The Olympic Spirit: No Mountain Too High
Special Olympics athlete Salihin Sinai's love for sports sees him training every evening for six days a week. Ever since he was 5, Salihin has participated in a range of sports from badminton to swimming to biathlons. "I love sports. It is something I enjoy doing," he said. PHOTO: CALVIN YANG
When Special Olympic athlete Salihin Sinai came home from one of his evening runs in March last year, his mother, Mdm Junaini Rawi, looked at him and laughed.
He was left puzzled. Before he could ask for an explanation, Mdm Junaini, 57, told him almost nonchalantly that in three months' time, he was going to be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.
"She told me I was going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and I said, 'Why did you say yes when you haven't asked me,'" he exclaimed.
"I was worried because I only had three months to prepare. Also, I needed to think about my work, whether there were enough staff or not," added Salihin, who was born with an intellectual disability which affects learning.
Salihin's mother (right) played a crucial role in 25-year-old's journey to Mount Kilimanjaro. In March last year, she was approached by Special Olympics supporter, Mr Michael Dee, about the trip and knowing her son best, she agreed even before Salihin himself knew about it. PHOTO: CALVIN YANG
It turned out that Mdm Junaini was approached by Mr Michael Dee, a long-time Special Olympics supporter and global adventurer, who was assembling a team to scale the highest peak in Africa. Knowing her son best, she agreed to the expedition even before Salihin himself was informed about it.
"Salihin has been involved in many different sports since he was five years old. I knew he could climb the mountain without any problem," she added, recalling of Salihin's love for sports after a swimming lesson with the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS).
This despite the highest peak Salihin has ever trained at being Bukit Timah Hill, which stands at a mere 164 metres.
But the lack of experience did not stop the 25-year-old from reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro at 5,893 metres last June, making him the first Special Olympics athlete from Singapore and Asia to scale the mountain.
During preparation for competitions, the Special Olympics athlete follows a strict diet. "I have to watch what I eat. I try to stay away from oily food and only eat rice, noodles and bread," he added. PHOTO: CALVIN YANG
This is not the first time the sports enthusiast has represented the nation. Since joining the Special Olympics 14 years ago, Salihin has participated in a variety of sports including athletics, badminton, soccer and swimming.
His participation in the 1999 Special Olympics National Games in New Zealand won him gold, silver and bronze medals for various swimming events. In 2003, he went on to grab two bronze medals in badminton at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Ireland.
In the last few years, the avid runner has taken a liking to local sporting events such as the Standard Chartered Marathons, Army Half Marathons and Tribob multi-sport races.
However, because of his inexperience with mountains and altitude, Salihin's eight-year mentor and Special Olympics volunteer Mr Yeo Jia Chyang had to put him through three months of intensive training, which included 15-kilometre runs, rigorous conditioning sessions and weight bearing hikes, in preparation for the climb.
"The training was very tough. On some days, we had to carry a heavy backpack and run eight rounds up and down Bukit Timah Hill without stopping," he added.
To prepare Salihin for the climb, Special Olympics volunteer and Salihin's eight-year mentor Mr Yeo Jia Chyang had him go through an intensive training programme which included 15-kilometre runs, weight-bearing hikes and gym sessions. PHOTO: CALVIN YANG
Along with seven others, Salihin completed the climb over a five-day trek up the Western Breach route, known as the most scenic, yet challenging way to get to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Besides Mr Dee and Mr Yeo, the others in the team included Tanzanian Special Olympics athlete Herith Suleiman, Mr Dee's three sons and Mr Jon Golding, a friend of Mr Dee.
"The first three days were okay but on the last few nights, it was so cold that I couldn't sleep," said Salihin, who would wake up every one to two hours. The temperatures throughout the day fluctuated between 10 to 15 degree celsius but would drop below zero at night.
On the fourth day, the effects of the altitude set in and Salihin suffered constant bouts of nausea and headaches. On the fifth and hardest day of the climb, he awoke dehydrated and weary.
"I felt very sick on the last two days of the climb. There was less oxygen in the air and it was tough breathing," he said. For every twenty minutes of walking, Salihin had to stop for a breather. But being close to the end, he refused to give up.
"I trained very hard and I didn't want to waste my efforts. I did not want to let the others wait for me. So I just continued walking slowly," said Salihin, recalling how Mr Dee and the others would motivate him along the way. "When I felt tired, I will just rest for awhile and then continue walking again."
Salihin's achievement - being the first Special Olympics athlete from Singapore and Asia to reach the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa - has received widespread attention from the local media since his return. Two weeks after the feat, he received a pleasant surprise in a congratulatory letter from former president S R Nathan. "I was very proud and happy to have received the letter from Mr Nathan," he said. PHOTO: CALVIN YANG
On reaching the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the young role model was left exhausted, managing only a weak smile for the group shots at the summit. "I felt like giving up along the way but I didn't. Even though I was tired, I felt really happy and proud of myself," he said.
Since his return, Salihin's achievement has received widespread media attention, even making the headline news in Singapore's top English and Malay language newspapers. According to him, he has done close to 20 interviews so far but the humble athlete has no plans of stopping his involvement in sports.
When asked whether he has plans to scale other mountains, he joked: "People asked me whether I want to climb Mount Everest but I know it is difficult, so I said, 'No, I want to let others have a chance.'"
In his free time, 25-year-old Salihin enjoys watching television programmes and playing video games with his brothers. Occasionally, the avid sportsman would go out for dinners together with his friends. When asked whether he would go to the movies with his friends, he laughed: "No, I will fall asleep." PHOTO: CALVIN YANG
On his plans for the future, he talked passionately about being a coach with the Special Olympics. "Sometimes, in badminton, my coach would ask me to teach the younger kids. In running, when there are not enough volunteers, my coach would ask me to pace the other athletes," Salihin said.
"I would like to coach someday, to help others just like how my coaches have helped me."
ABOUT THE WRITER: Calvin Yang is a second-year journalism student currently studying at Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information