WATCH VIDEO: How far can a woman push herself? This top endurance athlete and Singapore’s first female naval diver knows a thing or two about swimming in the deep end. Her World gets inspired
For someone who once failed her 2.4km run in secondary school, Esther Tan sure has come a long way. She’s now one of Singapore’s top female endurance athletes, clearing 10-day expedition races in the desert and over the mountains for hundreds of kilometres at a stretch. For fun.
The best part is that this 31-year-old juggles her almost fanatical obsession with adventure racing, a multi-sport endurance race that’s not for the lily-livered, with a career that isn’t your everyday 9-to-5 desk job. Esther, Her World’s Young Woman Achiever for 2006, has also made history as Singapore’s first female naval diver with the elite Naval Diving Unit of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), in a job that involves search-and-rescue operations and explosive ordnance disposal.
No wonder she’s been dubbed Singapore’s GI Jane. And in case you were wondering, yes, Esther can do one-armed push-ups without hardly breaking into a sweat.
But looking at her quiet demeanour and diminutive frame (all of 1.58m and 48 kg) you would never guess that Esther is both a super-athlete and a top-notch military officer promoted to the rank of Major last year. The only tiny clue to her athleticism when she arrives for our interview at an ice-cream shop in Sunset Way is her PT kit with the word “Navy” emblazoned on the back.
She sits down and you notice her hands, criss-crossed with bulging veins that look like they could crush more than just cockroaches. She puts it best: “I think of myself as an all-round competitor. I enjoy motivating myself to do my best when I’m racing and when I’m at work.”
And she really means all-round. Not for her the garden-variety marathons and triathlons. Instead, over the last five years and in between, detonating bombs underwater, she’s trekked, abseiled, kayaked and mountain-biked over hostile terrain in places like Fiji and China, battling fatigue, sub-zero temperatures and injuries to complete adventure-laden races like the fearsome Eco Challenge. Each year, she takes part in about 30 endurance races, each lasting anything from hours to 10 days or longer, she says with a shrug.
Her resume of races plots many firsts for Singapore, like the gruelling six-day 470km New Zealand Southern Traverse race in 2002, where she was part of Team Endorphin Junkies, the first Singaporean team to finish. Her most recent was last year’s XPD Tasmania, covering 700km of remote wilderness – hers was the only Asian team – and finishing a respectable 32nd out of 47 teams in nine days and 14 hours. Now, she’s gearing up for the 500km Adventure Racing World Championship in Scotland in May, all with a massive backpack on her back and an even wider smile on her face.
But a day in Esther’s life is not just about her awe-inspiring physical feats – like somersaults underwater with her hands and legs bound – most ordinary women (and men) can’t even fathom. It’s also about how she’s giving back to the community, by spurring young women and athletes, and giving talks to secondary school students on adventure sports.
As a teacher of sorts to three athletes from Temasek Junior College as part of its mentor programme, she gets “great satisfaction knowing I’ve made a contribution to others”. Esther, who would have been a physics teacher otherwise, shares with her young charges just one piece of advice: Find out what motivates you, then work towards that passion.
NOTHING STANDS IN HER WAY
It’s pretty easy to see the effects this adrenalin junkie has on others. Over bowls of mocha ice cream, she invited me to go jogging at MacRitchie Reservoir on the weekend (I decline politely, citing the meeting time of 7am as seven hours too early a start for any activity), then eggs me on to join the gym, even whipping out exercise-class pamphlets to show how easy it is to get started.
Her close friend Jasmine Wong, 31, a physiotherapist with the SAF, is someone who can fully attest to being inspired by her. Friends since they first took part in an SAF swimming meet seven years ago, the pair caught up again two years ago after Jasmine came back from her postgrad studies in Australia, by heading to MacRitchie for a 15km run. “It gave new meaning to our ‘catch-up session’! I nearly died; she had run so far ahead of me, I couldn’t keep up!” exclaims Jasmine.
Yet, she quickly became a convert to the sport. Last July, Jasmine took part in a 250km, seven-day ultramarathon across Chile’s Atacama Desert, known as the driest place on earth. She was placed 80th out of the 135 participants. “I would never have believed that I’d do something like that two years ago! She made me see that I could discover myself if I put my heart and mind to it,” says Jasmine with a grin.
