Monday 29 October 2012

Coach Jing Jun Hong plans for quiet life but ends up in hot seat

By May Chen, The Straits Times, 28 Oct 2012

It all began, quite by accident, for Jing Junhong. Love was what brought the Shanghai native to these shores.

Even then, as China's No. 3, Jing was ready to hang up her table tennis bat for good.

"I felt like I had already accomplished what I wanted. Having grown up in the structured training regimen in China, I was yearning for a change," Jing, 44, told The Sunday Times. "The plan was to come to Singapore and lead a simple and peaceful life."

A life with former Singapore paddler Loy Soo Han, whom she met and fell for when he went to Shanghai for a nine-month training camp in 1988. Four years later, they tied the knot.

She received her citizenship in 1994 and is now the first Singaporean to coach the national women's table tennis team in 16 years,

"Playing for Singapore, coaching... all these were never part of the plan," Jing said. "Man proposes, but God disposes. A lot of things happen without you planning for them to."

Playing at the Vietnam Golden Racket Championships in 1992 - her debut under the Singapore banner - was just to make up the numbers. As a "reward" for winning the Vietnam event, she was sent to the 1993 World Championships in Sweden.

There, she caused the upset of the tournament, beating then-world No. 1 and reigning world and Olympic champion Deng Yaping of China. "Things just sort of got 'out of hand' from there," Jing joked.

She became a Singapore citizen the following year and went on to amass medal after medal for her new country.

Along with team-mates Li Jiawei, Zhang Xueling and Tan Paey Fern, she won the team title at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, Singapore's first gold at the quadrennial event in 40 years. There was also a surprise fourth place in the women's singles at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

But the frequent travelling meant time away from home and her young son Darren, who was born in 1998.

"It was torture being away from my son," said Jing, who had to endure being apart from her only child for as long as a month at a stretch. The amount of time I spent on my son cannot be compared to full-time mothers, or even working mothers for that matter."

She recalled how Darren, when he was five, suggested she take up a job as a Chinese language teacher in his kindergarten so she could spend more time at home.

"You can feel what your child really wants when he says things like that. I often felt guilty, but he turned out to be quite mature and didn't berate me," she said.

Now 14, Darren is following in his parents' footsteps. He is a table tennis player at the Singapore Sports School.

As the first China-born player to be recruited here, Jing is also well acquainted with the sentiments against foreign-born athletes.

"It's impossible not to be affected by what is being said, even if it is a minority. Sometimes it makes you question what's the point in giving so much of yourself," she said.

Jing - known as "da jie" (big sister in Mandarin) in the team - takes it upon herself to talk her charges through such struggles.

"There will always be naysayers no matter what you do. In my chats with them, I often tell them that as long as they are growing as a player and achieving what they want, that's good enough," she said.

The sense of duty which drew Jing to play beyond what she had planned to has also led her in mid-month to take on the unenviable task of coaching the Singapore team in a time of transition.

With Wang Yuegu retired and Li likely to follow suit - they were key members of the teams that won an Olympic silver in Beijing in 2008 and a bronze in London this year - all eyes are on Jing to see if she can build a new team around world No. 6 Feng Tianwei.

The woman who has become synonymous with Singapore table tennis is frank about the task ahead: Rio 2016 will be the toughest of the team's Olympic quests yet. Their world ranking will likely slide, and there could be no team medal.

Said Jing: "It's going to be very difficult. But I will coach this team to the best of my abilities. We have to stay confident in ourselves."

She has the belief. And, if Jing successfully reshapes the national team, it will not be by accident this time.

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