Singapore Nurse Joan Poh Beats Obstacles to Achieve Olympic Dream


Joan Poh reached her dream of qualifying for and competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as only the second rower to represent her country. This was while the 30-year-old Poh answered the call for more nurses during the COVID epidemic and returned to work full-time. 

COVID Dashes Olympic Hopes

Poh only picked up on the sport of rowing in 2015 while she was still a student. She soon started competing internationally, as rowing is very small in her home country of Singapore, and there were no serious competitions.

Setting her sights on qualifying for the 2020 Olympics, Poh took unpaid leave to train overseas full-time from the beginning of 2019.  This brought her to Hong Kong, Greece, Canada, and Australia. She received very little of the official support or sponsorships which potential Olympic athletes in other countries do. She explained that this was difficult and that she was often lonely and despondent during these times but pushed through.

However, in March 2020, the announcement was made that the games would be postponed due to the pandemic. Poh’s Olympic dreams were dashed, even before there were any qualifying competitions.

Nursing and Training

When her country called for nurses during the COVID epidemic, Poh felt compelled to return to work despite potentially losing her future chance of competing in the Olympics. She started working again in April at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) dialysis unit as a senior staff nurse

Poh, however, kept up her training as a rower, with remote coaching by Laryssa Biesenthal, a former Olympic bronze medallist from Canada. Despite working full-time, she put in 20-30 hours of training each week – in the mornings before work, after work when she finished by 4, and on her days off. 

“While most of us are asleep, Joan Poh is up at 5 am, warming up at the break of dawn and into the waters by sunrise,” wrote TTSH on their Facebook page, also quoting Poh: “I have a dream, a goal, and the values I hold onto guides me to reach them. Every waking moment, every difficulty that you face gives you the opportunity to choose again.”  


I have a dream, a goal, and the values I hold onto guides me to reach them.

Joan Poh

Poh retook unpaid leave from the hospital from March 2021 to train full-time for the Asia and Oceania Olympic qualifying Regatta held in May in Tokyo.

Poh finally received confirmation on May 27 that she had qualified for the Olympics. She became only the second Singaporean rower to participate in an Olympic event. She placed 28th out of 32 in her event.

Poh’s future goals  

With the Olympics behind her, Poh can focus on the other goal that had also spurred her to qualify. This goal is to promote the sport of rowing in Singapore. Working with the Singapore Rowing Association, she has already put together a team of 11 women who started rowing a year ago.

“I’m also hoping to reach out to schools and organizations that help at-risk youth, to introduce and engage young people in rowing from less privileged or at-risk environments; to help them find a niche, develop confidence and find rewarding ways to spend their time. That’s what sports did for me.” Poh told ANZA

Although Poh did not reach a place on the podium, the spirit of determination that powered her to achieve her Olympic dream makes Poh a winner and an example.

Frieda Paton is a registered nurse with a Master’s degree in nursing education. Her passion for nursing education, nursing issues and advocacy for the profession were ignited while she worked as an education officer, and later editor, at a national nurses’ association. This passion, together with interest in health and wellness education since her student days, stayed with her throughout her further career as a nurse educator and occupational health nurse. Having reached retirement age, she continues to contribute to the profession as a full-time freelance writer. In the news and feature articles she writes for Nurseslabs, she hopes to inspire nursing students and nurses on the job to reflect on the trends and issues that affect their profession and communities - and play their part in advocacy wherever they find themselves.

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