This blog entry is long overdue and I hope the long wait will not disappoint you. Please read on about my recent World Championships experience. Only two BC3 players - my partner and myself - represented Singapore at this World Champs and we were supported by 2 caregivers and 2 officials.
29 May - 30 May
We departed about 10pm local time on a 13-hr flight to Munich, Germany, for our transit. It was my longest flight to date and I had worried how I would cope. The first 3 hours or so was bearable. Following that my tailbone started to hurt and no amount of shifting in my seat could truly relieve the pain. I ended up sleeping hunched over the tray table and surprisingly I didn't get a neckache. In fact, this 'unique' sleeping position did ease some of the pain off my tailbone. The air was extremely dry that I wrapped by face with my windbreaker to try and keep humidity high and took regular gulps of water (going to the airplane washroom would have been too cumbersome, so I chose to regulate my water intake instead).
We reached Munich about 5am where we napped for a while at the airport while waiting for our connecting flight at about 10am. Coincidentally, we too
k the same connecting flight as the Canadian team and the Hungarian team. I don't think the airline had served so many wheelchair-users in a single flight!
We reached Lisbon about 12pm and headed straight for our hotel. It was to my surprise that athletes had to wheel to and fro the competition venue which was about 20 minutes away (in all my previous competitions, a dedicated transport service was always provided, but then again, the competition venues were usually a lot further from the accommodation). We called it a day (after close to 22 hrs of travel) and looked forward to the training session tomorrow.
31 May - 1 Jun
We had two 2-hr training sessions to familiarise ourselves with the flooring to be used at the competition venue and also the weather (it was surprisingly humid and hot, very much like Singapore!). It was also the first time my sister, who was my sports assistant, got a taste being in a competition venue as a boccia competitor and not a spectator. Two weeks before we were due to leave for Lisbon, my regular sports assistant confirmed that she was not able to join the singapore team to the World Champs due to visa constraints. Thankfully my sister enthusiastically jumped on board to assist me and we had an intensive 8hrs of training per week for during that two weeks.
During this 2-day period, I was also classified and had my equipments checked.
Classification is an important process in disability sports because it strives to level the playing field among athletes with varying degrees of disabilities. In boccia, it means that a player who cannot use his/her arm to throw the balls (like myself) would not compete with another player who can. Therefore boccia currently has 4 categories for players with different disabilities. The classifiers confirmed that I would remain in the BC3 category (not that this was much of a surprise because it was really impossible for me to have qualified for the other categories...)
The players are not the only ones who go through a 'healthcheck' - our equipments do too! Our balls and assistive devices were checked to ensure that they comply with the regulations of the sport. My ramp and balls were given a 'clean bill of health' and were good to go!
There was a simple Opening Ceremony on the evening of 1 Jun to introduce the 34 participating countries and for both officials and athletes to undertake our oaths of fairplay. On with the games...
2 Jun - 4 Jun
Today marked the official start of matches. Unlike previous competitions I've been to, this World Champs started with the Pairs/Teams events followed by the Individual events. Hence, Pairs/Teams events were held from 2 Jun to 4 Jun. I found this arrangement odd at first but warmed up to the idea because by competing in the Pairs events first, I have the opportunity to observe my potential competitors and therefore strategise better for my Individual events.
For BC3 Pairs, 24 participating countries were grouped into 6 pools. The top 2 ranked from each pool plus 4 point qualifiers across all pools would proceed to the Round of 16.
Our first Pairs match was against Hong Kong on the morning of 2 Jun. The Hong Kong pair also comprised a player with muscular dystrophy (like me) and a player with cerebal palsy (like my partner). You could say that this was as'level' a playing field as one could get. We started of very well, earning 4 points in the first end, but found it hard to win more points in the subsequent ends. Hong Kong consistently managed to overcome us and earned 1 point for each of the subsequent 3 ends. The match ended with a score of 4:3 in favour of Singapore.
