Saturday, 19 August 2017

Para paddler Jason Chee fights on despite losing right eye; Jason wins individual table tennis gold at 2017 ASEAN Para Games

He suffers fresh setback after 2012 accident, but is back training for ASEAN Para Games 2017
By May Chen, The Straits Times, 18 Aug 2017

For the second time in his life, the world as Mr Jason Chee saw it darkened around him this April.

This time, as far as his right eye is concerned, it is a darkness that is forever. He has lost the eye that helped him win multiple medals for table tennis at the ASEAN Para Games (APG).

A naval ship accident in 2012 that robbed him of both his legs, his left arm and three fingers on his right hand, did not manage to stop him.

Now he is practising again for next month's APG, intoning a simple mantra. "Once a fighter, always a fighter. I'm a fighter," he said. "I still have one eye. I can be happy day by day."

The latest storm broke when the navy serviceman felt a sudden partial "blackout" in his vision one morning when he reported for work at Changi Naval Base almost four months ago.

The 34-year-old was diagnosed with choroidal melanoma (a cancer of the eye) after a tumour 1.5cm in circumference was found in his right eye. Given that the disease had not spread, doctors advised that removing his eye would be the best way to arrest the cancer.

Within a fortnight, he found himself wheeled into the operating theatre once again, about to lose yet another vital and irreplaceable part of his body.

Despite being a self-proclaimed optimist, Mr Chee said he, too, questioned the latest hand he had been dealt. He told The Straits Times yesterday: "I tried to find treatment to save my eye, but there was no way. I was quite down, and wondered why this would happen to me."

It was even harder for his elderly father, a 75-year-old retiree and a former vegetable seller, to accept the latest misfortune to befall his only child.

Yet Mr Chee has the toughness of one who has been in the navy for 13 years, and the resilience of an athlete who became a successful national para-table tennis player following his accident.

He also had a mother who spent her lifetime teaching him to face adversity head-on, before she died in 2011 of kidney failure at age 65.

A day before he checked himself into the hospital for surgery - coincidentally it was Vesak Day - the Buddhist did what his mother would have done: He went to the temple and prayed.

Mr Chee, who won a team gold at the 2015 edition of APG on home soil, said: "I can't prevent this from happening to me but I can control how I respond to it."

He remained stoic, just as he had through his accident five years ago. There was, however, a considerable amount of adapting to do.

Having lost some peripheral vision and depth perception, Mr Chee, who still does household chores and enjoys whipping up dishes like chicken curry, has to be more careful with his movements to avoid falls and injury.

Getting ready in the morning now takes an hour, 20 minutes more than before.

Picking up the table tennis bat again also required considerable effort.

When Mr Chee returned to training in the second week of June, three weeks after surgery, he found himself missing routine shots.

He said: "I kept missing, and kept hitting into the net. But my coach (Chia Chong Boon) was very patient with me, everyone was encouraging me, so I told myself I couldn't give up."

Rather than believe that life has been unfair, he wants people to see how undeterred he is. By picking himself up time and again, he hopes to inspire others.

He said: "Look at me - I've lost a lot. But life has to go on. Our biggest enemy is ourselves. We must defeat our fears and not be afraid of anything that we think we can't do.

"I don't want to see myself as a person with disabilities. I want to see myself as a cheerful, normal person."

His vision may not be like before, but this man of the seas still views life with admirable clarity.

'Mum would be proud': Navy man Jason Chee who lost 3 limbs and eye draws strength from late mum
Navy man who has lost 3 limbs and eye draws strength from late mum as he chases degree, sports glory
By May Chen, The Sunday Times, 20 Aug 2017

While she was still alive, Madam Chua Ah Lek took pains to teach her only child about what she called life's "waves" - about staying upright and upbeat, no matter how overwhelming the currents seemed.

She died of kidney failure in 2011 aged 65, but would have been comforted to know that her advice has seen Mr Jason Chee through some of the harshest tests imaginable.

Through a naval ship accident in 2012 that robbed the navy serviceman of both legs, his left arm and three fingers on his right hand, and cancer that led to the removal of his right eye in May, the wisdom of his late mother has been his source of strength.

The 34-year-old, a national para-table tennis player, was diagnosed with choroidal melanoma (a cancer of the eye) after a tumour was found in his right eye in late April. He told The Sunday Times: "She taught me to be an upright, positive person - to be determined and to not give up on things and what I plan to achieve.

"She told me that (the outcome of) obstacles can be good or bad - but I have to face all of them. Even if I cannot get past the obstacles, it's all right. Just go for the next one. She taught me not to fear anything."

Doted upon by his parents - father Chee Kwok Chor, 75, was a vegetable seller before retiring in 2011 - he feels an odd sense of comfort that his mother did not live to see him go through the trials of the last five years. "I think it would have broken her heart," he said.

But he also knows she would have been deeply consoled by how he has responded to each ordeal.

He said: "I've achieved many things that she wanted me to."

