Huge load on young shoulders (The Straits Times)

The 36-sport countdown continues with gymnastics and hockey. Janessa Dai leads all-debutante team who are aiming to retain S’pore’s title

IT TAKES much work for Singapore’s Janessa Dai to open up. A shy teenager of few words, the artistic gymnast prefers to shun the limelight.

Yet she has nowhere to hide whenever she performs her routines on the four gymnastics apparatus, as if a spotlight stalks her every move.

Next month, not only will the 16-year-old be making her SEA Games debut after eight years of honing her craft, but she will also bear the responsibility of being the captain of the women’s team.

Yet, for all her reserved demeanour, Janessa feels that the responsibility is a boon rather than a bane; it inspires rather than burdens.

“Being chosen as a captain is an honour, it encourages me to do my best and be a role model for my team,” she said.

It has been a whirlwind two years for the Hwa Chong Institution student. From Vietnam to South Korea via Scotland, Janessa has gone from the Asean Schools Games in 2013 to the Commonwealth Games last July before competing at the Asian Games eight months ago.

Hanoi saw Janessa lead Singapore to their first-ever gymnastics team gold in the competition.

Her Glasgow adventure saw an 18th-place finish out of 24 finalists in the individual all-around – one place higher than 2012 London Olympian and the now-retired Lim Heem Wei.

Then at the Incheon Asiad, she finished a creditable 21st out of a 50-strong field in the individual uneven bars.

Participation at those major meets in her tender years has made Janessa understand what is at stake at the biennial Games next month – a fourth consecutive women’s artistic gymnastics team gold for Singapore.

The Republic had emerged victorious in the last three editions gymnastics was contested – in 2005, 2007 and 2011.

This time around, Singapore will be sending an all-debutante team, one of little pomp but filled with youthful exuberance.

Despite the lack of veterans such as Lim, Janessa feels that she and her team-mates are ready to to fill those sizeable shoes.

“We feel prepared. Our focus is on the individual all-around and team events,” Janessa said. “We are certainly aiming to retain our team title. With our youth, it will also be a good experience for us.”

In the run-up to the June 7-10 competition, the six-gymnast squad were put through their paces in a final simulation test at the Physical and Sports Education branch at Evans Road yesterday.

It was special for Ashly Lau, after she endured a rocky road to recovery from a knee fracture which involved missing the Asian Games last year.

“The initial stages were very tough. But now I’m on form and hoping to make up for a missed opportunity at the Asiad,” said the 16-year-old.

With Bishan Sports Hall – the competition venue – set to be at full capacity next month, the men’s gymnasts are hoping to leverage on strong local support as they seek a medal position.

“It serves as motivation for us knowing that we are competing on home soil,” said Hoe Wah Toon, 26. “It’s a different ball game for every competition and much will depend on how well we nail our routine on the day itself.”

Despite stiff competition from Vietnam – who won 12 golds in 2011 – Singapore Gymnastics’ vice-president Lee Hong Chuang remains optimistic.

He said: “The aim is for the women’s artistic team to retain their team title, and we are hoping their male counterparts can make a podium finish.

“For rhythmic gymnastics, we do hope to win medals too. But with just two weeks to go, there’s a need to be mindful of injuries. The safety of our gymnasts now is very important.”