Singapore Dreams Big on Slalom Future

If Jessica Gwee gets her way, Singapore will one day have its very own whitewater stadium, will be sending canoe slalom athletes to the Olympics, and will be part of the Asian leg of a World Cup series.

It’s incredibly ambitious, a wish-list most would baulk at.

But not Jessica Gwee. Anyone who has had dealings with this very determined Singapore nurse, knows she already has a reputation for getting things done.

Later this month Gwee will be part of a six-strong Singapore team competing at the 2017 Asian Slalom Championships in Thailand. It’s already a great success story.

“True development in slalom in Singapore only really started last year,” Gwee said on the eve of her team’s departure for Thailand.

The 36-year-old had originally planned to take a team of nine, but as three of the athletes turned 18, they have to put on hold their participation in sport as duty calls for National Service.

Gwee puts it down as just one of the many hurdles the Singapore Canoe Federation has to overcome to put the sport on the map.

It’s a long way from the days of sea-kayaking with friends as a teenager, but Gwee, who has been part of the ICF’s incredibly successful Expand Extend Women’s Canoeing (EEWC) program, is now a driving force behind Singapore’s future in canoe slalom.

The turning point for Gwee was the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore.

“The sport needed someone who could coach turning,” Gwee said.

“Our group were all weekend paddlers, so I was one of the few who could actually coach weekdays. So I got the job.

“I was already a volunteer with the Youth Olympic Games, so it made sense.”

Her work impressed the Singapore Canoe Federation, who were on the look out for enthusiastic people to help expand the sport on the tiny island.

“They asked me if I wanted to do whitewater. I’d only really done sprints and marathon before that,” Gwee said.

“It was a very steep learning curve for me, absolutely crazy going from flat to whitewater.

“But the Federation wanted me to start developing slalom back in 2010. We had very little equipment - a few plastic boats left over from the Youth Olympics.”

Gwee took to her new role with gusto, training on flat water and slowly building up numbers.

“Before the Youth Olympics we had no interest in Singapore in slalom at all,” she said.

“But a test event involving schools before the Games whet the appetite of a few, and gave us something to build on.”

Fast-forward to 2017, and Singapore now has 40 fully-trained technical officials, and has just held its first National Canoe Slalom Championships, on flat water, that will become an annual event.

“We used classic gates and had about 200 school children compete,” Gwee said.

“I’m so excited to see so many people taking part. Many of them are really natural paddlers, and they want to be serious athletes.

“There’s a lot less girls, but I think with this annual race, those numbers will grow.”

2016 also saw Gwee become Singapore’s first internationally accredited canoe slalom judge.

Gwee singled out the International Canoe Federation, and it’s Talent Identification Program (TIP) and EEWC, for helping drive the development and growth of slalom in Singapore.

It’s given her the confidence to aim high, like building the country’s first whitewater stadium.

“I will make it my life goal to make it happen,” she said.

“It might take years, and being a small island, one of the big issues is land. And also we want to do it privately, because there is too much bureaucracy once you involve the public sector.

“Just to put up gates for our first race, I had to go through six different Government agencies. But if we have the facilities, and the right training, we can bring Singapore to the elite level.

“Tokyo 2020 might be too soon, but in the future, yes.”

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