‘I want to prove people wrong.’ Saiyidah Aisyah – Olympic athletes interviewed Episode 34

When Saiyidah Aisyah qualified for the Rio 2016 Olympics, she became the first ever Singaporean rower to qualify for the Olympic Games. What seems like a story dreams are made of, is, in reality, a road paved with adversity, disappointments, setbacks, and lack of support. In this interview, Saiyidah outlines how she made her Olympic dream come true.

Furthermore, we discuss

Christian: In this interview, I’m joined by Saiyidah Aisyah, is it correctly spelled?

Saiyidah: Yeah, you, said it perfectly.

Christian: Cool. Saiyidah is an Olympian 2016 and the first Singaporean rower who qualified for the Olympic Games. Amongst her biggest achievements is a gold medal at the South East Asian Games [SE games] in 2013, and more than five podium places at the South Asian Games. From my research, I found that there are a few interesting stories around you and I’m looking forward to diving into those.

Saiyidah: All right.

How she organized a crowdfunding campaign for herself

Christian: One of these interesting stories is, that you organized a crowdfunding campaign for yourself to get to Australia to row and train in better conditions?

Yeah, tell me about that.

Saiyidah: It seems so long ago, I was training in Australia, in preparation for the Olympic games, because my coach is based there and during that period of time, I was teaching in a school in Singapore, but I took a leave, so I can train full time.

And then it came to a point, where I was in Australia and my savings went dry, it was scary because at that time I didn’t have any funding, so I was just using my own expenses to fund my training and competitions.

I was using my own expenses to fund my training and competitions. And it came to a point, where my savings went dry, it was scary.

It came to a point where I was at a grocery shop in Australia and my bank card didn’t work, and my bank told me that I had a negative balance in my bank account. So, it was scary because I didn’t know what to do, it was four months or five months before the Olympic qualification.

And I had a choice of going home and start working again because I couldn’t work in Australia, I was on a tourist visa, either that or I just have to find some ways to get funding for me to continue to train in Australia.

So, my friends have been asking me to set up a crowdfunding page, but I didn’t want to set it up, because it’s not a nice feeling asking for money from people, especially people you don’t know. But, my friends had been pushing me for many years, so I thought, why not just give it a try?

I didn’t want to set it up because it’s not a nice feeling asking for money from people, especially people you don’t know. But, my friends had been pushing me for many years, so I thought, why not just give it a try?

I received an overwhelming response. My goal was just about $9,000 because I had to pay for flights, accommodation, food, transport, competition fees and all that. So, every month was like $2,000 and it was like four months to this qualification. So, my target was $9,000 and it sort of became very big in Singapore when the newspapers featured me, like, she’s going through this crowdfunding thing and then a lot of Singaporeans came and helped me out and it was amazing.

I think I collected a total of like $13,000. So that was pretty good, I didn’t expect that, but it was really helpful, because with the financial problems or the financial part of my training is covered, I can focus solely on just training and not to worry about money, not to worry about, should I go back to Singapore and all that. So, it helped me a lot in that journey towards the qualifications.

Her darkest moment

Christian:  In your life as an athlete, what was your darkest moment?

Saiyidah: One moment that really stood out was; you mentioned that I was a gold medalist in the South East Asian games, that was in 2013, so that was the biggest achievement at that point of time, my first biggest achievement.

And then after that, usually in Singapore, what happened, especially in rowing, because it’s a small community, so after major games like the South East Asian games, you go back to that normal life, like not much training, you go back to work or school and then when the next major competition comes out again, then you start training again.

But I decided that if I want to be in the Olympics, I have to progress higher to a higher level, instead of going down and then come up again. So, after that gold medal in SE games, I decided to go for another race in 2014 and then another race again in 2015.

But I wasn’t used to increase my training intensity again and again, because it’s usually like up, down, up, down. But this was like, up and then goes up again. So, at a period of time I faced a lot of injuries, I almost fractured my ribs, there was a rib strain and I was feeling, like, I don’t know how to express how I felt. So, because of the injuries, I was out of the boat for a very long time, every time I go for races, I came in last. So, it was like a series of lots of injuries and losses and I just lost confidence in myself, I just lost all confidence completely. And this was one and a half months before the Olympic qualification, and then I had started to get doubts.

I was out of the boat for a very long time, every time I go for races, I came in last. and I just lost all confidence in myself completely. And this was one and a half months before the Olympic qualification.

