MANILA: It’s been a wait that has spanned close to four decades, but in the space of just two days, underwater hockey player Christina Tham has finally struck gold - not once, but twice.
“Victory felt unbelievable,” Tham told CNA after winning her first gold on Wednesday (Dec 4).
“Winning the (first) gold in the third SEA Games after winning two silvers - unbelievable.”
A former national swimmer, she represented Singapore at the 1981 SEA Games, aged 12, and the next Games two years later.
At her first Games, she claimed a silver in the 4x100 medley relay and followed that up with a silver in the 200m breaststroke in 1983.
But a gold eluded her until 36 years later, when Singapore claimed victory in the women’s underwater hockey 4x4 competition on Wednesday.
“It feels incredible, awesome, unbelievable. I don’t know if anyone else has done or is doing what I’m doing,” said Tham, now 50.
“I hope that it also sends a message out to everyone that age is really just a number and that you are only as old as you feel.”
READ: Double SEA Games gold for Singapore as men's and women's underwater hockey teams beat Philippines
She would follow up the 4x4 gold with another one in the 6x6 event on Thursday as Singapore beat Philippines 3-0.
Tham was fresh off completing her Primary School Leaving Examinations when she competed in her first Games in Manila.
“I made it to the team because I was the fastest breaststroker in Singapore,” recalled Tham.
“I was in awe of the then golden girl Junie Sng. We stayed - all of us - in the same dormitory in the Games village.”
Two years later, Tham competed in front of her home crowd at the 1983 Games.
“When you’re on home ground, the stakes become a lot higher,” she said. “I was swimming, and swimming is one of those sports which are expected to always push up the medal tally. All eyes are on it.”
It was not till 2005 that Tham picked up underwater hockey, after reading an advertisement in a local newspaper.
“I decided to pick it up because it would leverage on my swimming ability plus it would challenge me in a team sport, as opposed to an individual sport,” she explained.
“I think it’s usually quite difficult for individual sportspeople to go into a team sport and I wanted to do that because I felt that in life, it’s really about getting success by learning to work with people.
“There’s that saying that if you want to go fast, you go on your own, but if you want to go long, then you go with your team.”
Despite being a swimmer, picking up underwater hockey was not simple, she explained.
“Making the transition is actually not very easy - as hard as swimming is - all those laps and all those hours going to the gym, underwater hockey was really difficult to pick up,” she said.
“It has taken many years of refining the skill because it’s really a combination of fitness - both aerobic and anaerobic, as well as skills ... speed teamwork, knowing how each of your other teammate plays so that you can just predict the move and follow up that move.”
This is the first time the sport has featured in the SEA Games, and Tham called it a “dream come true” to be able to compete in the Philippines.
“It was absolutely awesome when we found out that underwater hockey would feature in this Games. It was like a dream come true - I always wanted underwater hockey to be in SEA Games,” she said.
“We have played underwater hockey in the world championships but, I think, to get the recognition of the SNOC for this sport was something that I thought was a dream and would not happen.
“And when it did happen, nothing would stop us from working hard to compete in it and to get the gold.”
Prior to returning to the Philippines, Tham - who is the oldest member of the women’s underwater hockey side - would get stunned reactions from most when told she would be competing at the Games again.
“Ninety-nine per cent of the reactions is one of incredulity. People take a while to get it, that I’m actually doing this,” Tham, who works as a lawyer, said.
“My company Cromwell Property Group has been very supportive of my time away training. My family, my mum - she’s still the swimmer’s mum - asking questions like how swimmers’ parents do.
“My husband, of course, is incredibly proud of me and all my old swimmer friends are just so stoked.”
The competition gave Tham an opportunity to test herself.
“Last year when I knew I was going to turn 50 this year, I wanted to prove to myself that I’m still fit, I’m still strong and I thought that there’s no better benchmark than to compete at the SEA Games in a very tough sport like underwater hockey,” she said.
“I’m so stoked that my level of fitness and my level of speed is very high, can’t really tell much of a difference between now and say, 10 years ago. But I would the recovery time is a little bit longer.”
She is also hoping that the win will raise the profile of the sport in Singapore.
“I hope everybody in Singapore now knows what underwater hockey is about,” she explained.
“And I hope we can get more support for the sport because you will not believe how much work, hard work, all of us have made, how much sacrifices all of us have made to get the gold.”
Having now won gold twice, Tham counts herself “third time lucky”.
“I’m really, really just over the moon, getting this gold, being able to go back to Singapore, go back to my office, go back to my family, my friends, to show them the fruits of the hard work that myself and my team have reaped,” she said.
“Coming on to this Games, my hockey mates were teasing me, saying that maybe I would be third time lucky.
“Indeed, I have been third time lucky.”