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Lee's will to pull ahead is 'good'

Lee says that while he has a deep competitive streak, he has learnt to curb his exuberance and aggression in order to outlast and outwit his opponents.
The Straits Times - December 9, 2013
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Lee's will to pull ahead is 'good'

The morning tranquillity along the Kallang Basin was broken by a loud bellow: "Ready, go!"

And on that command by national canoeing coach Balazs Babella, the men's K4 quartet began paddling furiously, with their boat slicing the water faster than even their coach's motor boat.

They crossed the finishing point, then looked towards Babella while catching their breath.

"Forty-three seconds. That's too fast for 250m," he said. "You guys have to conserve your strength.

"Start off so quickly and you'll not last the entire 1,000m for your competition."

As the team pondered upon his comments, a voice among them came loud and clear: "Rotation, guys. Come on!"

It was Bill Lee who paddles at the front of the four-man team who also comprise Lucas Teo, Tay Zi Qiang and Benjamin Low.

The most vocal of the quartet, he would often be heard spurring his team-mates on as they train every morning for the SEA Games.

The 28-year-old has a natural knack of articulating his thoughts.

After all, before he even picked up a paddle, he was a member of the Bukit Panjang Government High School's debating team during his secondary-school days.

"I'm a very competitive person, very 'kiasu'. There is always a deep desire within me to come up tops," he said.

"I'm also quite vocal, so it seems quite natural that I would be the person to speak out and urge my team-mates on."

Interestingly, for such a vocal person, Lee fell in love with canoeing because it gives him a peace of mind. He says the calmness of the waters always makes him feel relaxed and liberated.

He joined the sport in 2002 when it was offered as a co-curricular activity at Anglo-Chinese Junior College, as he wanted to take part in a more outdoor-bound activity after his debating days in secondary school.

Canoeing was one of the sports in the JC that welcomed students with no experience, as long as they were willing to train hard.

Lee took to the sport with a passion, coming in second in the K2 1,000m race in the 2003 Schools National Canoeing Championships, losing out only to a much more experienced team from National Junior College.

He said: "In secondary school, I wanted to win in everything that I do. I guessed that carried over to canoeing.

"When the school team took part in the Schools National Canoeing Championships, something stirred in my heart. I really wanted to show the other schools that my team was faster.

"And that's how I get the motivation and desire to continue achieving something more in the sport."

After he finished his national service in 2006, he returned to canoeing and made the national team after coming in among the top eight athletes in both the 2km and 5km time trials.

Although he missed qualifying for the 2007 SEA Games by just one second, he was undeterred and continued to be active in the national team, constantly seeking to improve himself.

However, gold has so far eluded him at the South-east Asian Canoeing Championships where, as part of the K4 1,000m quartet, he came in second twice, in 2010 and earlier this year.

Still, he goes to the Myanmar SEA Games in an optimistic mood, with the national canoeing team eager to repeat a two-gold, three-silver and one-bronze performance at the 2011 edition.

Babella feels that much will depend on the canoeists' mindset when facing regional powerhouses Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and hosts Myanmar.

"If they wake up on race day thinking they can do it, then they can do it," he said.

Working out the configuration of the men's K4 team took a little bit of trial and error.

"Normally, you would put the strongest paddler at the back," he explained.

"But Bill has a strong sense of rhythm, so even though he's the strongest paddler of the team, we decided to experiment with him in front.

"So far, it has worked out well."

It also helps Babella that Lee is constantly pushing his team-mates during training: "It's good to have someone in the team always telling them to do better."

Lee admits he has a heavy responsibility as the rhythm setter for the team.

"You need a calm and cool mind to set a good rhythm even amid intense competition so that the team can finish strongly in the last 200m," he said.

"It's a heavy responsibility but I enjoy it."

Now a full-time canoeing coach, he believes he has learnt to temper his competitive nature to be a better canoeist.

"When I first started racing, mentally, I was not as sharp, as composed, as confident," he said.

"All this training you put in are sacrifices so, in competition, sometimes there is this anxiety to succeed.

"And, sometimes, the pressure gets a bit too much for me to handle.

"I have had to calm down, and think about my execution. For someone who is so 'kiasu', I have learnt not worry about winning."

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