I’m a very positive person, but during that time it was really dark in such a way that there were no positive thoughts in my mind. I was like questioning, why am I doing this? Do I really want this? I’m running out of cash, is this all worth it? So, I guess that really was one of the darkest moments in my life.

I’m a very positive person, but during that time there were no positive thoughts in my mind.

Christian: And how did you recover from that moment?

Saiyidah: I was lucky, I’m really grateful because during that period of time, there was a mental skills coach who wanted to work with me and he did it on a pro bono basis, so he didn’t charge me for his time. He helped me a lot, I don’t think I could have qualified for the Olympic games without him.

He helped me, because I was training overseas, so we only talk like through Skype, but he talked to me like every single day, and we talked about letting go of expectations because there was a lot of expectations for me to perform, especially after that gold medal that I won, and to focus on what I can control.

It was more of him teaching me how to, just focus on, not really my goal, but on a daily basis, having a small goal and eventually, like, once I get better, what’s next?

So instead of like, focusing too much on worrying about the future, just focus on what I can do on a daily basis. So, that helped me a lot, it was a very simple thing that he changed, but it made a huge difference.

Instead of worrying about the future, just to focus on what I can do on a daily basis made a huge difference.

Christian: So, what did you learn from that?

Saiyidah: I learned that I need to let go of expectations, that’s number one, and it’s not just about telling yourself to let go of expectations, but, I’ve learned that your mind can only focus on one thing at a time.

I’ve learned that I’m not a mind reader, so I cannot read what’s in my opponent’s mind, so I might as well not think about it and just focus on what I can do.

I’m not a mind reader, I cannot read what’s on my opponent’s mind, so I might as well not think about it and just focus on what I can do.

I’ve learned that I’m not a fortune teller so I should then think about what will happen in the future, I should only focus on my race, what I’m doing at that point of time. So, it’s more of like just controlling what I can control.

Christian: Interesting, I like that.

Her best moment

Christian: What was your best moment?

Saiyidah: It definitely has to be when I qualified for the Olympic games. Because Singapore is a part of Asia, it was the Asian qualification, it’s about like five months before the Olympic games and in the single scull, the women’s single sculls, only 7 boats were to qualify, so, you have a series of races and 6 boats have already qualified and there’s only one spot left. So, I was in that race for that one spot and there were 7 boats.

I was in this race for that one spot to qualify for the Olympic Games.

And, there were, these 2 competitors, one from Qatar and one from Thailand and the lady from Thailand, she’s a three-time Olympian. So, there was so much pressure, but, when I crossed that finish line knowing that I crossed it first and I was going to the Olympics, it was like the biggest sense of relief.

Christian: And what did you learn from that moment?

Saiyidah: I mean at that point of time, right after I cross the finish line, I’ve learned to push myself 100%. When I got out of the boat, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t stand for the next half an hour. But after I managed to gather myself again and reflect on that moment, I realized that it’s a lot of patients that involves in achieving your goal because it was at like a 10-year goal for me.

I realized that it’s a lot of patience to achieve your goal, it was at like a 10-year goal for me.

It was a lot of things that I had to go through just to come to the point where you get what you want, and I think I’ve learned to, I guess in the race, my coach told me that it was one of the best races he ever watched me race and I felt that it was the best race that I’ve done. But the thing was, I didn’t think too much about the race if you were to ask me, how did the race go? I cannot recall anything about the race except that I was thinking about my legs, I was just saying “legs, legs, legs” for like 240 times, yeah.

What advice would she give a younger Saiyidah Aisyah

Christian: If you could travel back in time, 10 or 15 years, what advice would you give your younger you?

Saiyidah: I would tell my younger self that sometimes things don’t go your way, because other bigger things will happen to you.

I would tell my younger self that sometimes things don’t go your way, because other bigger things will happen to you.

I guess, we worry about why some things don’t happen to us, but I think things happen for a reason and as long as you don’t lose hope and you continue to fight for what you believe in, everything will eventually be okay.

Christian: I’ve written down something here, from my research it seems like in 2013 you decided to go all in on rowing, right?

Saiyidah: Yeah.

Christian: And from the records, it seems like you won your first medal at the Asian Games, South East Asian Games in 2007, so that means for six years you were a part-time international rower, but you had other responsibilities?

Saiyidah: Yes, part-time, but we train as a full-time rower, and I was a teacher in a school.

Christian: Would you advise your younger self to go all in earlier?

