So Cheryl, how would you describe yourself?

I sail the 470 Olympic class with my partner, Yukie, and we are currently campaigning for the 2018 Asian Games and 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. I have currently deferred my studies in Ngee Ann Polytechnic in the hope of qualifying for the Olympics.

I am 170cm tall, I like the colour blue and I tend to smile a lot. I guess my friends will describe me as one who is very bubbly, outgoing, apparently very loud in the sea and loves retail therapy. One fun fact about me is that I actually enjoy attending school and taking down notes.

My hobbies include spending time with my grandparents, admiring Kate Spade and Pandora items and of course, shopping! I am also trying to learn Japanese from a book.

 

When did you start sailing?

I started sailing at the age of 10. My father was the one who researched about sailing and realised that that there were very few girls in sailing. Hence, he concluded that I will have a greater chance to shine. He signed me up for the Get-Kids-Afloat (GKA) program at SAF Yacht Club and throughout the 4 days, I guess I loved the feeling of being outdoors and in the sea.

At that moment, I was also in ballet and I had to give up ballet when I started training on both days of the weekend. However, when I went for more trainings and participated in my first competition in Optimist, I started to fear the feeling of competing and being out in the sea alone. I dreaded going for trainings and even wanted to quit sailing. My father was the one who was adamant that I had to continue with the sport as I should not give up so easily.

As I went on to secondary school, I sailed for Tanjong Katong Girls’ School (TKGS) and I guess participating in Interschools, having teammates and fighting for my school’s glory made me feel passionate towards sailing again.

 

What were the early regattas like?

My best memories of regattas were during my secondary school days. I am later than most to jump on the sailing bandwagon as I did not experience interschools in primary school, but those memories are the ones I hold dearly to my heart. I reminisce the times in TKGS where we would hold each others’ boats during regattas and play cards or study together while waiting for the wind onshore. Also, after each interschools, since we had a tradition of writing letters in a girls’ school, we would write letters of encouragement and gratitude towards each other. This team spirit that I once had are one of my best memories in sailing thus far.

Basically, a regatta is a competition where sailors compete over 3-5 days. Each day consists of 2-4 races. There will be a race course where we start on the start line, round a few marks and race to the finish line. The position that you finish for each race accumulates towards your overall results for the regatta. It can get pretty tiring to wait outside in the sea, in the hot sun if there is no wind. However, if there are super strong winds, it can be quite physically draining also.

 

What is it like training overseas?

My most memorable training camp would probably be my very first sailing trip to Langkawi for Youth Worlds in 2015. I didn’t know how it would be like. I went through a lot of things for the first time and experienced the life of a national athlete. I got my first accreditation pass and my first bib. It was also my first time travelling with a team and many others. I truly appreciate this opportunity that was given to me.

Training overseas is very different from training in Singapore. Every new training venue is fresh and we have to adapt to it quickly. I guess the biggest difference is that after training, we don’t get to go back to our own comfortable houses. We have to go back to our rental accommodation, wash our own clothes and perhaps even prepare dinner. I learnt a lot about responsibility, independence and being considerate whenever I go for a training camp.

I find that training overseas is more intensive than in Singapore as it is usually a block of 4 days on water and gym followed by 1 day of rest. Then the cycle repeats. Water time is usually around 3-4 hours, depending on whether there is an upcoming regatta. We also have daily debriefs at the end of the day. However, training overseas always keep me disciplined as we learn from our mistakes from the previous day and keep the grind going the next day. I always take away a lot of learnings at the end of each training camp and I am thankful to have experienced such a wide variety of training conditions from 4m waves and 25 knots to nothing in the horizon.

 

Where have you trained?

Locations that I have trained at:

  1. Langkawi, MALAYSIA
  2. Enoshima, JAPAN
  3. Karatsu, JAPAN
  4. Okinawa, JAPAN
  5. Mallorca, SPAIN
  6. Monaco, FRANCE
  7. Marseille, FRANCE
  8. Hyeres, FRANCE
  9. Thessaloniki, GREECE
  10. Haikou, CHINA

 

How do you cope with school and competitive training?

In 2017, while I was still studying, I only filled up 50% of my attendance in school as I went for international regattas leading up to the SEA Games. I even flew to Langkawi to train one week before my final exams and only returned one day before to sit for my paper. 24 hours later, I flew back for the SEA Games. My school and lecturers have been very supportive of my sailing schedule. They have kindly arranged for assignment deadlines to fall on the days when I am in Singapore. As there were only 40 students in my batch, my course chair scheduled the final exams to be as early as possible, so that it would not clash with SEA Games. My classmates have also been very understanding as they do not hate me for having to take the exams earlier, they just told me to bring the gold back and do Singapore proud.  

During the weekends, if I don’t have to go to NSC in the morning, I would wake up at 8am to study and complete my homework. What’s not done will be left till the night and normally into the wee hours. Whenever my classmates or non-sailing friends arrange for meetups, they immediately rule out weekends as they know about my training schedule. Hence I don’t really feel left out and I am truly grateful to my friends for accommodating to me.

 

Has competitive training affected your studies?

When I first started polytechnic, I wasn’t training too intensively on the 470 yet and was doing very well in school. After I started travelling overseas more frequently, my studies deteriorated as I struggled with time management. Eventually, I made the decision to defer school as I was determined to excel in both studies and sailing.