In the afternoon, we competed against Great Britain. It was our first time meeting Great Britain and were unsure what to expect of them. My partner and I did well in the first 2 ends, ensuring the our opponent's score was kept nil (I can't really recall now how many points exactly we were leading by the end of the first 2 ends). Great Britain called for a time out after the second end and the 2 minute time out was a welcomed break for my partner and I too. As we were about to commence the third end, I heard the unforgetable crushing sound of plastic and found that one of my ramp extensions had broken into three pieces. In that moment that I realised I had to restrategise my game plan for subsequent matches, especially my individual matches, seeing that part of my ramp was broken. The match proceeded and with the support of my partner we managed to win the match with a final score of 10:0.
We tried to fix the broken extension after the match with Great Britain. I was touched to have received much assistance from other teams, considering we lacked a 'technician', but we could not get the 'fixed' extension to function effectively. It was too much 'excitement' for one day so decided to head back to the hotel and deal with each coming day as it comes.
The next morning, 3 Jun, was our final pool match with Spain. It was a closely fought game which we won with a score of 3:2. After this match, we waited for the official results tally that determines whether we proceed to the Round of 16. It was interesting to note the unique results tally for our pool. As mentioned earlier, our pool comprised 4 countries. Hong Kong, Spain and Singapore each won 2 matches which meant that we had to look at point differences to determine the top 2 countries from our pool who would proceed to the Round of 16. Due to our huge win over Great Britain, we topped the pool in terms of point difference, followed by Hong Kong. Interestingly, Spain was one of the 4 point qualifiers among the remaining 12 countries and as fate would have it, we met Spain again in the Round of 16 that afternoon.
It seemed that Spain had fully appreciated our match in the morning because we lost to them in the Round of 16 with a score of 3:4. I was slightly disappointed as I had expected to repeat the earlier win. Nonetheless, I was still satisfied that we managed to meet our goal of making it past the pool matches for pair events. In fact, we finished a respectable 10th out of the 24 countries participating in the BC3 Pairs.
Since 4 Jun was the day for matches from quarter finals to finals for pairs and team events, I spent some of the free time to train further for the individual matches to come. I also discussed with my sports assistant and team manager/coach on my game plans seeing that the broken ramp extension hindered me from playing long distances. We also managed to catch the semi-finals and finals for the BC3 Pairs to have a sense of the styles and strategies adopted by other players.
5 Jun - 7 Jun
During dinner-***-debrief session on 4 Jun, our team manager informed us of our match draws for the following 3 days. Prior to that, we had tried to anticipate our respective competitors based on the standard match allocation system. Unfortunately, our guesses were in vain because an additional player was included in the list which kind of threw our allocation off course. 67 players were grouped into 16 pools and the top 2 from each pool would proceed to the Round of 32. My matches for the pool round were all scheduled in the afternoon and all 3 competitors were new to me. It was something I had looked forward to at a competition open to players beyond the Asia Pacific region.
Playing afternoon matches can be quite a mental challenge, especially if they're after lunch when you're loaded on carbs and just feel like taking an afternoon nap. So i made sure that lunches were light - not that this was difficult because we were given sandwiches, yoghurt drink, fruit juice, dessert and a fruit for lunch.
My first individual match was with a German player, Benharkat, on 5 Jun who was ranked 47th (I was ranked 5th as at the start of the World Champs). Benharkat's wheelchair was really big and I was amazed how she managed to maneuvre with ease and always remained within the player's playing box of 1m by 2.5m. As the red player, I started the first end and earned 2 points. For the second end, Benharkat chose to place her jack ball at about 9m, which was close to the end of the court. I was anxious for a moment wondering whether my balls could reach that distance without the required extension that broke. I managed to reconfigure the remaining functioning portions of my ramp to give enough height for my harder balls to reach that distance and hence won this end with 2 points. In the third end, it seemed that my opponent had difficulty knocking away my ball that was touching the jack ball. She hence chose to block me with her remaining balls but I managed to inch 2 more balls close to the jack to win 3 points in this end. For the fourth end, Benharkat's jack ball crossed the side boundaries of the court and was therefore invalid. It became my turn instead to place the jack ball, which I did similar to the first and third end. Benharkat seemed to have understood my game play and was therefore able to win 3 points in this final end. Overall, I won the match against Benharkat with a final score of 7:3.
