitions are spread out with one rest day in between, according to the schedules mapped by the Organising Committee. I'm hoping to make the best of it and catch some breathing time in between the excitement and other affairs to tend to! I'll also be cheering for my team mates who are competing then.

    OB: Your win in 2008 sparked quite a bit of debate in Singapore. What did you think of that and do you think those kinds of debates help redress any imbalances in perceptions between the Olympics and Paralympics?

    LT: Winning the very first Paralympic medals for Singapore definitely helped raise awareness for people with disabilities. It was one of many opportunities to show what people with disabilities can achieve and contribute back to society.

    However, there is also still a huge potential to transform attitudes and perceptions of people with disabilities. It is not just about addressing the lack of awareness or lack of understanding, but also re-educating the public and the community as a whole.

    I have been lucky; I have had amazing support from family, friends and various professionals around me. It is with their understanding, encouragement and support that I have been able to achieve so many things.

    A debate stays a debate if actions are not seen, and I think a lot more can be done, in many areas with the help of many others. For example, for sponsors to not only recognise the value of the Olympics but also the Paralympics jointly, for supporters to cheer at not only the Olympics but the Paralympics, for media to cover not the Olympians but the Paralympians.

    In terms of effort and skill, I definitely think there's equal contention in both games for the different parties to consider. Furthermore, I do think that there are many extraordinary stories out there in both games to be discovered, which can bring plus points to the parties.