The challenges of being in the Singapore women’s national water polo team at 19
While being able to represent the country is a thing to be proud of, Danielle Koh has faced plenty of struggles too.
With her entire family involved in water polo, it seemed natural for Danielle Koh, the youngest child amongst her three siblings, to follow suit.
But what started off as a fun sport to play with her family eventually turned into a major part of her life. Today, Danielle is part of the Singapore women’s national water polo team, having been promoted from the Singapore national youth team in September 2020.
“I was super shocked because I literally just woke up, checked my phone, then saw a message in the team Whatsapp chat that I got promoted!” she said in surprise.
Danielle was nine when she started playing water polo. Her dad, a water polo coach who ran his own club then, wanted to share his love for the sport with his four children.
Despite playing the sport for three years, Danielle hadn’t liked the sport, prompting her to quit when she was 11.
“When I went for training, it was all boys. I was the only girl and I really didn’t like training there,” she recalled.
As fate would have it at 17, she got back into the sport at the urging of her older sister, Valerie.
She explained: “My sister was the ex-captain of the Singapore Polytechnic (where Danielle is currently studying) water polo CCA and they needed one more girl to form a team, so she was counting on me. Even though I haven’t played for a long time, she kept urging me to join and I was convinced.”
Within the first few months of joining the school’s team, Danielle went for a water polo referee course registered with SP in August 2018. She and her friend then met a few members of the national team, who subsequently invited them to attend their national team training and youth trials.
Danielle attended the trials, passed and was officially roped into the women’s water polo youth team in December 2018.
As part of the youth team, she has represented Singapore for multiple Southeast Asia competitions. She was eventually handed the call-up to the full national team, after making strides in her game.
“Women’s water polo is quite a small community. The youth team and national team train in the same vicinity but under separate coaches. Thus, the coaches can easily see you train and track your progress,” Danielle, who plays as a winger or driver, reflected.
But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she has not been able to play in competitions with the women’s national team. Some of the competitions that she was supposed to have attended, such as Thailand’s Princess Chulabhorn Cup in December 2020, were cancelled.
Danielle stated: “While I’m sad that I can’t compete with the national team despite being accepted in, this COVID-19 break gave me a chance to acclimate to more intense training with the senior team.”
A day in her life
As a national athlete who is also juggling her studies, Danielle’s day can get pretty packed.
She recalled: “On a weekday during competition season where I have two training sessions and school, I wake up at 5:30am for morning training.”
Thankfully, morning training is only compulsory for national team players, which Danielle only got promoted to after COVID-19. But, she still willingly attended them while in the youth team for extra practice.
“Morning training is from 6 to 8am and then I’ll shower and have breakfast till 9am with my teammates. I then take around an hour to travel to school and then have classes the whole day, usually ending at 5 or 6pm,” she continued.
After classes, Danielle has to rush to the food court to have her dinner, but usually lacks the time. So, she resorts to dabao-ing (takeaway) an easy snack like bao and rushes to the MRT for an hour-long ride to Stadium.
As it’s usually peak hour at this timeframe, Danielle willingly sits on the floor from her tiredness and naps on the train. But when there are a lot of assignments to submit, she will do her work on the train.
“Training usually runs from 7pm to 10pm and I only leave the pool at around 10:30pm. The train home is another 20 to 30-minute long journey and I’ll only reach home at 11:30pm,” she sighs.
Danielle usually has a second dinner which her helper cooked and tries to finish eating by midnight.
She said: “If I have work to do, I’ll rush assignments until 1am; but I try not to stay up if I don’t have work.”
Before COVID-19, national training would take place every weekday from 7 to 10pm, and every Sunday from 4 to 6:30pm. During competition seasons for the national team, there would be an additional morning training three to four times a week to help the players train for intense competitions.
At times, she will also join her SP team for additional training on Saturdays so she can bond with them.
Danielle is also involved in another CCA at SP – Garage Band (GB).
She admitted that it is hard juggling two CCAs on top of all her other commitments, but she sees Garage Band as a way to destress as it’s fun and enjoyable.
“However, I feel like I didn’t enjoy Garage Band to its full potential, and could’ve connected with more people because I always have to skip dinners with my bandmates to make it for polo training at 7pm.
“Additionally, being the pubs head gave me more work to do as I had to plan and design for CCA concerts. I tried to do extra work over the weekends, squeeze them into my free time, or even during class hours,” she added.
Struggles of a student-athlete
Having so much to do with so little time, it is little wonder that Danielle finds that the exhaustion has taken a toll on her mental health.
She said: “The thing is… if you’re tired, you can just rest and you will get better. However, you can’t rest your mental strain away. Sometimes I would sleep on the floor because I’m too tired to climb up the stairs (of my house). But it’s nothing compared to the stress and competitiveness of the nature of the sport.
“I was very stressed (when) transitioning from the youth to senior team. I also had low self esteem from comparing myself to my teammates, in terms of both skill sets and physical appearance as I’m smaller in size.”
“I’ve been in polo for almost three years, probably going to four; training consistently for a good few years. I miss out on a lot of moments in life. I can’t go out for dinner with friends and chill till late (hours) as I have no time or I’m too tired. Instead, I’m working for this one goal (playing for SEA games) that I want a lot.”
Despite those struggles, Danielle has no regrets about joining the women’s national water polo team.
She exclaimed: “I like the achievement factor. I had to train and worked my ass off to get where I am now.”
With her entire family being quite well-known in the water polo scene, Danielle felt a sense of pride in redeeming herself and training to play in the SEA games while her siblings all chose not to, after ‘dropping out’ initially.
“My dad was kind of sad because he spent so long training his children, yet none of them are interested in becoming a national athlete. But now, I went from quitting to training seriously and competitively.
“This gave me and my dad something to talk about. We became closer because I went back to water polo and now we have more things to discuss and I can ask him questions. I knew he was very happy when I went back to polo,” she smiled.
Although Danielle would rather pursue a career in film instead of sports, she understands the benefits of being in a national sports team — boosting her portfolio and university applications.
“There’s no easy way out. Respect the hustle and respect the grind. Everything really is just hard work,” she said.