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A Singapore Rower Trained for the Olympics Between Nursing Shifts

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As many of her competitors spent their days preparing for the Olympics, Joan Poh spent much of the past year working long shifts at a Singapore hospital.

Ms. Poh, a 30-year-old rower who will represent Singapore at the Tokyo Games, had been training and competing full time. But she put that on hold in April of last year when she returned to her job as a nurse after the government put out a call for frontline medical reinforcements.

“In a time of pandemic, going back to work felt like a calling,” she said. “When I’m at work, I’m 100 percent a nurse. When I’m training, I’m 100 percent a rower. It’s always about finding that balance and making it work.”

After resuming eight- to 10-hour hospital shifts in the renal unit at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Ms. Poh sought ways to continue to train. She squeezed in workouts before and after work, sometimes skipping meals. To make up for lost time, she would spend her entire weekend on the water.

Though Ms. Poh did not work in a Covid ward, she was one of a handful of specially trained dialysis nurses at the hospital. She often had to treat patients suspected of having the coronavirus and feared she might contract it herself.

Ms. Poh will also have to be on guard against the virus at this year’s Games, which are unlike any other as organizers try to minimize the risk of transmission. Spectators will be barred from most events, and athletes are discouraged from giving hugs, high-fives and handshakes. Out of about 20,000 people traveling to Japan for the Games, dozens have tested positive for the virus, including three people inside the athletes’ village.

But as a nurse, Ms. Poh plans to take precautions. Her manager, Koh Yu Han, said that despite attracting stares, they both make a point of wiping down equipment and tables. They carry their backpacks at all times to avoid putting them down and becoming contaminated. When traveling to a qualifying race in Tokyo in May, Ms. Koh said, she and Ms. Poh were the only passengers on a bus full of athletes to sanitize their seats with alcohol.

Just 23 athletes will represent Singapore at the Olympics this year, and Ms. Poh is the only female rower. She is only the second Singaporean rower to reach the Olympics, placing 12th in the qualifying regatta.

Her event, women’s single sculls, will take place on Friday.

Ms. Poh did not first get into a boat until she was a teenager, but quickly fell in love with being on the water. Her parents could not afford sports leagues or professional coaching, but she still found ways to practice.

She joined a dragon boat team when she was 17, honing her paddling skills on a traditional long boat before learning how to sail and row a scull. In 2019, she took an extended leave from her hospital job in order to train and compete full time in Australia.

The past year, splitting time between the gym and the hospital, she said, only increased her drive.

“I understood from when I was young that sport is a luxury,” she said. “To be able to pursue your dream is a luxury. And therefore, if you can, then you must.”

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