Sometimes, the most painful events in life can become the greatest drive for a person’s life passion.
Barely one week old, Singapore-born Laurentia Tan became seriously ill. When she was 10 months old, she was so floppy that her parents were told that she was a “vegetable”, a “retard”, a “spastic”, and she might never be able to walk.
“I was very floppy and unable to sit or walk, and doctors thought I might never walk and need institutional care,” recalls Laurentia.
Thankfully, her determined parents did not heed the doctor’s advice—the family packed their bags and moved to the United Kingdom when Laurentia was only 3 years old.
It was only then when they arrived in England that they realised Laurentia was diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP) and profound deafness.
To strengthen her core stability and muscles, as well as her confidence and self-esteem, Laurentia started horse riding as a form of physiotherapy at the age of 5.
The strong-willed and determined Laurentia was striving to do anything her able-bodied friends could do. She took part in various sports and even became a swimmer at the British Nationals.
And today, three decades later, Laurentia is Singapore’s best-known Paralympian, having won two bronze medals at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, and a silver and a bronze at the 2012 London Games.
She was elected Athlete Representative for Para Equestrian sports, and Solidarity Ambassador for the International Federation of Equestrian (FEI)—the only Asian amongst the eight accomplished riders who help the federation in its efforts to develop equestrian sports around the world.
To Laurentia, deafness is more of a barrier compared to her physical disabilities, as deafness is ‘invisible’ and many people do not realise she cannot hear. She is always extrapolating information and gets tired more easily, so people might not have the patience to converse with her.
So what motivates Laurentia to overcome adversity?
“It is our own perception, our attitudes, that are sometimes more limiting than what could be. With creativity, encouragement, support, hope and a leap of faith, anything can be possible,” she says.
She adds, “How do you know what you can or cannot do …until you try? Sometimes, all we have to do is believe in ourselves.”
Laurentia graduated from Oxford Brookes University, and received her Honours degree in Hospitality Management & Tourism from Florida International University on exchange.
Through her volunteer work, she developed an interest in Mental Health and worked in a specialised mental health unit for a few years before leaving to train full time for the Paralympic Games in 2008.
“Our glorious moments are not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall,” she shares.
“In other words, in life anything can happen and one has to try to manage the situation under those circumstances. Things may not go the way we want it to go and there will always be challenges… Shoot for the moon; even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars!” advises Laurentia in this interview with the Epoch Times.
What was it like growing up with cerebral palsy (CP) and profound deafness?
There are many times and many things that I have been told cannot do, either by other people or that internal voice we all have. However, I have been blessed with great people in my life.
Having great parents, family and friends also really makes all the difference, people who believe in me and gives me encouragement, support …and all through a lot of patience!
I guess I believe that things happen for a reason, and sometimes people are there for a short time, some are there for a long time.
It is thanks to everyone in my life, my parents, my family, all my friends, my teachers and trainers, my doctors and health professionals who have worked with me, that I am who I am today.
If I did not have CP or profound deafness, would I have met the people I have met, would I have crossed the same paths I crossed? Would I have the same experiences, knowledge, skills…? Would I be the same person I am? Would I have achieved as much as I have?
Growing up, I was the only physically disabled in all my schools from the age of 6, so I always knew I was slower than my friends. As a child, I was encouraged to be active, and I have always strived to do things that my ‘able-bodied’ friends could do and nothing would stop me… though it was not without moments of frustration!
Practice, practice, practice…& laughter! However, it is also with patience, encouragement and support from those around me, that I have achieved the things I have and do the things I do! Also, people often say I have a perfectionist trait and can be quite determined, always persevering towards my goals.
Of course I was frustrated as well for not being able to run as fast as my friends and like my brother, they often make allowances for me. On Sports Day, I was given head starts in races so we would all finish about the same time, or in a game where I have to catch my friends, they would hop instead of run.
I also had this ‘special’ big red tricycle and every weekend, my family would go to Richmond Park for me to go cycling. All the children would look at me with envy.
I would also play football or cricket with my brother too. If I was not in the garden, I would be riding my tricycle! At school, I was always running around with my friends in the playground, rolling in the grass, even trying to copy my friends’ cartwheels and rollovers. I don’t think there was ever a day when I did not have a plaster on my knees!
Using chopsticks and being able to drive a car are just another few examples of what I ‘strived’ to do… I wanted to do everything that ‘everyone else’ seemed to do. I remember wanting roller skates and people laughed saying that I would not be able to balance / skate, but I responded, “How will we know I can’t do it, unless I try…?”
Being deaf means I do tend to miss out a lot on conversations, but my family and friends would make allowances for me and would repeat what they said or (tell me) what they are talking about.
