By Xener Gill
It might be easy to miss them in a crowded room but put them in their element — out on water, on the rugby pitch, and in the swimming pool — and you will realize they are not to be trifled with.
The Nanyang Chronicle speaks to three petite sportswomen in conventionally male-dominated sports who are busting the gender stereotype, thanks to their sheer determination and hard work.
“Princess” with a paddle
She was labelled a “princess” by her dragon boat teammates when she first took up the sport, for the exceptional care she took when it came to her physical appearance.
Standing at 162 centimetres tall and weighing just over 50 kilogrammes then, Ashleigh Ng, 21, was one of the smallest paddlers in the team, so it came as no surprise that she was assigned the lightest stats — the weights that dragon boaters lift — in the team.
Now tanned and well-muscled having spent one and a half years training with the university’s Institute-Varsity-Polytechnic (IVP) team, the second year Nanyang Business School student looks every bit like your typical sportswoman.
But it was no easy feat for Ng to prove her worth on the water.
She had no prior experience in dragon boating — she used to play the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese instrument, in the Chinese orchestra in secondary school and junior college.
She was also once told by a senior dragon boater that she would not go far in the sport unless she could put on substantial mass.
After hearing what her senior said, Ng took supplements such as protein powder and branched-chain amino acids to help her increase her muscle mass. She now weighs 55 kg.
However, she soon became disheartened because no matter how much effort she put into gaining mass to build her stamina, her teammates were also working as hard, making it difficult for her to reach their standards.
“Being a petite female on the dragon boating team did make me feel like I was on the losing end as I felt like I was being overlooked,” she said.
“The rest of the team started lifting heavier weights than me and when I increased my weights, so did they. I was always just playing catch-up.”
Ng added that petite girls are usually not given much rowing time, and are often allocated the role of the drummer for the team.
She decided to start eating clean and focused on gaining cardiovascular strength instead. Due to her busy schedule when she first entered university, she found it challenging to fit in extra gym sessions. But, she pushed herself during every training session to maximise her progress. She also paid extra attention to improving her rowing techniques, and used that to get a leg up over the others.
After one semester, her efforts were finally recognised by her coach as he gave her the opportunity to try pacing the boat during training, a role normally given to more experienced rowers.
A pacer rower is one who sits at the front of the boat and plays a pivotal role in maintaining the boat’s speed for the rest of the team.
Ng, who has seen substantial growth in her upper body strength and mass since becoming a dragon boater, is currently in the main team.
She can now manage five pull-ups at one go, up from zero when she first started out. Of course, she has since dropped the title of “princess”.
Contact rugby player Ang Ying Xuan, a first-year student from the School of Humanities (SoH), stands at a mere 155 cm tall and weighs 53 kg.
A sports enthusiast, the 21-year-old spent four years playing hockey for Crescent Girls’ School, and two as a footballer in Saint Andrew’s Junior College, before taking up rugby for a change half a year ago.
Tackling, where a player attempts to seize or stop an opposing player in possession of the ball by bringing them to the ground, is a major part of rugby.
Being one of the smaller players on the team and having no former experience in a full-contact sport, Ang always felt she would be disadvantaged. She also found it intimidating to tackle players who were bigger and stronger than her.
“I avoided coming into contact with the bigger players because I was afraid of getting hurt by them or missing the tackle,” she said.
However, she was motivated to work hard and excel in the sport after seeing how fearless her other smaller-built seniors (who have since graduated) were on the field.
“I saw a senior take down an opponent who was twice her size and I told myself if she can do it, so can I,” said Ang.
Since then, Ang decided to focus her energy on becoming a more agile player to compensate for her small build, which would help her in side-stepping opponents to evade tackles.
On top of training twice a week and having a daily gym routine, she also swims twice a week to aid recovery of her muscles and cycles to build her stamina.
In November last year, Ang was selected to be part of a 14-member team in NTU to compete in the annual Standard Chartered Tertiary Invitational 7s tournament in Hong Kong last month, where university rugby teams from across Asia come together to compete.
The team edged out seven other teams to clinch fourth place.
Being one of three junior players selected to participate in the competition, Ang feels validated, and is now encouraged to push herself harder during training sessions.
“This sport is unlike any other sport I have played, having to go backwards in order to go forward and the amount of real blood, sweat and tears put in by my team to score during a game really pushes me to stay strong and play hard for the team,” she said.
Making a splash
Water polo, a sport highly popular with males due to its high contact nature, generally sits better with females with larger physiques as they would be better able to defend against stronger players on the opposing team.
Enter Jasmine Lim — 159 cm tall, weighing 58 kg, and former captain of NTU’s IVP water polo team.
Players physically bigger than her have poked fun at her size, calling her “weak and small”. But her speed and strength have made them think twice, and she has proven that size and ability are not correlated.
“I think it’s all about conditioning your body, no matter (your) size, to be strong enough and fit enough. Every size has its advantages and disadvantages.” said the 22-year-old.
Lim, who is no longer captain but a current member of the school’s water polo team, started swimming when she was eight. She has background in competitive and synchronised swimming, and has been playing water polo for the past five years.
However, she admitted that she was initially averse towards water polo, due to the violent nature of the sport.
“(It was in) total contrast to the nature of what synchronised swimming encapsulated — grace and poise,” said the third-year SoH student.
“In general, the drills for water polo focus more on leg work and ball handling skills so the training drills and sets given are different from synchronised swimming.”
She began to warm up to the sport, however, as she thoroughly enjoyed the immense sense of achievement she got whenever she was able to successfully defend against a stronger opponent.
Lim, who was on exchange last semester in the United Kingdom, had the opportunity to play water polo with the girls who were twice her size at Warwick University.
“Most were generally taller; it was a struggle at times because with their build and strength it was an advantage in their favour,” said Lim.
“The girls there were quite intimidating as well, but I had to get over that fear and just play the game to my best.”
Being in a male-dominated sport has also helped Lim gain confidence and develop a positive self-image.
“After playing (water) polo and being a sporty person throughout the many years of my life, it has empowered me in a sense, not having to worry about being fair and skinny, but accepting my body and lifestyle for the way it is, and being proud of it,” said Lim.