For someone who once failed her 2.4km run in secondary school, Esther Tan sure has come a long way. She’s now one of Singapore’s top female endurance athletes, clearing 10-day expedition races in the desert and over the mountains for hundreds of kilometres at a stretch. For fun.
The best part is that this 31-year-old juggles her almost fanatical obsession with adventure racing, a multi-sport endurance race that’s not for the lily-livered, with a career that isn’t your everyday 9-to-5 desk job. Esther, Her World’s Young Woman Achiever for 2006, has also made history as Singapore’s first female naval diver with the elite Naval Diving Unit of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), in a job that involves search-and-rescue operations and explosive ordnance disposal.
No wonder she’s been dubbed Singapore’s GI Jane. And in case you were wondering, yes, Esther can do one-armed push-ups without hardly breaking into a sweat.
But looking at her quiet demeanour and diminutive frame (all of 1.58m and 48 kg) you would never guess that Esther is both a super-athlete and a top-notch military officer promoted to the rank of Major last year. The only tiny clue to her athleticism when she arrives for our interview at an ice-cream shop in Sunset Way is her PT kit with the word “Navy” emblazoned on the back.
She sits down and you notice her hands, criss-crossed with bulging veins that look like they could crush more than just cockroaches. She puts it best: “I think of myself as an all-round competitor. I enjoy motivating myself to do my best when I’m racing and when I’m at work.”
And she really means all-round. Not for her the garden-variety marathons and triathlons. Instead, over the last five years and in between, detonating bombs underwater, she’s trekked, abseiled, kayaked and mountain-biked over hostile terrain in places like Fiji and China, battling fatigue, sub-zero temperatures and injuries to complete adventure-laden races like the fearsome Eco Challenge. Each year, she takes part in about 30 endurance races, each lasting anything from hours to 10 days or longer, she says with a shrug.
Her resume of races plots many firsts for Singapore, like the gruelling six-day 470km New Zealand Southern Traverse race in 2002, where she was part of Team Endorphin Junkies, the first Singaporean team to finish. Her most recent was last year’s XPD Tasmania, covering 700km of remote wilderness – hers was the only Asian team – and finishing a respectable 32nd out of 47 teams in nine days and 14 hours. Now, she’s gearing up for the 500km Adventure Racing World Championship in Scotland in May, all with a massive backpack on her back and an even wider smile on her face.
But a day in Esther’s life is not just about her awe-inspiring physical feats – like somersaults underwater with her hands and legs bound – most ordinary women (and men) can’t even fathom. It’s also about how she’s giving back to the community, by spurring young women and athletes, and giving talks to secondary school students on adventure sports.
As a teacher of sorts to three athletes from Temasek Junior College as part of its mentor programme, she gets “great satisfaction knowing I’ve made a contribution to others”. Esther, who would have been a physics teacher otherwise, shares with her young charges just one piece of advice: Find out what motivates you, then work towards that passion.