My match on 6 Jun was with a young Colombian player, Garavito, who was ranked 38th. Though Garavito was ranked higher than Benharkat, I felt more confident going into this match as compared to the previous day's match. I played the blue balls for this match and although I was more comfortable with my red balls, I won this match with a final score of 10:0. On hindsight, I should have scored more points because the game situation for each end were those that I have practiced before. Although Garavito often used up all his balls to inch closer to the jack ball in all the ends, his last ball usually touches the jack and that makes it hard for me to overcome the situation. I also failed to monitor my timing and therefore was unaware that the timer did not stop the time when my turn was over for the first end. In short, I was somewhat disappointed with my performance for this match.
On 7 Jun, I competed with an unranked Australian player, Cooper. I remember feeling a bit tense for this match because I needed to win this match to guarantee qualification to the Round of 32 without having to worry about point differences. Again, I had to play the blue balls for this match but this did not deter me from winning 1 point for each of the first 2 ends. In the third end, I was not able to overcome Cooper's red ball that was touching the jack ball hence I chose a defensive approach and placed my balls such that they prevent Cooper from gaining more points. He won 1 point in the third end. For the last end, my first blue ball was placed such that it was difficult for Cooper to overcome to get closer to the jack ball. With the 4 points earned in the fourth end, I won the match with a final score of 6:1 and consequently made it to the Round of 32. It was only much later that evening that I would find out who my competitor will be in the Round of 32.
This morning, my Round of 32 match was against a Spanish player, Pena. I was quite excited to be going up against her because she was ranked 4th, which I inferred to mean that our skills should be almost on par. Also, she was one of the players I had competed against in the BC3 Pairs matches against Spain so it would be interesting to she how she performs individually. Being able to play my favorite red balls was a good sign for me. I played the jack ball for the first end at my usual 3m spot. Although my first red ball did not touch the jack ball I eventually managed to get another ball close to the jack and hence earn 2 points in this end. For the second end, it seems that Pena has caught on that I did not like playing long distances and therefore chose to place her jack ball in the region of 8m. I faced great difficulty trying get close to the jack and opted to use my last 3 balls to block Pena from gaining more points. This stategy seemed to work because she could not gain access to the jack ball and hence earned 1 point for this end. For the third end, I replicated the 2 point win in the first end. In the final end, Pena again chose to play the jack ball in the region of 8m. This time, I had the experience of the secong end to identify the suitable balls and ramp heights to place my balls close to the jack ball. Within 2 tries I managed to place my red ball snugly between the jack ball and Pena's blue ball. Pena was unable to use her remaining 3 balls to dislodge my ball and therefore allowed me to earn 1 point in this end. The final score was 5:1 and with that I met my coach's target for me to qualify for the Round of 16.
After lunch, I found out that I would play against a Greek player, Pananos, who was ranked 24th, later in the afternoon. From my team manager's previous observations of him, I found him to be a player with strong aiming and directional skills. In the first end, I made the mistake of placing my red ball too far away from the jack ball therefore allowing Pananos to place his ball closer to the jack. After a few times of us taking turns to propel our balls because with each turn we each got closer to the jack ball, Pananos accidentally hit my red ball and it touched the jack ball. This sealed a 1 point win for me. In the second end, Pananos placed his jack ball in the region of 5m and I managed to place my red ball to touch the jack ball. Although Pananos subsequently managed to dislodge my ball, my ball remained closer to the jack ball than any of his balls. I pushed another red ball closer to the jack ball and earned 2 points in this end. In the third end, I placed the jack ball at my preferred 3m spot and placed my first red ball somewhat close to the jack ball. In the course of play, Pananos hit the jack ball out of the side boundaries of the court. This meant that the jack ball had to be place at the centre of the court at the 'cross' mark. I managed to place 3 of my balls close to the new location of the jack therefore earning 3 points . With 6 points thus far, I was not ready to take a defensive approach for the final end because anything could happen and I did not want Pananos to earn 6 points triggering a tie breaker. It was a tough fight in the final end and eventually I managed to earn 1 point. The final score was 7:0 and with this I met my personal target to qualify for the quarter finals.
