Team Singapore

The everyday superhero

by Nicolette Mok

Powerlifter Kalai Vanen is just like any other athlete in spite of the awe he inspires.

powerlifting kalai vanen

With his booming voice, confident demeanour, and large stature, Kalai Vanen may strike one as a rather intimidating figure.

In fact, with his military background and sheer strength despite his amputation, the fitness trainer and para powerlifter does appear to be an extraordinary superhero of sorts, or even a local version of his childhood fitness inspiration, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Yet, all Kalai really wants is to be seen as a regular athlete, just like every one of his Team Singapore compatriots, complete with challenges, pressures, and dreams. Ups-and-downs are, to him, simply a part of life.

“I didn’t set out trying to prove that I’m disabled but I still can do this or that. I wanted to do something, and I went out and did it. I don’t see myself as doing anything special. An athlete is an athlete,” the 56-year-old explained, adding that it was difficult for people to help him around anyway, because of his size.

Kalai had lost his leg at the age of 22 due to a tumour, while he was serving as a military regular. The transition to life without a limb and employment outside of the army, as well as personal milestones that included getting married and having children, proved difficult.

However, the steely sportsperson and former Officer Cadet School Instructor remained unfazed, facing obstacles head-on as he eased himself into his new life. He went on to represent the nation in two para water skiing World Championships – “no medals, but it was fun” – and embarked, by chance, on a career as a personal trainer.

“Someone noticed me in the gym and asked if I could help her potential husband to get fit. That’s how it started. I started teaching – or helping – without certification, and then I went and got my certificates,” he recounted.

It was in a similarly serendipitous manner that Kalai joined the ranks of Singapore’s para sporting elite as part of the 8th ASEAN Para Games (APG) contingent. While he has been a consistent feature in the gym for years now, it was not until February this year that he began training as a para powerlifter on the recommendation of a friend.

“I learnt the techniques and what was required of the sport in terms of competition. It was something different from what I was used to. I enjoyed it, and just carried on,” he remarked, also sharing that he had gained some international experience at the recent 2015 International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Powerlifting Asia Open Championships.

“I would like to show people that para sports is actually serious business. It’s not a recreational thing; it’s not an outreach project. If you’re really into competitive para sports, it involves a lot of hard work and training.”

Indeed, just months after he picked up para lifting, Kalai will be stepping up to challenge the region’s best for a medal at the APG. Professing to be “a little nervous”, he admitted to having some insecurities.

“I’m honoured and proud that I’m viewed as someone who can bring something back, and I appreciate the expectations and opportunities, but the pressure is there,” he expressed.

“I have to just rely on my training. Whatever I’ve trained and learnt will lead up to a certain result. So I just have to train and perform as required.”

Nevertheless, the APG debutant remains upbeat about his medal chances, and relates that he, like the rest of the contingent, is striving to achieve the best possible result: “Gold will be the best, but any other colour is also fine. I’m realistic that this sport requires a bit of time to grow into, and I’ve only been in the sport for a few months.”

“But I’ll try my best to do as much as I can. In my mind, I’m confident. I always visualise myself standing with the country’s flag raised.”

Support Kalai’s podium dreams at the 8th ASEAN Para Games this year from 3 to 9 December!