Madam Chua had always hoped he would seek a tertiary education. Mr Chee began pursuing a degree in mathematics after her death, and is into his third year at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

For someone who had also harboured hopes for her son to be an athlete, she would also have been gratified to know that he is a successful para-paddler. Mr Chee has multiple medals from the 2013 and 2015 ASEAN Para Games, winning a team gold and an individual silver in 2015, and will compete at the next edition in Kuala Lumpur next month.

Above all, she would probably have been proudest to see him living out her teachings every day.

A self-proclaimed optimist who has served in the navy for 13 years, Mr Chee says he tells himself to stay calm before steadily navigating his way past every obstacle.

This is perhaps why he did not cry after his accident in 2012, nor were there any tears when he was forced to part with half his vision.

The last time he broke down was at his mother's funeral. His affection for her, and the role that she continues to play in his life, is clear.

Unemotional while speaking about his journey over the last five years, it is only when he reminisced about her that he broke into a smile.

He recalled: "I have many fond memories of my mother. In my highs and lows, she has always been there for me."

Mother and son used to observe a simple ritual before each school examination or competition - a visit to the temple, usually Tse Toh Aum in Sin Ming Drive to pray for safety and well-being.

He would also often accompany his mother, whom he remembers as a capable home cook, to the wet market. Such trips would usually be followed by him standing next to her in the kitchen with a notebook in hand, conscientiously jotting down the ingredients and steps for cooking various dishes.

He said: "My mother loved home-cooked food and when I was a kid, I always wanted to learn cooking from her. At first, she wanted me to get out of the kitchen because it was dirty, but I insisted."

Today, he counts chicken curry and sweet and sour pork as his best dishes.

Closing his eyes and taking a moment before he continued, he said: "I always tell myself that my late mother is still around. She is watching what I do. When I play table tennis, I can feel her beside me telling me what to do. When I'm cooking, I can feel her beside me teaching me what ingredients to put into a delicious meal.

"I can feel her still around motivating me, telling me not to give up. When I want to do things, I always think of her - I can't disappoint her."

Madam Chua may no longer be alive, but if she were, this is what her only child would say to her.

Said Mr Chee: "Mama, it's okay. There's no need to worry. Don't feel sad. I'm still very strong. I can do it, I can overcome these obstacles. Your son will pull through."

* ASEAN Para Games 2017: Paddler Jason Chee the odds to strike gold in Kuala Lumpur
A most important moment for gold medallist Jason Chee
Paddler Chee says late mother would have been proud of his first APG individual gold
By Alvin Chia, The Straits Times, 23 Sep 2017

Jason Chee has no legs, no left arm, is missing one finger and parts of two other fingers on his right hand and has only one eye. Yet a man who has lost so much still finds a way to win.

Yesterday, the courageous 34-year-old finally won the medal he had been longing for when he clinched his first individual gold in the men's singles Class 2 event at the Kuala Lumpur ASEAN Para Games. One might say he has an unbeatable spirit.

"Winning this gold was the most important moment for me. I have waited so long to win the gold," said Chee, who competes in a wheelchair, as do all paddlers in classes 1-5. The higher the number, the greater the level of mobility.

Despite the loss of his eye, he was still in the same classification - which only takes into account the player's range of movement - as he was at the 2015 APG in Singapore.

But it was almost deja vu for Chee as he was two points away from losing to Thailand's Thinathet Natthawut, who denied him the gold medal when they met two years ago.

Chee let slip a two-game lead and trailed 2-6 and then 7-9 in the final game of their round-robin match yesterday morning. But he roared back to win that match 11-8, 11-7, 7-11, 5-11, 11-9, his third of four round-robin ties.

Chee had earlier beaten Singapore's Eric Ting (11-6, 11-8, 11-5) and Darren Chua (11-4, 11-7, 11-6) and then secured gold when he beat Thailand's Thirayu Chueawong 11-8, 11-2, 12-10.

After the final point, he tossed his bat and punched the air as he raised his right arm in triumph.

Talking about the nerve-racking moment against Thinathet, Chee said: "I told myself to stay calm and composed and not to be nervous as the match was not over yet. I had to be steady, take it one point at a time and try to fight back.

"I'm a fighter and I never give up - that's my strength and that's what I have within me."

Indeed, he has. Just four months ago, after all, he was struggling to hit routine shots. He had lost some peripheral vision and depth perception, following surgery to remove his right eye after he was diagnosed with choroidal melanoma, a cancer of the eye.

The navy serviceman had lost his legs, left arm and suffered the injuries to his right hand in an accident aboard a Republic of Singapore Navy warship in 2012.

But he has remained optimistic. As he said: "I've lost a lot of things and been through a lot of pain, but I have to fight on and remain optimistic.

"That was what my mum used to always tell me.

"In this lifetime, you face many difficulties and it is going to be tough, but you have to overcome them and stay positive."

Chee also credited his coaches Chia Chong Boon and Tan Kai Kok and his colleagues from 191 Squadron.

His mother, Chua Ah Lek, died of kidney failure in 2011 at 65, yet Chee said he could sense her presence and support during the competition.

"I have made her proud," he said. "My mum would be happy."

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