The Joys and Challenges of Para Sports – as told by Para Cyclist Lee Lee

Most individuals learn how to bike at a young age, and cycle competitively many years later. For Lim Lee Lee, learning how to cycle and becoming a high-performance athlete happened in tandem. It was in her undergraduate years of 1995 when she trained for the Australian Disabled Cycling Championship 1995 (tandem), Women’s Open 1k Time Trial and Open 3k Individual Pursuit.

Lee Lee is visually impaired, as a result of a hospital mishap. Born premature, she was placed in an incubator, but her eyes were not covered and were burnt in the process. However, being blind did not stop her from entering competitive sports.

It was a case of an accidental cyclist. Someone dropped out of the competition and Lee Lee was invited to take her spot. Since she was not allowed to cycle when she was younger, she jumped at the chance. “My parents thought it was too dangerous for me,” explains Lee Lee. Over a six months period, Lee Lee woke up early in the morning to scale the NUS hills and bike to and fro from Changi prison. While picking up cycling may seem easy for sighted athletes, it was much tougher for her. She has never seen someone cycle before. Understanding certain movements, balancing and the partnership were all challenges she and her partner had to overcome. Juggling her undergraduate studies, a part-time job, and competitive cycling, she recalled her professors being very understanding. Without the assistance of any coaches and only the close partnership of her tandem cyclist, now a coach, Poon Pek Ya, Lee Lee trained towards the championship. While Pek Ya was the pilot and tasked with changing gears and strategies, Lee Lee was the pillion cyclist as per typical practice when an individual is visually impaired. Lee Lee explains, “I was the power.” Lee Lee had to trust Pek Ya to make good decisions for both of them, even as she propelled the team forward into the unknown. Every pedal stroke had to be aligned.

The discovery of track cycling was a thrilling experience. The race took place in a velodrome in Perth, an arena which consists of two circular bends of 33º with two straights connecting them totaling 250m. Cyclists mount a fixed gear bike without brakes and race to the best of their abilities. Animated, Lee Lee describes the exhilaration of cycling at high speeds on different elevations and the rush of adrenaline during the steep drops. “Sports gave me independence and really drove me forward,” says Lee Lee, who is now a freelance writer.

Looking back more twenty years on, Lee Lee shrugs at the feat pulled off in 1995. What she is keen on is whether progress has been made since then. Participation in athletics among persons with disabilities (PWDs) remains low, although there has been heightened media attention on high-performing athletes with disabilities, Yip Pin Xiu and Theresa Goh. In 2016, the Centre of Expertise for Disability Sports at the ActiveSG Sengkang Sports Centre was also launched.

Recalling her younger days in the kampong when she played hopscotch and zeropoint with the other kids before her parents barred her from cycling when they moved to a HDB, Lee Lee said that play from a young age is important, and parents play a crucial role. By encouraging their children to play and exercise from a young age, parents assist their children in gaining independence, regardless of their disability.

Then, there is also a shortage of high-performances coaches sensitive to the needs of PWDs. The same technique for an individual with a particular disability, may not work for another with a similar disability, says Pek Ya, who recently attended an Introduction to Para Sports Coaching Course. Coaches are challenged to be flexible and adapt to the needs of athletes with disabilities. Assistant coaches, helpers, caregivers need to be present to ensure that the athletes are safe during their trainings, even as they are training hard and pushing their limits. Coaching expertise and understanding of PWDs already exists, insists Pek Ya. It is about time to marry both – training coaches to better understand the needs of PWDs, and training individuals working with PWDs to become better coaches.

Lee Lee dreams of a day when abled athletes and athletes with disabilities train alongside each other and no one bats an eyelash. Until then, Lee Lee will continue to run with her guide dog Nice, knowing that athleticism and determination does not discriminate on the lines of ability. It is only a matter of activating enabled bodies.

Are you interested in finding out more about coaching persons with disabilities? Contact Unpossible Fitness for information at www.unpossible.me, pekya@unpossible.me