Overcoming Obstacles: Making The National Canoe Team Despite Heart Condition

Join KAYLA GOH as she talks to Gabriel Tang, the youngest paddler in the national team, and learns more about his journey and its challenges.



Kayla Goh
Hype Deputy Editor

Hype Issue #58

Published on
April 17, 2024

Despite struggling with a heart condition, Gabriel Tang, 19, got into the national team for canoeing in 2023. His canoeing journey hasn’t been easy. Apart from his condition, there were many mental struggles that he had to overcome to get to where he is as well.

Gabriel’s paddling journey began in secondary school, when he joined canoeing as his Co-Curricular Activity (CCA) in school. He felt that he had a natural inclination towards the sport as he got a hang of the basics, such as balancing the boat, pretty quickly. Thus, he stayed in the CCA for all 4 years of his secondary school journey until he graduated in 2020.

Pet Sitter

Gabriel fell in love with canoeing in secondary school, but he never envisioned taking it to high performance. Photo taken from: Gabriel Tang.

In his second year of secondary school, he started participating in competitions, until Covid-19 struck in 2020. This made him reconsider his canoeing journey. “I was reaching my peak at the end of 2019, so I was really ready for the 2020 competitions,” Gabriel said. He wanted to see where he stood as the older B-division boys had graduated, especially since 2020 was his last year to compete in the division. “I thought I could at least make a mark, but it was cut short.” 

Other factors such as his team being the underdogs compared to other schools and being the last canoeist left in the team (as the school decided to shut down the CCA) made him feel very lonely in training, hence, he decided to pursue another sport post-secondary. 

This led him to join dragon boating when he enrolled into Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 2021. As Gabriel likes the adrenaline and rush of a team sport, he decided to give it a try and even took on captaincy in 2022.

Lion Dancing

Gabriel became the president of Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s dragon boat team in 2023. Photo taken from: Gabriel Tang.

Only in August 2022 did he return to his roots, when he joined Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s canoeing team because of some mutual friends. In preparation for the canoeing Polytechnic-ITE Games (POL-ITE) in November, he had to juggle both CCAs while managing the dragon boat team. 

 Eventually, his hard work paid off as he led his dragon boat team to second place while achieving double gold for canoeing in the POL-ITE Games 2022. Following this, he was offered a place in the national team for both canoeing and dragon boating. He chose to join the canoeing team and has been with them since February 2023.

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Representing Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Gabriel attained double gold for canoeing in both 2022 and 2023 and a silver medal for dragon boat in 2022. Photo taken from: Gabriel Tang.

Gabriel’s achievements are just the tip of the iceberg, as he has put in a lot of hard work and faced many challenges to get this far. 

Since birth, he has had a heart condition, pulmonary stenosis, which causes him to get tired and out of breath easily. “If I push past a point, my heart can stop,” Gabriel said. “It’s a disadvantage I have, but I make an effort not to [use] it as an excuse for myself… I just make sure I do more training to train my body to function better with a deformed heart.”

With this condition that limits his stamina, he continues to discover if it’s a mental limit or actually a physical limitation, while carefully pushing his boundaries. “Every training is slowly pushing up the threshold, slowly testing the limits,” Gabriel said.

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When he was in both the dragon boat and canoeing CCAs, he did up to 14 training sessions a week. Photo taken from: Gabriel Tang.

There are times when Gabriel doubts himself, asking himself if it’s worth it to put his already damaged body through harsh training. “It doesn’t take one big race that I lost to make me rethink my canoeing journey,” he explained that even a hard training session where he’s in pain and feels very tired can make him reconsider everything. 

Another mental challenge, one that he is still learning to overcome, is comparing himself to others. “In the national team, I’m far from being the fastest,” Gabriel said. Being in the team, he faces greater pressure and expectation to outperform those who are not in the team and to be the fastest within the team. Hence, when he sees the gap between him and the faster paddlers, it makes him reconsider if he’s deserving to be in the team.

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As part of the national team for canoeing, Gabriel attends 10 training sessions a week. Photo taken from: Gabriel Tang.

Despite all these challenges, every time he balances the pros and cons and realigns the goals and expectations he has placed on himself, he still chooses to press on. “I’m just very proud of myself when I know I still showed up, I still made it through the programme, … when I felt like I was going to die. That’s a motivation for myself to continue pushing,” Gabriel said, feeling that this is his greatest achievement. 

To those looking to follow in Gabriel’s footsteps and become national athletes, he has this to say. “Hard work will beat talent nine out of ten times…If you have the passion for the sport and representing Singapore, just go for it, no matter how bleak it looks for you. Just give it a shot and continue showing up every day for yourself.”