How does our society view the disabled? In your opinion, how can we change that prejudice?
Overall, I feel that the general awareness of the disabled in Singapore has increased and there has been more emphasis on inclusion in the society.
One thing I hope to continue to show is that disabled people can also enjoy and excel in whatever field they choose, sports or otherwise. This is something I hold true and am proud of.
Over the last several years, Singapore has improved in terms of supporting people with disabilities. Winning the Paralympic medals for Singapore, it definitely helped raised awareness for people with disabilities. It is one of many opportunities to show what people with disabilities can achieve and contribute back to society.
However, in Singapore, a lot more can be done to improve equality; especially in terms of access, facilities and support for people with disabilities. There is also huge potential to transform attitudes and perceptions of people with disabilities. It is not just about addressing the lack of awareness or lack of understanding, but also re-educating the public and the community as a whole.
As a person with disabilities, I found people in Singapore would often stare, but that is not to say that they should not look. However, things are slowly improving as people become more aware and informed.
‘Disabilities’ and ‘limitations’ are relative terms. I find it often helps to think ‘outside the box’ because with a bit of creativity and imagination, there is always a way around things…. “Anything is possible”!
Tell us about para-equestrian sports. What made you join para-equestrian sports?
I started horse riding as part of physiotherapy at the age of 5 years old; I could not sit up, let alone stand or walk properly. For many years, it was more therapeutic and it helped developed my core strength, co-ordination, strengthening my back and legs etc.
As a little girl, I felt like I could ‘fly’ when I am riding with horses. Horses have given me the freedom and energy that my own body cannot do. I may not be able to dance on my own two feet, but with a horse, we can do ‘ballet’ together.
With horses as my partners, they have given me the freedom and energy that my own body cannot do. I may not be able to dance on my own two feet, but on a horse, we can do ballet together! (Dressage is often referred to as “ballet” of the equestrian world!)
In the past few years, riding for me has grown from a ‘leisurely’ sport to a way of life. I now have my own horses, Rubin (aka Redcliff), and although he does not live at my place, my family and I are more involved in horse care/management.
However, equestrian is not just about the partnership between the horse and rider; like any sport, it is also the people working with them and supporting them. It has taught me the importance of trust and teamwork.
Passion, perseverance/determination & being creative: Riding has also given me inspiration that anything is possible in life and of course there are times when things may not go well but it is how one responds or approach to things that really counts… and will often find that there are many ways to approach/solve a problem.
How did it feel like winning medals at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics and the London 2012 Paralympics?
It is always an honour to represent Singapore at international level, and especially so at the Paralympics. At London 2012 Paralympic Games, this was the first time Singapore had an equestrian team and it was a great privilege to lead that team.
It was really awesome to be able to compete in the city of London, where I have lived for so many years… Although I represented Singapore, I had so many people from all over UK, from Singapore and other parts of the world who came just to watch me.
My performance was extremely well received in Singapore that at times it is almost overwhelming! I am happy to have helped increased the awareness of people with disabilities and equestrian sports, and in turn, helped increased the facilities and support in these areas.
I have to say that one of the most memorable moments for me was at a prestigious award dinner gala, where I was one of the recipients. The host/presenter, who was someone who knew my dad from his work, told the audience that she remembers my dad working with her and he explained that he had to leave the organisation to stay in England for his daughter who had special needs.
She said although she was sad to see my dad go but understood his position. It was not until that night of the ceremony, over 25 year later, that she truly understood the decision with huge admiration for being inspiring parents! There was a long applause for my parents.
I remember feeling so proud of my parents and happy to have them as my ‘guardian angels’. My parents tried to make my life as normal as they possibly could and ensure that I had every opportunity to reach my full potential.
What is your motto in life?
Our glorious moments are not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall.
– Paralympic medallist, Laurentia Tan
“Our glorious moments are not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall.” In other words, in life anything can happen and one has to try to manage the situation under those circumstances. Things may not go the way we want it to go and there will always be challenges… but we do not know our full potential unless we challenge ourselves.
We cannot reach or achieve our full potential without pushing and testing ourselves. We do not know what we can or cannot do unless we try: “Shoot for the moon; even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars!”
How do you want to inspire other youth?
To do something you enjoy and not what (you may think) others expect of you. ”Sometimes on the way to the dream, one may get lost but find a better one!” If you know what you want to do in life, that is great! If you don’t, that’s okay too… Take your time…
Sometimes, opportunities and dreams may come in disguise so everyone should grab whatever opportunities may come our way, “Carpe Diem!” You never know where things may lead, so go ahead and follow your dreams… persevere! Focus on the things you enjoy and make you happy, life is too short to do otherwise.