It’s a lesson in sheer grit that Esther, who ventured into endurance sports at Nanyang Technological University while studying electrical and electronic engineering on a Navy scholarship, has taught well. She’s the same woman who ran up craggy rocks and hills with a bloody, ingrown toenail at last year’s Action Asia Challenge in Macau, the day after she had it operated on. Her team also had just one hour’s worth of sleep before the race started.
They came in second place. Esther tells me matter-of-factly: “I got the doctor to make the smallest cut possible then bandaged my toe as tight as I could. It was really tough. I was limping and almost couldn’t finish because of the pain and that awful sensation in my big toe. But I refused to let it get the better of me. I shut out the pain by talking to my team-mates about life, work, everything.”
To Esther, who trains eight hours a week on top of 12-hour workdays, the real challenge for competitions is all in the mind, despite the excruciating pain.
She says, her voice steady: “If I can build up my physical strength, I can also work on my mental strength. A lot of discipline is needed, so I listen to my heart and mind, not the body.”
Her kayaking coach, former national rower Ong Qixiang, 40, says that what differentiates her from other people is this incredible sense of self-discipline. “Whatever she sets her mind to, she achieves it. Everyone can learn the skills, but it’s very rare for people like her to keep on trying and never give up, compared to even the men.”
COME HELL OR HIGH WATER
Yet when I ask what’s it like being a woman in an all-male testosterone-driven work environment, Esther, who’s now reading James F. Dunnigan’s The Perfect Soldier about special operations forces, hesitates before answering. “Gender isn’t an issue,” she tells me. “What’s more important is your ability.” In other words, anything that men can do, she can do too, even better, if she puts her mind to it. She has told me previously that “privacy and preservation of dignity” are still important, citing the need for more female-only toilets.
As for being Singapore’s first female naval diver, she says she “chose to be a naval diver”. “I was following my heart. There was nothing more that I could ask for in a job that required both mental and mettle, with a strong emphasis on teamwork and professionalism. Till today, I still feel that it’s one of the best choices I’ve made. It just so happened that I was the first female diver. When it comes to work, what I think about is getting the job done well.”
As for how she holds her own among the 36 men who report to her, she says: “Yes I need to prove that I can do the job as well as anyone in the team. But don’t we all? It’s the same everywhere. Male or female, we have to prove that we’re competent before we can be entrusted with greater responsibility. Of course, there are times when some may not be convinced that I can do it, but all I have to do is focus on the job, be professional and win them over.”
And she has managed to win their support. Her naval diving supervisor, Master Sergeant Loh Cheng Kiat, 35, says approvingly that she “always tries to get involved as much as she can”. “She’s a fast learner, patient and of course, very adventurous.”
My guess is you have to be. Naval divers have to go through nearly a year of rigorous training, including three months of basic military training, a diving course and one week of non-stop physical exercises with very little sleep, popularly known as “hell week”. Only the very best make the cut.
The job involves sometimes dangerous work. While Esther says there are many safety checks to minimise the risks involved, there are times when her adrenalin really gets pumping, like when she has to clear live ordnances “where the risks of an accidental detonation are real”.
Despite the harrowing aspects, this tough cookie is “married to my job”. Single and loving it, her work still gives her a huge thrill, and adds that her life is “like one big adventure race”.
Her family couldn’t be more proud, like her sister June, 28, who remembers how Esther became a mother figure to her and their younger brother, Andrew, 26, after their mother died of cancer 11 years ago. Their 60-year-old father works with the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
June recalls how Esther helped support her financially with her university fees. Over the phone, the pride in her voice is obvious. She says: “I never expected that she would go to such extremes because her character is very soft-natured and shy. But I’m so proud of her and her accomplishments. She’s outstanding—she never, ever gives up.”
Asked where she sees herself 10 years from now, Esther says little will change: She will be serving the navy and taking part in adventure races. How could she be so sure? She says: “When you find something you’re passionate about, you wouldn’t want to stop, would you?” HW