Humility fills champion's blood

Talk to Singapore wushu exponent and newly-minted world champion Tan Xiang Tian about his feats this year and the word that keeps coming up is "surprised".

Surprised that he won a SEA Games gold (duilian barehand) on home soil in June; surprised that he beat 17 other competitors to the xingyiquan (compulsory) gold at the World Wushu Championships in Jakarta last month; and surprised that he managed a silver in the highly-competitive nanquan (compulsory) event the day after his gold.

This bountiful six-month spell marks a huge contrast to the barren seven years since the 23-year-old made the national team in 2008, with only an Asian Youth Championships bronze in 2009 to show for.

In 2011 and 2012, Tan also had to recover from torn anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees - which saw screws inserted into them and kept him out of action for a total of six months.

Said the James Cook University psychology student: "When I went to Jakarta, I wasn't thinking about medals. After all that I've been through, just being able to represent Singapore was good enough."

"The SEA Games gold gave me confidence, but xingyiquan was a new category, and I had been practising the routine for only about two months," he added.

Yet, it was this lack of expectation that saw Tan soar at the Istora Senayan Sports Hall.

Recalling his Indonesian adventure, he said: "I was very nervous, so I avoided looking at the scores of the other fighters. During the SEA Games, we were taught some breathing exercises, so I did them to calm myself down."

Clad in an eye-catching yellow outfit with a dragon emblazoned across his chest, the affable Tan shed his smile for a look of sheer intensity as he leapt, punched, and swivelled his way to the gold medal with a score of 9.49.

He finished ahead of France's Maxime Frankinet (9.46) and Turkey's Necmettin Erbakan Akyuz (9.45) to become Singapore's third wushu world champion, after Vincent Ng in 1995 and Ho Lin Ying in 2013.

For that feat, Tan was awarded The Straits Times' Star of the Month award for November.

The prize is an extension of ST's Athlete of the Year accolade, launched in 2008. Both are backed by F&N's 100Plus.

Said Marc Lim, sports editor of The Straits Times: "That he can bounce back from two serious knee injuries to represent the nation in the international arena speaks volumes of Xiang Tian's grit and resolve.

"Being crowned world champion after all these is all the more impressive, and a remarkable feat that deserves to be celebrated."

Asked what kept him training six days a week despite little initial success, Tan said: "Wushu taught me values such as respect and humility. I could also see myself improving, so that kept me pushing.

"Even if I had not won anything this year, I would have continued."

These days, Tan said, he has to wear jeans to keep his knees warm, as they will ache when it is cold.

Not that he is easing back on training. The martial arts junkie, who grew up watching the gongfu movies of Jet Li and Donnie Yen, is already focused on next year's Asia Wushu Championships in Taiwan and the 2017 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur.

But his dream is to compete at the 2018 Asian Games, one of the biggest stages for wushu, which is not an Olympic sport.

Coincidentally, Tan's sister Yan Ni, 19, bagged a changquan bronze at last year's Asiad.

He said: "That would be the ultimate goal. And I will not stop working hard, because I know how difficult it is to get to where I am now."

After all that Tan has to overcome, it would be unwise to bet against him surprising all comers again in three years' time.

This article was first published on December 12, 2015.
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