My school did try to make special arrangements to help me cope with my tight schedule. However, there is a limit to how much my lecturer can do as too much would be unfair to my peers. It is upsetting to see my studies getting sacrificed for winning a gold. Hence I am sure I made the right decision of deferring school.

What do you do in your free time?

Since I deferred school, I get more hours of sleep and occasionally accompany my mother to get groceries. When trainings are in the afternoon, I also get to have lunch with my grandparents. If I am lucky enough that my brother’s rugby match is scheduled aptly, I get to support him! Other than these, my mornings will be spent in the gym or doing boat work as it never ends on a 470.

For sure there are moments where I wished I wasn’t a competitive sailor as I could have done so much more during the weekends. I have always thought of how my weekends will be like in the future after I retire from sailing.

 

Describe how Sailing helps you build resilience

In one of the races of the SEA Games, there was light wind and it was a really long race. Throughout the whole race we were just battling it out with the Malaysians and at the end, we were suppose to come in 2nd to them. However, as there were some changes to the finish line of the other boat classes, the Malaysians got confused and stopped when they thought that they had crossed the finish line. In actual fact, that was not our finish line and as we stayed calm and focused, I realised that it was not our class flag displayed. Ultimately, we crossed the right finish line and won the race.

This was a huge careless mistake made by the Malaysians but it also taught me to always stay in the moment and keep my mind clear and open till the end. I have always believed that it doesn’t matter whether we have lost, what matters is how we bounce back. As Singapore Sailing always says, “We either win or we learn”.

 

Why is Sailing a mental game?

One encounter that I distinctly remember was also during SEA Games. It was the medal race and we had to win the Malaysians to seal the gold. I was so nervous that I couldn’t sleep the night before.

It was a match race since the warning signal started. At the downwind leg of the race where the spectators could tell the positionings, we were trailing the Malaysians by probably 20m. There was also very little wind throughout the race, which gave us almost no hope to overtake them. The Malaysian crowd was cheering and everyone else was watching with deep concentration. However, I recall that all I could see were the boats in our fleet and all I could hear was the voices within our boat.

As we sailed the final upwind leg of the competition, we did the best we could and started to close up the gap. Then came the miracle where we were neck and neck with them and it was a battle to the finish. It was a nail-biting finish as we crossed the finish line only half a boat length ahead of them.

Such incidents have taught me that Sailing can be quite a tough mental game. It is important to know when and how to switch on when necessary. Mental pressures cannot be avoided and hence I speak to my sports psychologist who helps me to overcome them.

Recently, I have found a method which works best for me – I am someone who tends to think a lot and sometimes, I make simple things sound difficult. This actually helps a lot during a race, as my mind never stops thinking, which keeps me very focused during each race. Also, Yukie is one who never gives up even when we are not doing well in a race. This keeps the fighting spirit in me, till the end of each race.

 

What is your biggest fear?

My biggest fear is missing out on an opportunity as it will never come back. It is impossible to grab hold of every opportunity that comes our way but it is worst when I let go of an opportunity that I have regrets after.

One thing that I have regretted in sailing is not attempting the Rio trials in 2016. Yukie and I had a fresh partnership from 420 in 2015. She did tell me that she was going to try with another partner as we had no prior experience on the 470. At that moment, I thought nothing much of it as I was certain that it was impossible to qualify. However, now that I thought back of it, I should have at least tried and could have become the youngest sailor and experience many other firsts. Now that I’m 19, things will never be the same and I can never go back to the past. These thoughts kept tugging at me but I am starting to be convinced that it was simply not meant to be. I will definitely come back as a stronger athlete and overcome this regret.

For things that don’t work out, I always tell myself this – “Accept what it is, let go of what it was and have faith in what it will be”.

What does it mean to be a champion?

My father always says this phrase “What you think is what you get”. If I am a champion in my own world, that’s enough. A champion simply means that you have met your own expectations and you have won your own battle that you competed against yourself.

To me, a champion is one with great attitude that others admire and treats others with respect. A champion does things with the right mind, the right way, with the right heart.

 

What legacy would you like to leave in this world?

“Two things determines you: your patience when you have nothing & your attitude when you have everything.”

Sailing is a luxury to me and it has always been my dream to share it with the less fortunate. The course that I am studying in teaches me about creating a sustainable business that gives back to a social group. I have always tried to incorporate sailing into my business ideas as sailing is a unique skill that I was blessed enough to learn. Hence, if I could leave a legacy behind, I hope that there will be more people coming up with ideas for using sailing as a good cause, to bring more happiness to others.

Read more about Cheryl!

Rookie sailing pair quit school for shot at Olympics– Today Online, 17 Jun 2017
SEA Games: Women’s 470 pair stage comeback to win sailing gold – Today Online, 27 Aug 2017
SEA Games: 470 duo beat odds for unlikely gold – Straits Times, 28 Aug 2017
Team Singapore at the Games – The New Paper, 28 Aug 2017
Sailing: Where small details matter – Straits Times, 30 Sept 2017
Sailor Cheryl Teo gets Olympic boost from Chiam See Tong foundation– The online Citizen, 04 Jan 2018
Sailors Yokoyama, Teo determined to clear obstacles to realise dreams– The New Paper, 23 Jan 2018


Deborah Kay

Deborah Kay is the Head of Digital Transformation at the Singapore Sailing Federation. She looks for new ways to realign marketing, sponsorships and business processes with technology for SSF to be more effective in digital economy.

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