SINGAPORE: Gemma Rose Foo sits ramrod straight on her living room couch throughout the hour—long interview.
Her regal posture is no surprise since the 16—year—old is one of three para—athletes representing Singapore in Equestrian at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
But her mother, 47—year—old freelance yoga instructor Jacqueline Foo, paints a totally different picture of the younger Gemma.
"When she was two years old, she’d be all over the place on the couch. I’d place her on it, but she’d slowly slide off because she couldn’t keep her balance," says Mrs Foo.
Gemma was born premature at five—and—a—half months, and it wasn’t until she was discharged from hospital, that her spastic diplegia condition —— a form of cerebral palsy that affected Gemma’s lower limbs —— was discovered.
"Since Gemma’s birth till she was four months old, she had to be test—tube fed because she couldn’t swallow. Gemma had strabismus (a condition which causes the eyes to be misaligned), had poor motor skills and had to be taught basic functions that come naturally to babies.
"Gemma spoke early, but with a lisp. And when she learnt how to walk, she was stiff like a toy soldier," Mrs Foo adds while jerking forward her arms rigidly for emphasis.
Describing the extent of Gemma’s spastic diplegia, Mrs Foo recalls: "We’ve heard different opinions of doctors. Some said she may walk by 12, others said if she doesn’t walk by 12, then she’ll never be able to".
Gemma’s parents tried many ways to help improve her condition, from physiotherapy to seeking the expertise of Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners across the causeway. Gemma was also put on an alternative programme for special children, the Glenn Doman programme, which promotes home—based learning in babies.
By the time Gemma started classes at Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, she was able to walk with assistance.
While undergoing physiotherapy, Gemma was introduced by the Spastic Children’s Association of Singapore to try out Hippotherapy, which is administered while riding on a horse, to help children and adults with physical or mental disabilities.
The idea is to help riders improve areas such as coordination, balance, circulation and mobility through the natural movements of a horse.
"When Gemma started Hippotherapy, she was very unstable and needed side walkers to be around. But there were improvements after a 10—week term. She was a lot straighter, and had better muscle control."
Gemma was just eight years old but her involvement in Hippotherapy showed progress.
Two years into her therapy, she was able to ride independently.
Gemma later began regular weekly sessions, before galloping full speed into the arena of competitions, starting with the National Dressage Championships 2010, at the age of 14.
For the upcoming Paralympics, Gemma will be one of three para—athletes representing Singapore in the Mixed Team Test.
Gemma and team mates Laurentia Tan and Maximillian Tan will be assessed on their combined best scores in Paralympic dressage, a calming, exhibitive event which, to the untrained eye, can seem unexciting.
But this horse play is definitely no child’s play.
In dressage, judges assess equestrians based on a variety of horse—riding skills such as grace, balance, precision and the harmony between rider and horse.
Since dressage is a precise sport, Gemma’s every move will be scrutinised —— any slight imperfection or irregular, jerky movements would cost her to lose points.
So far, Gemma the Equestrian is handling the role of Li’l Miss Perfect very well.
Some of her recent achievements includes two gold medals at the Mannheim Para—Equestrian Championships in May, in Germany.
She is also handling pre—Games jitters with poise.
"I’m still quite new in equestrian and I didn’t expect to be able to take part in such a big event. So I really don’t know what to expect, except to concentrate on what I’m supposed to do.
"But I’m happy that I’m not the only one feeling the stress —— I’m taking just one—third of the pressure," she says with a smile.
A rider’s performance in equestrian depends largely on the horse —— something Gemma can certainly attest to.
During a competition in 2011, Gemma fell and hit her head minutes before the start of the event when her horse reacted to a nearby horse.
"There can be many reasons, such as sudden applause, that can spook a horse," explains Mrs Foo who admits to being in "cold sweat all the time" whenever her daughter performs.
"Anything can happen during a ride, so I’m always nervous, and would always pray for a safe ride with no incident," says the doting mother.
Gemma, on the other hand, stays focused by visualising what needs to be done, before the start of every competition.
While Gemma the Equestrian is all adult when talking about her sport, she lights up the moment topics closer to her heart pop up, like her favourite teen activities.
"I like to read. I like books by L. J. Smith and Stephenie Meyer. I also like fantasy fiction. I’m not a big fan of horror —— but romance is cool," she says with a girly grin.
Gemma is currently on a one—year break from St Theresa’s Convent to focus full time on training.
On days when she’s not training, she sits in for lessons or practises math at home. And when Gemma can afford some personal time, she’d be off to the movies with her friends.
Some of her favourite films include the print—to—screen "Twilight" series, spawned from a romantic vampire—themed novel by Stephenie Meyer.
When asked the inevitable question of which male lead Gemma prefers —— Edward Cullen the vampire or Jacob Black the werewolf —— Gemma pauses and says with an almost embarrassed giggle: "I like vampires, but in this case, I’d choose Jacob. Edward is a little too pale for me."
Riding on the topic of choices, Gemma says it’d be tough to choose between equestrian and her ambition of being a journalist — so she hopes to balance both in future.
"I feel more like a regular youth than a para—athlete carrying the national colours," adds Gemma.
For now, Gemma is taking life in her stride.
Her sights are set on the Paralympics and no matter how stressful or tough the journey to London is, Gemma is determined to trot on.
"There are good and bad sides to equestrian. Training can be tough, but I always try to enjoy what I do, so I’ll focus on the positive side of things, such as having gained physical strength from riding."
Indeed, Gemma’s ramrod—straight posture shows that she’s grown fitter from riding. But more than that, it has given the 16—year—old a chance to exemplify her motto in life, that "Nothing is impossible if you believe in yourself".