Saiyidah: No, I think I do not regret what I did because if I were to go all in earlier, I think I will burn out even earlier. I think you need that balance in life, you need rowing, other sport and something else.

Christian: And there’s another interesting one, I saw a documentary of yours and you said, “my choice is to pursue my dream, I believe whatever I’m doing will make me happy and then that will make the rest happy as well”. I thought that’s really interesting. Can you elaborate on that?

Saiyidah: I mean for me, I believe in doing things that make me happy. I don’t believe in wasting my time doing things that don’t make me happy because you only have one life.

I believe in doing things that make me happy. I don’t believe in wasting my time doing things that don’t make me happy because you only have one life.

If you’re happy, you will make the people around you happy and those who are not happy with your happiness, you don’t spend time with them anyways. So, I strongly believe that this is really a difficult sport, and you need to do what you love and love what you do. I strongly believe in it.

Christian: That’s an interesting one. There’s also, I think an economist called Adam Smith and he said the same, his theory is that “if you make yourself happy, others would become happy as well”.

Saiyidah’s success habits 

Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful person or athlete?

Saiyidah: For me as a single sculler, because I row on my own, I have to be like super self-motivated, because I have no teammates to push me on and because I was training overseas for a very long time on my own, I had no family and I had to find my own friends.

Because I row on my own, I have to be super self-motivated. This self-motivation was what made me successful in what I was doing.

So, having to wake up at 4:30 AM every morning, and they know that, I have to tell myself that it’s okay to eat breakfast, eat lunch alone, or spend like your nights alone, so I don’t like to push yourself to do all these things. I think this self-motivation was what made me successful in what I was doing.

Christian: And then also I’ve seen something that I thought is interesting. You said when you started rowing for the first time you hated it because it was very mundane, and you started to love it when you won your first medal?  Is that hunger for success, is that what drives you?

Saiyidah: I guess so. I guess every athlete has that hunger for success, otherwise, as you will just be a recreational athlete.

Christian: I also read that, you were very driven by proving the naysayers wrong that you could qualify for the Olympics?

Saiyidah: Yeah, that was one of my biggest factors that push me though, go to the Olympics because people didn’t believe in me. I got lots of rejections like that and I used it as like a motivation for me to want to prove them wrong.

I got lots of rejections like that and I used it as like a motivation for me to want to prove them wrong.

Christian: Just out of interest, who were these people?

Saiyidah: Some of them are my family members, especially my mom, she knows that she’s the biggest challenge, in my rowing career, because she didn’t believe that it will take me anywhere because especially sports don’t bring you money.

She wants me to be successful, she wants me to be able to like support myself. So, she’ll always say, I will pray for your achievement. But I think deep inside because I was her only daughter, she didn’t want me to row, so I proved her wrong and some other people.

Especially before I became an Olympian, I was trying to look for sponsorships. So, there were a lot of companies and individuals who told me things like, you’re not good enough, why should we sponsor you? Like who are you? I have received a lot of rejections.

Her morning routine

Christian: Do you have a morning routine?

Saiyidah: When I was rowing, yes. We had to be on the water by 5:00 AM, so I would wake up at 4:30 AM. I’m that kind of person who gets everything ready the night before.

I have all my gear kit, everything in my bag, so when I wake up, I don’t have to think, I just put on my clothes and get out of the house in like 15 minutes.

I wake up, brush my teeth, I usually hydrate myself, maybe eat a banana or something because it’s so early, you can’t really put stuff in your body, but you have to because you are going to prepare for two hours training.

And then, usually training ends by 8 AM, and then I go back. So, after training I will eat my first breakfast and then when I go home, I have a chance to eat my second breakfast, the beauty of being a full-time athlete. And then I will nap about like half an hour and then the second training.

Christian: When does the second training start?

Saiyidah: So, it varies, I don’t have a coach for my second training because, it’s either a run, a cycle or a gym, and I do that on my own. So, if it’s good weather, I would do it like in the afternoon. Otherwise, if I have my third training in the afternoon, I’ll do it, maybe, 10:00 AM, 11:00 AM.

Christian: And I saw you put multiple alarms clocks in the mornings to not miss the training?

Saiyidah: Yes. missing training is my biggest fear, I always have nightmares that I will come late for training or I will not attend training.

Missing training is my biggest fear

Christian: Has it ever happened?

Saiyidah: Only once, when I had a call in the morning and it was my coach asking me where I was, so that was the scariest thing ever. Christian: Don’t forget to put multiple alarm clocks.