We headed back to the hotel for dinner and prepared ourselves for what could be a long day tomorrow.
In the morning, I had my quarter final match with a Canadian player, Martino. Although she was unranked (because she did not participate in her regional games for the 2009-2012 quadrennial), she was an experienced player who ranked 17th in the Beijing Paralympics. I had to play my blue balls for this match so Martino opened the first end. Despite her first red ball not touching the jack ball I did not manage to get my first ball closer either. I only managed to do so with my fourth ball, which Martino then knocked away. Nonetheless my final ball touched the jack ball earning me 1 point. I also earned 1 point each in the second and third ends. Martino's balls often blocked my balls from getting closer to the jack ball. In the final end, 2 of Martino's red balls looked like they were equidistant to the jack ball as was my blue ball. I was afraid of a 2-1 tied score for this end and hence used a ball to push the jack ball towards my blue ball. This resulted in me earning 2 points with the final score being 5:0 in my favour. Off we go the semi-finals!
My semi-final match was with a Portuguese player, Macedo, who was ranked 11th. I started the first end since I was the red player. Again, I made the mistake of placing my red ball too far away from the jack which made it easy for Macedo to earn 2 points. What Macedo did for the second end caught me by surprise - he placed the jack ball at a distance of less than 2m! It was so near to me that I felt the urge to use my hand to throw my balls instead of using the ramp (but of course we know this will not work because I have no arm strength to even hold the ball). As expected, most of my balls overshot the jack ball and barely blocked Macedo; hence allowing him to earn 2 points. I decided to try something different for the third end and placed my jack ball in a further region of 5m. It was a bad move because Macedo is apparently really good at this distance and easily earned 4 points. With 8 points in the bag by the end of the third end, Macedo obviously has won this match. He earned another point in the final end to win the match with a final score of 9:0. This match was my single loss in the entire individual matches at the World Champs. But I'm glad I did not let this loss affect me in my Bronze medal match.
Barely half an hour after the end of my semi-final match, I had to report to the call room for the finals bronze medal match with another Portuguese player, Silva, who was ranked 7th. Going into the match, I thought of taking it easy seeing that I had already met my personal target yesterday. But on second thought, I felt I should at least give this final match a good fight. Afterall, this match would make a difference as to whether I go home with a medal or medal-less. haha.
Since I won the coin toss, I got to choose red - my preferred balls! The first end started as per my usual routine, i.e. place the jack ball at my preferred spot. Although my first red ball touched the jack, Silva managed to dislodge it and eventually when it came to measuring the balls' distances when the end was completed, it took the referee 5 tries to confirm that it was a 1-1 tie. In the second end, Silva placed the jack ball in the region of 3m. The situation was difficult but I managed to earn a couple of points. Again in the third end, I earned a few more points. For the fourth end, Silva's jack ball did not enter the valid playing area of the court which meant that it was my chance again to place the jack ball. It had been a long day and I didn't feel like trying anthing new in this final leg so I stuck to my preferred spot and ensured that my first red ball was close to the jack. Silva was unable to overcome this situation and I was happy to settle for 1 point in this end. It was only when the referee showed the final score of 6:1 that it dawned on me that I had won the bronze medal.
We then had the customary medal ceremony at the Closing Ceremony. It was a very proud moment to see the Singapore flag being raised. I hope that there will come a day for me to see the Singapore flag placed in the centre instead of on the right and to hear the Singapore anthem being played.
I barely had a few hours to explore Lisbon because we had to report to the airport early. My sister and I managed to take the public bus and subway to travel a small town square, Rosseau. We walked the cobbled streets, took in the sights, bought a few souvenirs and rushed back to the hotel to catch the transport to the airport. Another 22-hour air travel awaits us...
The World Champs had been an enriching experience for me because it was my first time competing with athletes from beyond the Asia Pacific region. There are a lot of technical skills i need to drill on and areas I need to improve on. I'm back to weekly trainings now and gearing up for the Asian Para Games in Guangzhou China sometime in Dec 2010.