SINGAPORE: 1984 is a special year for Nurulasyiqah Mohd Taha. It was the year she was born, as well as that of the Paralympic sport she’ll be representing Singapore in, at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
The ball—tossing game of Boccia from Greece was introduced 28 years ago as a Paralympic sport specifically designed for athletes with a disability affecting locomotor functions.
The aim of the game is to toss a collection of balls as close as possible to a white ball known as the jack.
Nurul qualified for the Paralympics last December, becoming the first para—athlete to represent Singapore in that sport.
Born with spinal muscular atrophy type 2 (SMA II), Nurul’s condition causes nerve cell loss in her spinal cord which in turn limits muscle movement.
So instead of tossing, players in Nurul’s BC3 category use assistive devices to launch the balls.
The para—athlete uses a head pointer to launch the ball from a ramp, after directing an assistant on the position of the ramp.
Nurul is ranked world number eight in her category, which includes those with cerebral palsy or other locomotor dysfunctions.
"I’ve never been able to walk. As a child, I used to be very fumbly —— if someone pats me on my back, I’d just fall over," says Nurul over lunch which can be a chore as her hands aren’t strong enough to grip cutlery.
"My muscle degeneration is gradual. I used to be able to raise my right forearm until I was 17. When I was 22, I lost the ability to point with my left index finger. I can’t perform certain daily tasks independently, such as showering and dressing up," says the 28 year old who moves around in a motorised wheelchair.
Yet, where her muscles lack strength, Nurul’s mind fully makes up for it.
"I’m quite a competitive person. Before I was involved in Boccia, the only direction I could channel my competitive streak to, was towards my studies," she says.
Nurul attended Bedok Primary School, and scored well enough in national exams for a place in Raffles Girls’ School. She later went on to National Junior College, before studying accountancy and law at the Singapore Management University (SMU) where she graduated with high merit.
"Back then, I wanted to outdo everyone in school, but I don’t think I was very successful," Nurul says with a laugh.
"Then Boccia came along and I focused on that."
Starting the ball rolling
Nurul’s first encounter with the Paralympic sport was in her first year in SMU.
While being involved in a community project to create a greater awareness of wheelchair—bound people, Nurul took a crash course on Boccia to incorporate the element of sport, for a public awareness event.
That started the ball rolling for Nurul who’s been playing Boccia since early 2004.
"It’s been eight years since I’ve picked up Boccia, so it’s not easy to recall when exactly I crossed over from a recreational player to an elite player," Nurul explains.
There’s only a small pool of players in Singapore where Boccia was introduced in early 2000. Since players mostly identified through Learn—to—Play programmes, SDSC (Singapore Disability Sports Council) roadshows or National Disability Leagues, the recruitment of elite players is challenging.
Nurul’s commitment to Boccia has won her a bronze medal at the Boccia World Championships in Portugal in 2010, as well as a silver medal at the 3rd Asia & South Pacific Boccia Championships in Hong Kong in 2009.
And compared to other Boccia players, such as those in the Muscular Dystrophy Association Singapore and the Spastic Children’s Association of Singapore for instance, Nurul trains for two hours every Wednesday night, and from 9am to 5pm on Saturday.
Where there’s a wheel, there’s a way
With Singapore being represented in Boccia at the London Paralympics, both the game and the player have become a focus of attention.
For Nurul, getting the attention of strangers isn’t unsettling.
"I’ve never been seriously affected by people’s stares," says Nurul of the attention she has drawn since she was young.
"I get stared at all the time but I’ve grown used to it. I try to put myself in others’ shoes and I understand I can be quite a sight to look at. I too would be wondering about that moving wheelchair."
Although being Singapore’s first Boccia para—athlete in the London 2012 Paralympic Games is pressurising, Nurul is hoping to turn the pressure to her advantage.
"Pressure is an important part of my life. When I can feel the heat, I get motivated. But while there must be an element of pressure, I’ll be careful that it doesn’t stress me because that would take away the enjoyment of the game."
Describing herself as a calculated player, Nurul charts her moves thoughtfully, both in Boccia and also in her life.
"After my ’A’ Levels, I spent a lot of time reading on my condition.
"I know that where life expectancy is concerned, it’s not very substantial," she says matter—of—factly.
Armed with the facts that those with SMA II have reduced life expectancy —— although doctors these days don’t make rigid predictions about it —— Nurul made a life—long decision.
"So when I was 18, I decided to make an effort to treasure moments in life and make full use of my time.
"Just because my muscles are wasting away doesn’t mean my life should waste away too."
That decision set her life’s journey that sees her on the route to being the first Singapore Boccia Paralympian.