How to prepare for important moments

Christian: How do you prepare yourself for important moments?

Saiyidah: I like being alone, so when a race is coming up, especially in the morning of the race, I like to spend time alone, I don’t like to talk to people.

And for me, I will always go through these books of quotes, where I’ll write all these motivational quotes, and then I just go through them, it doesn’t really like to help me during the race, but it helps me prepare myself mentally before the race, so that was like a routine for me.

But whatever it is, I make sure that I go through the same routine I’ve been going through like 400 times, I made sure that, like two weeks before the race, I go through the same routine, I don’t change what I eat, what I drink, I know exactly when I’m going to eat, what I’m going to do at that point in time.

I make sure that I go through the same routine I’ve been going through like 400 times. I don’t change what I eat, what I drink, I know exactly when I’m going to eat, what I’m going to do at that point in time.

Christian: And also, I saw when you won the gold medal at the South East Asian games, after that, you said you were the only rower from Singapore and it helps you to focus on what you needed to do because you were alone? Has it started then, that you want to be alone, or did you do that earlier?

Saiyidah: Yeah, I think it started then because I was so used to like being alone, traveling alone and training alone.

  • Also, check out the interview with 2016 Silver Medalist Jelle van Gorkom, how he even being normally very extroverted, becomes an introvert and wants to be completely by himself, when he prepares for important moments.

How to overcome setbacks

Christian: How do you overcome setbacks?

Saiyidah: I embraced them, one of the biggest setbacks I’ve faced was two weeks before the Olympic qualification, I went to a race and I came in last in that race and my coach told me, that if I continued to perform like this, we might as well not go for the Olympics.

I was sad, I was so sad and angry that, so I used to have another necklace, like an Olympic necklace, and I threw it into the river. And I wanted to give up all my dreams then.

I wanted to give up all my dreams.

But to me, setbacks is a time when I stop everything I do and actually reflect on that situation, like why am I feeling like that, what I can do about it? It’s a time for me to process my feelings.

Every challenge or a setback, I embrace it as a time to learn more about myself. So, once I changed the way I think about setbacks, they don’t scare me anymore, so, if I go through another setback, not that I want to, but next time if it comes back.

Once I changed the way I think about setbacks, setbacks don’t scare me anymore.

Christian: And when did you start doing that? On that moment prior to the Olympic qualification or earlier?

Saiyidah: Earlier, one of the biggest things that I’ve learned from rowing is, that you will face a lot of difficulties, you’ll face a lot of challenges and setbacks.

But the only way of moving forward is to learn that after every time you fall and when you get up again, you are definitely going to get up stronger.

The only way of moving forward is to learn that after every time you fall and you get up again, you are definitely going to get up stronger.

I don’t think it was that period of time before the Olympic games, I think it was just like gradually building in me.

Christian: That’s also what they say about rowing, it makes you tougher, right? Because you are alone, it’s the water, it’s the weather, regardless of the weather it is, you still have to do it, so it makes you tougher as a person?

Saiyidah: Yeah, definitely, yeah.

Christian: I read on your website, and maybe, I’m paraphrasing here, “when you have a dream, work hard to get there and don’t ever let anything stop you from achieving it, most importantly, believe”. So, if things don’t go your way, how do you make sure you keep believing?

Saiyidah: Oh, good question! For me, I focus on my strengths, to know, why am I doing it. I think the “why” is very important because there will be a time or a day when you don’t feel like rowing or don’t feel like training and that’s when you ask yourself, why am I doing this? And for me, when I faced that kind of off base, I will always remind myself that, okay, my opponent will be training today. Why am I not training? So that why it’s important.

Her Why

Christian: So, what’s yours why?

Saiyidah: Because I want to prove people wrong.

I want to prove people wrong.

Christian: Yeah, I love it.

Her role model

Christian: Who is your role model and why?

Saiyidah: I never had a role model, I don’t know why I didn’t have a role model, Especially in the rowing community in Singapore, I didn’t have anyone that I looked up to.

I get inspiration from different athletes around the world, I read a lot of athletes’ biographies and I gain inspiration from them.

But if you want me to tell you a particular person, I can’t really pinpoint the person, because there is a collective whole of like people who achieve their dreams.

The best advice she has received

Christian: What’s the best advice you received and who gave it to you?

