Sailing is a Way of Life for Jovin Tan

Jovin Tan is the first sailing coach with a disability in Singapore.

27 November 2020

By Lim Wei Hao

Adaptation is a concept that Jovin Tan is all too familiar with. Tan, who was born with cerebral palsy, fell in love with sailing after being referred to the Singapore Disability Sports Council (SDSC) by the Asian Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA). Then only 15 years old, Tan participated in a Learn to Sail (LTS) Programme organised by SDSC. Today, Tan is the coach of the LTS Programme. His journey has seen him come full circle and his commitment to contribute and give back to persons with disabilities (PWDs) has never wavered.

From Sailor to Coach

Tan attended the LTS Programme for free as the programme was then sponsored by Neptune Orient Lines/APL. Volunteers from the company were also on hand to ferry Tan from his home to Changi Sailing Club and back home after the session ended. Sunday mornings were spent out at sea as an escape from home, an experience that left an indelible mark on Tan’s life.

Now 34 years old, Tan is a trailblazer for the sport of para sailing. The four-time Paralympian has represented Singapore with distinction on the international stage, winning gold at the 2014 Asian Para Games and at the 2015 ASEAN Para Games in Singapore. After returning from the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, Tan took it upon himself to get certified as a sailing coach. In an interview with The New Paper in 2017, Tan shared about how adaptations were made in order for him to achieve his dream of becoming a sailing coach. Tan has the honour of being the first sailing coach with a disability in Singapore, having obtained all required certification, including a power boat license.

Adaptation is key in sailing, even more so for Jovin Tan.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit earlier in the year, it proved to be a blow to Tan and the sailing team. Like many other sports teams, training took on a different meaning and was conducted virtually.

“What we only could do was to keep in touch and advise the sailors to keep (up) their physical fitness by doing some simple exercises on their own because sailing is a sport that actually requires a lot of training on water to actually get a better feel. With the pandemic, what we can do is limited,” said Tan.

Having to stay at home and not being able to go out to be at sea was indeed challenging for Tan. The uncertainty was palpable and the wait arduous, but it was also presented an opportunity for growth.

“When things happen, you just got to focus on what you can do, and not worry about things you can’t control. As a sailor myself, and the rest of the sailors in the programme, I think we all had acquired these skills long ago because when we are sailing, we are dealing with the elements, something that is not within our control,” said Tan.

Having a different perspective is something that Tan has had to learn to have as a coach. Entering into his third year as a coach, Tan had set many goals for himself before the COVID-19 pandemic threw his plans into disarray. It was back to the drawing board as Tan had to re-evaluate how to keep the sailors motivated and how he would be able to conduct the LTS Programme.

Jovin Tan steers the boat while Lim Kim Seng, a long-time volunteer of the Learn to Sail Programme, watches on.

“Coaching itself taught me a lot of things. Before coaching I was a competitive sailor myself. After I went into coaching, I get to actually understand better more on how to actually help people to bring up their sailing skills level, as well as I do see a lot of things from a coach perspective, rather than an athlete perspective, so it actually helps me to understand the ability, or the strengths or weaknesses of my sailors,” said Tan.

When asked about what was his proudest moment as a sailing coach so far, Tan’s eyes lit up. It was the 1st SE Asian Para Sailing Championships in Hong Kong which saw Singapore competing against 6 other countries. That was also Tan’s first overseas assignment as a coach and he led the team to two bronze medals.

“We were actually sailing in conditions that is really totally completely different from Singapore. Hong Kong was cold at that time. It was wet, raining and the wind conditions are much stronger than Singapore. I think our sailors did their best and we did quite well, we brought back two bronze medals,” said Tan.

A Voice for Sailing

Tan is hoping that once the COVID-19 pandemic blows over and borders are re-opened, international competitions can resume and he can continue to lead teams overseas to compete. While others may wait patiently for the COVID-19 pandemic to end, Tan was not resting on his laurels as he sought to fight for the future of the sport. In 2015, it was announced that sailing would not be included as a sport at the 2020 Paralympic Games, an announcement that sent shockwaves throughout the community. The announcement led to the other major games, such as the Asian Para Games and ASEAN Para Games following suit. Conversations are ongoing at the international level and Tan is an active participant and lobbyer, going above and beyond for a sport which has given him so much.

“I was very honoured to be given the opportunity to attend a webinar to speak up and help sailing to be reinstated for the next Paralympic Games. And I believe the more people know about the sport, we wanted to create a platform where we are going to include inclusion – perhaps maybe a disabled category in the main Olympics, or a disabled sailing championships which includes able-bodied (individuals) in the races as well, so to promote inclusion,” said Tan.

Back in Singapore, Tan was ecstatic that the LTS Programme could finally resume in late October for its sixth run. Tan has trained 31 individuals, 18 of whom are PWDs, over the five previous editions of the LTS Programme since 2017. The LTS Programme is suitable for both able-bodied individuals and PWDs.

Jovin Tan wants to pass his knowledge on to the next generation.

“The way I look at it, there is actually two-way learning traffic. The able-bodied people will actually get to know more about PWDs or even people with disabilities and how they can assist to understand about their disability. For the disabled people, I would say it is actually a chance for them to learn to speak up, to ask for help if they need,” said Tan.

As someone who “can’t swim until today”, Tan is calling out for people, both able-bodied individuals and PWDs, to try out the sport. All it needs is a little bit of adaptation.

“I think my advice to people who wants to pick up sailing is to just come with an open heart. Try it out first and perhaps maybe that will be a first step to do so. Don’t give yourself too much worry, like ‘what happens if the boat capsize?’ – our boats are very special design, it will never capsize. And I was a sailor before, I trained in this boat. Just give yourself a chance, an opportunity to try it out,” said Tan.

Jovin Tan has coached five runs of the LTS Programme. 2020’s run would be his sixth.

Tan’s generosity with his knowledge and time comes to the forefront when the LTS Programme runs concurrently with sailing training on Saturdays. It would mean that his weekend is spent at Changi Sailing Club, his “second home”, not that he is complaining.

Tan said, “The programme will not be a success without the support from SDSC, partners and donors of SDSC, Changi Sailing Club, who have been a long-time supporter of sailing and the volunteers.”

Watch a video of the LTS Programme here:

View the full photo album of the LTS Programme 2020 here: https://bit.ly/SDSCLTSP2020

Stay tuned for information on the next run of the LTS Programme.

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