People saw them as the underdogs, a team of young, inexperienced paddlers from an equally young university. Yet, the SMU Dragon Boat team finished strong in the Prime Minister’s Cup in 2013, led by Stella Tay, the women’s team captain. What was it like building a team from ground up, forging strong friendships and inculcating a winning culture?

My first year at SMU was a really crazy one. I had to train for the SEA Games with the national team, juggle the intense competitiveness and stress from school, and train SMU Dragon Boat– all this in year one! I really stressed myself out, and remember getting around four hours of sleep every day. It was a really tough year for me.

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The most challenging time was when I served as Captain of the girls’ team, in my second year. When I took over, most of the seniors had left and I only had six batch mates with me. We needed 22 people on the boat. Together with my exco, we spent a lot of time engaging the freshmen.

The dynamics were totally different here at SMU. Back during my school days at Republic Poly and with the national team, everyone had to fight for a seat. But in SMU, most of us are focused on studies and internships– not a lot of the students needed Dragon Boat in their life. In SMU, you were granted a seat on the boat even if you didn’t really commit to training. This made finding and recruiting the right people really challenging.

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To overcome this challenge, my exco and I made it a point to talk to each of our juniors individually after training. I had to do this, even though I’m not a very people-oriented person. We’d text them after training to get feedback for the training sessions. I’ll send them encouraging messages to show that I’ve noticed their hard work and determination. We all became friends, outside of Dragon Boat training as well.

I knew what I wanted from the start– a team that is committed wholeheartedly. I didn’t want the juniors to come in, and see the seniors setting a bad example.

If you want to commit, commit.

My studies were my personal responsibility. When it came to the team, I was accountable to everyone. If I expected everyone to commit time for my training, I expected the same of myself.

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They say I’m quite crazy. I’ll just sing on the boat. Even though training is gruelling, you’ve got to make it fun. Especially during the early mornings, when it’s dark and quiet. One day, I started singing Glad You Came by The Wanted. Every time they hear me sing, they’ll say, “Stella, stop it! We’ll echo the boat!” It’s important for us to echo loudly when we’re rowing so that the entire team is together and in sync.

While I believe in having fun during training, I’m very strict with the team as well. Punctuality is very important for me. If my training starts at 8 am, that means we’re in the water by 8 am. That means we do our warm-ups and carry the boat by 7.45 am. It’s alright if you’re late once in a while, but don’t do it on a regular basis. And you’d better not be strolling in like a boss if you’re late!

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We were the underdogs going into the Prime Minister’s Cup. Usually, teams don’t send new, inexperienced rowers for competitions, but for us, most of us were year one students. We all wanted to get first and we knew we could do it; we’d trained extremely hard for four months leading up to the race. In the end, we were placed second, just a split-second away from the winning team. Few expected us to race so well, for such a young team. We put up a really good fight.

The girls cried after our Prime Minister’s Cup race – either from disappointment or happiness. It was challenging managing the emotions and morale of the team. To the girls, emotions are really important. You just have to show that you care for their emotions. You can go through the toughest training sessions, but they’ll be okay with it, as long as you reach out and care for them.

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Roy, our Sports manager, really helped me in so many ways during my journey in Dragon Boat and SMU. As a Sports manager, your goal is to have your teams win, but he’s always supportive and encouraging. He’ll go “Never mind lah! Just let them have fun. Why stress so much?” He’s always asked me to take it easy on the girls and didn’t stress me as Captain of the team. It was my own expectations that I had to overcome.

I’m proud of the girls and what we’ve achieved as a team. We proved them wrong, the ones who didn’t believe we could go far, but most importantly, we proved it to ourselves. I’m with the Singapore Police Force today, and they’ve asked me to join their Dragon Boat team. Here we go!

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SMU Dragon Boat is a family of dedicated students, a team that isn’t afraid of pushing beyond limits. Check them out on Facebook!

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