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28th SEA Games rowing TeamSG

Eight ro(w)jak individuals row as one

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28th SEA Games rowing

The team from (from L to R): Kumaresan Jayakrishnan, Lewis Walker, Javier Ong, Salvador Abecassis Norton de Matos, Justin Ong, Teo Yee Nam, Budiman Osman, Nicholas Siew. They are holding aloft Salvador’s brother, their coxswain Mateus Abecassis Norton de Matos. (Photo by Syahir Ezekiel)

The members of the Singapore 8+ men’s rowing crew is a microcosm of the city’s rojak (Malay for ‘mixed’) population.

Mateus Abecassis Norton de Matos, whose father is Portuguese and mother is Singaporean Chinese, is just 14 and the youngest member of the team. The student at the Singapore American School has the enormous task of being the coxswain – the brain of the boat. His role will be to control stroke rate, stroke length and the boat’s direction. More than double Mateus’ age is Budiman Bin Osman. The 33-year-old Malay has been rowing since 1999 and is a veteran of many international races.

The rest of the six-week old motley crew comprises young working adults, who have taken no-pay leave to train full-time for the Games, and students, who have been juggling training with school.

Differences, however, will not matter when they go up against powerhouses Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand in the blue riband finale event on the last day of competition. Although ranked last among the four and having never competed as a team, they are optimistic of a medal. 

28th SEA Games rowing

The rowers at a practice session on Vesak Day. (Photo by Darren Tan)

Firstly, the team has gelled and improved vastly under coach John Holland by shaving 10 seconds off their time. The experienced 67-year-old Irishman previously guided the Greece rowing team to a bronze medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004. He was coincidentally appointed on the same day that the team was formed.

Secondly, the race distance is half of the usual 2,000m for 8-crew races. “It will be a sprint and could well be a photo-finish,” said team member Justin Ong, 28.

“They have a good shot at a medal. They just need to beat one boat,’ quipped Holland.

Holland’s birthday coincidentally falls on race day, and his coaching gig ends the day after. A medal will be a fitting present for the coach, who has made eight rojak individuals row as one.

The SEA Games rowing competition will run from Jun 11 to 14 at the Marina Channel. The Men's Eights (1000m) is on Jun 14 at 12:15pm.

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