Overcoming the odds: Nur Aini aims to pave the way for future generations of para athletes
The 31-year-old was diagnosed with multiple epiphyseal dysplasia when she was six.
In celebration of Youth Month, Youthopia is highlighting stories of youth who have created spark in their life. Nur Aini, 31, shares how she has overcome the odds in her journey as a para powerlifter.
In the world of sports, success at the highest level requires tireless efforts and persistence.
This is mirrored in Nur Aini Mohamed Yasli’s story. Her never-say-die spirit brought her onto a journey of grit that eventually led her to win Singapore’s first-ever medals – two bronzes – in Women’s Powerlifting (50kg class) at the ASEAN Para Games earlier this year.
While by no means a world-beater, the 31-year-old’s achievement is something that is worth celebrating.
She had only picked up the sport in 2017 after being talent scouted by national powerlifter Kalai Vanen. On her debut in the ASEAN Para Games the same year, she finished nowhere close to the podiums.
It took about year before she won her first medal, a bronze, at the World Para Powerlifting World Cup. If anything, it goes to show her determination and dedication to her craft.
Interestingly, Aini’s venture into sports started off as a form of therapy for her condition.
She was diagnosed with multiple epiphyseal dysplasia at six years old. The condition impacted the growth of the joints and bones and would go on to cause her severe pain when she walks.
To relieve the pain she faced, she initially attended weekly recreational swimming lessons. It was one of her first forays into the world of sports and she recalled dreaming of becoming a national swimmer.
“I was actually secretly hoping to catch the attention of national swimming coaches,” shares Aini, adding that it obviously did not happen.
At 10, she had to go for a knee surgery to insert two metal implants to help improve her walking. But the pain still remained. She also had to sit out during PE classes in school, which made her feel left out, although her teachers and friends made an effort to integrate her into activities.
Along the way, Aini learnt to manage her condition enough to start competing in biathlon and triathlon relays with her friends. When she enrolled into Nanyang Polytechnic for her diploma studies, she took up archery.
But when she was 21, her knee pain got worse. A visit to the specialist brought the worst possible news.
“My specialist shared with me that I wasn’t able to walk again and needed a walking stick. I was devastated, till the point I broke down in front of him,” Aini recalls.
“I was lost at that point because sports was the only thing that kept me going despite my condition. Eventually, after a while, I realised I should modify myself and adapt to obstacles.”
While doing her undergraduate studies at Nanyang Technological University, she also joined the college’s dragon boating team. She had requested to be a drummer -– who are usually positioned at the front of the boat – as she was uncertain if limited lower body movement may prevent her from keeping up with others as a rower.
But, like her teachers and friends before, the coach of the team made arrangements to include her.
“I was lucky to have a coach that helped design a block to help me put in between my legs, as it helped reach the footstep of the boat. That helped me to row efficiently,” says Aini.
Then in 2015, Kalai first approached her with an offer to become a para powerlifter. She rejected it at first, citing her university examinations, but accepted it when Kalai approached her again two years later.
Although para powerlifting relies a lot on upper body movement, “some modifications” had to be done to the way Aini trained because of her condition to ensure she does not exert any pressure on her knees and lower limb joints.
And in the lead up to her debut at the 9th ASEAN Para Games, Aini recalls seeking help from Paralympian Theresa Goh, who is someone she looks up to.
“She gave me a lot of advice and tips that propelled my decision to dare to give powerlifting a try,” says Aini. “The rest is history and I am enjoying the journey.”
Her joy in becoming an athlete is certainly mirrored in her strive to improve. Apart from the four medals she has won representing Singapore, she also came in sixth at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
“I felt it was a dream come true because I was still able to represent Singapore in a sport,” she says. She also credits the support she has received along the way from her teachers, friends, mentors and family.
She shared candidly that her family members were not keen on her decision to pursue powerlifting as it is a male-dominated sport. Today, she counts them as her biggest supporters.
“Whenever I fly out for more international competitions, the whole kampong would send me off!” Aini says, chuckling.
With that in mind, Aini hopes to be able to be a guiding light for the next generation of aspiring athletes.
She also works at RP’s Xperential Learning Centre – an indoor adventure facility that also caters to participants with limited mobility – as a senior executive. Occasionally, she will drop by classes to give motivational talks, hoping to use her story to inspire those facing similar struggles.
“I was given a lot of opportunities to get involved in sports, which eventually nurtured self initiative in me to always take the first step and give competitive powerlifting a go. Now, I want to use my story to help create opportunities for the younger generation,” shares Aini.
Her goal at RP is to set up a group for students, with or without disabilities, to come together and make a safe space for everyone to have fun and engage with one another in sports.
She also hopes to create opportunities for the younger generation to participate in paralympic sports.
“I’ve made plans to create a CCA group to bring people… and give them a taste of the different sports CCAs… This would allow the coaches and heads of the CCAs to modify certain aspects to integrate these students,” she says, adding that she drew inspiration from her experience with her dragon boating coach.
“I want all sport groups to learn and understand how to include those with disabilities who wish to engage in sports. Modifications can be made.”
As for those hoping to pursue para sports, Aini shares that they can reach out to the Singapore Disability Sports Council via social media. Alternatively, they can also join some of the try-outs and see how it turns out.
Taking that first step is important, she says, as is seeking the advice of those who are already experienced, regardless whether they are still active or retired.
But more importantly, it’s about appreciating the journey of grit.
“I believe everyone has a spark in them… When creating your spark, it is critical not to forget yourself and where you come from. Always celebrate your little victories.
“Know that who you are today is because of all the hard work you’ve put in throughout the previous years, and don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back.”