Image: Singapore National Olympic Council

You probably know that the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo has been postponed to this month due to the Covid-19 outbreak. One elite athlete representing Singapore this time is Tan Sze En, the second Singapore gymnast ever to qualify for the prestigious sporting event (the first was Lim Heem Wei in 2012). The 20-year-old secured the last individual spot at the upcoming meet after an impressive performance at the 2019 Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany. Here’s what you should know about her.

Makings of a champion

While Sze En has been training since she was six, she didn’t set her sights on being at the top until she was already there.

“My mum signed me up for classes. There wasn’t really a moment when I realised I was serious about the sport – things just kept moving forward and the next thing I knew, I was representing Singapore internationally,” she says. She adds that her family never put any pressure on her to remain in the sport, and that she was the one who wanted to undertake serious training, which entailed practising for five hours a day, six days a week.

And she hasn’t stopped competing since she started. Apart from being the 2016 and 2018 Singaporean National Champion, she has represented the country in a host of other international sporting events, including the Pacific Rim Championships, Asian Games, Asian Championships and World Championships. In 2019, she won gold in floor exercise at the Singapore Open.

Then there’s the upcoming Olympics, where she’ll be competing in the balance beam and floor exercise events. She usually competes in the all- around (which includes vault and uneven bars), but is currently recovering from some injuries. Even though it’s a momentous event, her current training schedule is actually lighter than what it used to be.

Credit: Image: Singapore National Olympic Council

“As I got older, I realised that it is better to train smarter and make every turn count, instead of clocking hours in the gym for the sake of it. I now go to the gymnastics gym four times a week, and the weights gym two to three times a week. It’s a total of 12 to 14 hours a week.

“My injuries taught me resilience and patience. Also, because things don’t always go as planned at competitions, I have learnt to be calm under pressure and adaptable to change.”

Pushing forward

Sze En moved to the United States four years ago to advance her training as the environment there is “more conducive”. She’s currently pursuing her studies at Stanford University and is considering taking up the Earth Systems major, an interdisciplinary environmental science degree. If all goes according to plan, she will graduate in 2024, and she hopes to work in climate policy in the future.

While she has an outstanding sporting record, she is remarkably candid about her shortcomings.

“My biggest challenge has been maintaining motivation. When I’m having really rough weeks in the gym, I sometimes ask myself why I’m doing gymnastics at all. Then, I remember my goal of representing Singapore at the Olympics, and everything my family and I have sacrificed to get to this point. I also remind myself about the people who have invested in me, and how I want to make them proud.”

But the one thing she doesn’t see as a weakness is her height, much as some people consider her “too tall” for the sport at 1.72m. “I would say that my greatest strength in gymnastics are my lines [one’s body shape when executing a skill, like keeping the knees straight, back arched, or chest rounded]. Some people might say that my height is a disadvantage, but I think it makes my skills look nice when I execute them well.”

As an elite athlete, she definitely knows a thing or two about staying disciplined. And she has some advice to share: “My top tip for maintaining discipline is to have good time management skills. I put all my events into my calendar and look over it the night before to make sure I am fully prepared. And when things get hard, take a step back and remember why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

This story first appeared in the July 2021 issue of Her World.