SINGAPORE: Maximillian Tan Chern, moves around with a pronounced limp but he is quick to set the record straight.
"I don’t suffer from cerebral palsy," the 25—year—old says with a smile during his introduction.
"I’m born with cerebral palsy, but I don’t suffer from it. There’s no suffering involved."
Max’s quadriplegia condition, a type of cerebral palsy (CP), may have affected the motor functions of his limbs but it didn’t take away one bit of his confidence.
"Cerebral palsy did not take away my mobility. Instead, it gave me more independence.
"It allowed me to do things that I would never have thought of doing —— such as horse riding because without CP, I would have never thought of going into this sport," says Max, who is one of three para—athletes who will represent Singapore at the London Paralympics 2012.
"Everyone has some form of deficiency or disability. My cerebral palsy shows more visibly than others. I may be less mobile but that does not make me a lesser person."
Though Max wasn’t on the express lane when he embarked on his academic and sports journey, he pressed on like a true sportsman, to eventually win the race.
Studying his options
Max went to Tampines North Primary School and later studied in Seng Kang Secondary School, in the Normal Technical (NT) Stream.
Because NT students don’t sit for the GCE ’O’ Level exam at the end of their four—year secondary school education, Max went on to pursue further studies at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) in Ang Mo Kio where he did a two—year NITEC course in Digital Media Design.
He later did well enough to secure a place at the Republic Polytechnic to study for a Diploma in Technology and Arts Management, before moving on to Chapman University to read Creative Producing.
Max graduated in May this year but hasn’t gotten down to planning for his future, since he’s now focusing on the Paralympics.
"I hope to be working in the media but the challenge then will likely be balancing between gainfully working and finding time to train," says Max, whose multitasking days of juggling school work and horse riding started when he was in ITE.
Ride of a lifetime
When Max was seven, he began Hippotherapy to help him improve coordination, balance and mobility through the natural movements of a horse.
It turned out to be the beginning of a ride of a lifetime for Max.
Just three years into his horse—riding sessions, an instructor spotted Max’s potential and offered him individual training sessions.
By 2002, he was able to ride without the need for side walkers to be present and took a huge leap in horse riding four years later, taking part in his first international competition in Australia.
Since then, there’s been no turning back even when there were few obstacles along the way.
One of the qualifiers for the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games was the World Para Dressage Championships in Hartpury, England which Max took part in, but failed to qualify for the Games.
Although Max’s Paralympic dreams had come to a screeching halt, he was undeterred.
The young man trotted on to take part in the 2008 Guangdong International Para—Equestrian Dressage and the Millfield Young Riders event in Britain, emerging as top rider in both events.
Max’s big break came when president of the Equestrian Federation of Singapore Melanie Chew picked him, Gemma Rose Foo and Laurentia Tan to form an equestrian team to represent Singapore in the Hope Cup 2010 in Taiwan.
The team proved their mettle and rode on to qualify for the 2012 Paralympics.
"My personal target is for us to be one of the top 10 riders at the Paralympics," says Max.
The team are Asia’s top ranked and number 11 in the world.
As for medal hopes, Max is taking a realistic approach and is simply hoping to "translate all the training I’ve put in, at the competition arena".
Training isn’t all just about sweat and hard work to Max although a large part of it is.
Apart from enjoying the process of honing to perfection his dressage skills —— such as grace, balance and precision —— Max enjoys the chemistry with Avalon, an experienced competition horse.
"There were a few horses for me to choose from. Avalon was the third one I tried. The moment I mounted Avalon, everything felt just nice," recalls Max of the 2011 encounter.
"He’s not too fast or too slow, and responds well to my commands. Avalon is also a natural forward—moving horse, so there’s no need for me to use my legs to propel him on," Max explains of the horse whose back is not too narrow —— a perfect match for Max as he cannot stretch his tight thigh muscles when riding
One full circle
Max may now be in full—steam training mode but he reveals that he hadn’t planned to lead an athlete’s lifestyle.
With older sister Tan Su—Lynn being on Singapore’s women’s water polo team as captain, Max decided at a ripe old age of six, that he wouldn’t take the plunge.
"I’ve seen how hectic my sister’s lifestyle was. She wakes up early to train and even when she’s overseas, it was hotel—pool, pool—hotel. There’s no life!" Max exclaims with widened eyes.
Although he tried his hand at sailing, it was equestrian that won over Max, even making him forget his decision to shun a life of competitive sports.
"It’s part of my therapy, I get a good workout at the end of horse riding, and I get to take part in competitions."
"There’s always something to do —— if it’s not training, it’s school work, so it’s quite a healthy balance," says the athlete.
Lest anyone forgets, Max will also remind that having cerebral palsy isn’t an obstacle — "Why should it?" he asks.