Saiyidah: One of the best advice I’ve received was what my coach told me that you have to make excellence a habit. I know it’s a quote from Aristotle, that making excellence a habit but my coach was the one who told me that.

My coach told me that you have to make excellence a habit.

For example, the Olympic champion for my race is Australian. I raced with her before and my coach knows her, and he always asks me, “What do you think she’s doing now?” If you’re going to be a champion, you have to train like a champion, you have to eat like a champion, you have to wake up like a champion.

If you’re going to be a champion, you have to train like a champion, you have to eat like a champion, you have to wake up like a champion.

Every little thing that you do in your daily life has to lead to what you want to get at the end of the day. So, that was the mindset that I was like, getting into during that period of time. So, making excellence a habit.

Christian: It’s one of my favorite quotes, and it is from Aristotle “We are what we repeatedly do, therefore excellence becomes a habit, not an act.”
I’ve also made another note here, I would like to ask you.

You said your coach once said to you, “I’m hard on you because I care for you”. You said you didn’t expect that, why did you think, was he hard on you?

Saiyidah: Because he doesn’t like me, no, he’s a very grumpy man, so, he was hard on me because he cares for me, he wants me to be successful.

But when you are training on the boat and you’re suffering, and then he’s hard on you, there are times when I can’t process this logic. But the fact that he was training me for like two years for free, and he was there at every training before me and it just shows that he loves not only the sport, but he loved the fact that he, loves coaching me and he wants me to succeed.

And I say that because, there was a race at the Rio Olympics, which I didn’t perform really well and he was really angry with me and I was just crying and crying. He doesn’t shout but the things he says are like hurtful and then like, I went to change anyone when I came back, that was when he said, “I’m hard on you because I care for you”. And then I cried even more. I think the coach-athlete relationship is a very tricky one because you have a love-hate relationship with your coach.

I think the coach-athlete relationship is a very tricky one because you have a love-hate relationship with your coach.

But at the end of the day, I know that he cares for me.

How does a typical training day look like

Christian: How does a typical training day look for you? Can you take us through from morning to evening what you do?

Saiyidah: Yeah, sure. So, as I mentioned before, a 4:30 AM alarm clock, a quick snack, then drive down to the training center next to the water. I usually stretch about like 15 to 20 minutes before training and then go on the water, by 5:00 AM, I train about two hours, so I am out of the water by 7:00 AM.

And I made sure that I do another stretching session after that for at least half an hour. And then while I stretch, I have my apples with cornmeal, which I realize is very important for me, within a 30 minutes window after training.

Then I go home, shower, have my second breakfast and I will have time to like rest. So, one of the biggest things I’ve learned as a full-time athlete was resting is very important. Resting means get off your legs, let you sit down, you lie down, you just have to learn how to do nothing.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned as a full-time athlete was resting is very important. But resting means get off your legs, and you have to learn how to do nothing.

And then if I have a second session, we are back on the water again at about 10 or 11 AM. If it’s on water, it’s a technical session, so it’s not so hard, but otherwise it’s a gym session or a ride or a cycle and then when you’re done, because I was a full-time athlete, I eat lunch and then I can do whatever I want for the rest of the day.

Her interview nomination

Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?

Saiyidah: Sure, I will nominate someone. Someone I used to sail with, when I was trying it out for the Olympics, I was doing sailing and I sailed with this girl called Griselda from Singapore. She qualified for the Rio 2016 Olympics as well, and she’s now going for Tokyo 2020. So Griselda that from Singapore.

Where can you find Saiyidah Aisyah

Christian: Okay. Where can people find you?

Saiyidah: I am active on social media, so I have an Instagram account and I’m there as Ariesyah, A.R.I.E.S.Y.A.H, otherwise, I have a Facebook page, it’s called Aisyahrover.

But the thing is after Rio, I was trying to get away from, being identified as a rower, so sometimes I will update this, sometimes I don’t, but I’m more prominent on Instagram and I have a website aisyahrower.com where I also talk about like, life beyond sports.

Saiyidah social profiles

Instagram

Facebook athlete page

LinkedIn

Website

Christian: And where’s your life going now? If you say you want to go away a little bit from rowing, where do you want to go?

Saiyidah: Yeah, so I am now waiting for school to start, I’m doing my master’s program in sports psychology, inspired by my mental skills coach which changed my life. So, I’m hoping to be a sport psychologist someday.

Christian: Okay, cool. Thanks for your time, that was really great.

Saiyidah: Yeah, thank you so much for having me here. Thank you.

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