30-year-old Laurentia Tan won Singapore’s first medal at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, finishing with a bronze in individual dressage. She later won another bronze in the individual freestyle event. The wins marked her as the first Asian to win a Paralympic medal in the history of equestrian sport. Dressage requires the rider to execute required movements set to music. Born with cerebral palsy and profoundly deaf, Laurentia is given a signal that the music has begun, and must command her horse to walk in circles or trot in a serpentine pattern. Pulling it off is down to her connection with Harvey, her horse. She is sensitive to his rhythms, and he responds to her control.

Given Laurentia’s unstable muscle movements, Dr Cormac O’Muircheartaigh, acting medical director at the Singapore Sports Council, is even more “amazed” by what she accomplished. “She tends to jerk a little because her muscles are tighter than normal. Her ability to control the horse with precision is impressive,” he says.
When she was born, doctors told Laurentia’s parents she would never be able to walk. But 25 years later, she can walk and drive. She also holds an honours degree in hospitality management and tourism from Oxford Brookes University. From the age of six, Laurentia studied in regular schools, and strove “to do things that my able-bodied friends could do”. That mantra still holds true. She insists on talking to people directly instead of relying on her mother to translate for her. “I just using my body language-reading skills,” she says.
Fiercely independent, she spends hours driving herself to and from Kent (about 100km away from her home in Surrey, England) three times a week for training. For the Paralympics, she trained up to six times a week. “It takes six hours to drive to Kent, tack up the horse, train, untack the horse, and drive home. I ride through rain, sun, wind and hail – but it never feels like hard work.”

When Laurentia was three, her family relocated to England because of her entrepreneur father’s work commitments. They stayed because the UK had better facilities for those diagnosed with cerebral palsy. She took up riding when she was five as part of her physiotherapy to improve her core muscles, balance and stamina. In 2006, Laurentia’s coach encouraged her to compete in dressage, and she eventually quit her job as a health worker to ride full-time. “I love how dressage challenges my mind and physical agility,” says Laurentia.
She is currently looking for a new horse to replace Harvey, a 20-year-old chestnut gelding. “He has a really sweet temperament and is a gentleman with me. We clicked the moment we met.” Already retired from competition, trainer Peggy Pegrum pulled Harvey back in just for Laurentia’s Paralympics campaign. “I still ride Harvey once or twice a week, but this will decrease,” says Laurentia. She hopes her new horse will have the same chemistry she had with Harvey. “My next horse will have some very big shoes to fill!”

Laurentia was ecstatic to represent Singapore at the Paralympics. “It was just beyond my dreams,” she says. “I was in a state of shock and thought I was dreaming when I won my second medal,” she recounts. She aims to do even better at the 2010 World Equestrian Games and the next Paralympics in 2012. She also intends to pursue postgraduate studies in psychology in the US and continue to work in equine-assisted psychotherapy.
Still single, Laurentia is also undaunted in matters of the heart. She says she aims to “fall in love, get married and have a happy, healthy and loving family”. She hopes her triumphs will inspire Singaporeans, especially the disabled, to believe in their dreams. “Seize the day, follow your dreams and persevere. Life’s too short to do otherwise,” she says.