Imagine an Ice Hockey puck weighing 1.25kg. Imagine manouvering it across a distance of 25m with only an apparatus the length of a kitchen knife. Imagine six people relentlessly trying to snatch it away from you from every direction.
Now imagine doing all that, but two metres underwater.
Not only do you exert more effort for each movement against water resistance and find yourself at the mercy of the puck’s unpredictable movement, you are allowed only seconds to execute before you inevitably come up for air.
“I was asked why I play underwater hockey in an interview before the SEA Games and do you know what my answer was? Not for guts and glory or the honour of representing my country, which were words I should have said! Instead, I said because it is so very hard!”
Christina Tham is no stranger to competition. If anything, she thrives on it. Just last December at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games, she, along with her teammates, achieved two gold medals in the 6×6 and 4×4 women’s underwater hockey events.
Besides the sport being featured for the first time in the 30-year history of the regional event, her story has quickly gained attention and it’s not difficult to see why. How many of us can win two silver medals in our teens and two golds nearly four decades later in a different sport? All while holding a full-time job.
“You mustn’t write like I’m the star player because I’m not. It really was a team effort.” The disclaimer comes up, but even she admits the story in itself sounds pretty amazing. “When my teammates were teasing me with the ‘third time lucky’ slogan, I started counting the years since I won my first SEA Games medal and realised, wow, it’s been 38 years. Many of my teammates are not even 38 yet. Which was the running joke; getting my first medal before they were born,” she laughs.
Tham is clearly grateful for her team. She effuses about individual members and their traits in and out of the pool, but the highest regard she reserves for her captain. “It’s often harder when you’re the leader because we’re not full-time athletes and have to juggle other commitments,” she explains. “So it can be very disheartening when training attendance is not full. Just seeing one person not giving their all can really affect team morale, but my captain has always given her best before, during and after each training session.”
That’s just the thing about the sport—an extremely high level of teamwork is required. How do you, while concentrating on the task at hand, stay conscious of the time your fellow members need to surface for breath and it not coinciding with yours? More so in this particular team sport where there’s very little opportunity to communicate during play. No player can score alone and no one player can hold their breath long enough.
“So even if you’re a very good player, but your teammates don’t know how you play and vice versa, it is very difficult for the team to do well together. In fact, the better players watch for the right timing to go underwater to assist. As for me, I have this in-built tenacity where I just keep going and don’t know when to give up,” she laughs again, recounting the times she frightened new players with her resolve underwater (cue: “when is she coming up for air?!”). You witness this towards the end of the 6×6 event, when one player emerges from the flurry and unyieldingly drives the puck with great speed into the goal.
Tham knows her strengths; her reaction time, speed and long breath hold, but also recognises how they can sometimes be a hindrance; how determination can sometimes become a form of tunnel vision. She was not a natural at reading the game and learning to work with people was one of her primary reasons for picking up the sport. Having been a national swimmer from age seven to 17, competing in it only enhanced the sport’s solitary nature. Despite transitioning to being a practising lawyer, finding success by making partner and head of a legal practice at a young age, she found herself lacking in experience working within a larger team.
“I could tell that I was carrying myself in life as an individual person,” she acknowledges. Tham always knew she wanted to do law, inspired by The Paper Chase, a television series on first-year law students at Harvard Law School. To further her swimming simultaneously, her only option then was to study in Australia, but Tham’s passion lay in UK law. At that point, pursuing law did not feel like a sacrifice due to her priorities. Upon graduation, Tham remained highly focused on her career until the global financial crisis happened and everything changed.
“It felt like everything I had built just crumbled overnight,” she alludes to the executive decisions made that affected everyone across the organisation. “It was a very stark reminder that you can’t control anything apart from yourself and you’re subject to things that are simply beyond your knowledge.” The change in circumstances led to a change in mindset, prompting the choice to do more with her life outside her career. And so her commitment to underwater hockey began.
“That’s the thing about me. Other people fall in love with the sport or get addicted to it like some of my teammates, but my motivation is different. I found it so challenging that I just keep at it because I just can’t believe that I can’t do it!
“With underwater rugby I felt like I could do anything, but underwater hockey left me feeling so hamstrung the first few years. You’re so used to not having any equipment when suddenly you have to execute moves with something external as if it’s part of your appendage?” Even having no issues playing badminton and squash as a child, or golf as an adult, stickwork skill was extremely difficult for her to acquire. She’s uncertain if it has to do with learning it in her 40s.
Which leads us to the big question: does she feel her age?
“That was actually another reason I wanted to compete. I was turning 50 and I thought this would be a great birthday present to myself. I know it’s a little crazy, people usually just throw a huge party, but I was thinking about how hard I wanted to train to show myself I’m still strong.” Another injection of laughter. And prove herself she did. It turned out that her baseline fitness was quite high. In just three months of training, she went from average performance in speed among the team to one of the fastest.
It didn’t mean the process was easy. “I never really felt old even at 49 until I was training for this,” she exclaims, comparing those three months to surviving a huge mountain climb, “but I knew I didn’t have the luxury of being young so I was ready to put in the hours to be selected for the team.” Tham refers to it as the hardest thing to do while juggling her day job as head of legal, compliance and company secretarial at Cromwell European REIT, but cites prioritisation, communication and managing expectations as feasible means.
“I like to put myself in an environment where I’m not comfortable as long as I can learn from it and I’m blessed in the sense that it’s not something I have to force myself to do,” she says. “I realised I genuinely enjoy working very hard. I told my husband this recently but he reacted like I was stating the obvious.” Tham describes his drive as one greater than her own. “He’s super intense, very smart and extremely forward-thinking. I’m just glad I met somebody I can respect.”
Tham can still play as fast and hard as she used to, but the limits appear at the duration. Especially closer to the SEA Games when training was twice a day on weekends on top of land exercise, there was one thing she found crucial to her endurance—a good old-fashioned nap. That, paired with diet and nutrition. Tham isn’t an ingenue, but her body would make anyone in their 20s envious. Lean and bronzed, she looks the ideal cut-out of a competitive swimmer.
For someone who calls swimming a mental activity (“every stroke, every kick, your buoyancy, even the degree you hit the water can really change your speed!”), underwater hockey seems like the perfect sport. One that she wouldn’t be moving on from until she has mastered it, which in spite of the medals, still feels a long way off to her. For now, she’s concentrating her efforts on lobbying for the sport to be included in the next Asian Games in 2022.
“There exists such a large and strong swimming and aquatic fraternity that can potentially be converted and leveraged upon."
"Singapore already has a head start in this sport, so if we can develop this sport no differently from water polo or synchronised swimming, it could be a podium finisher in a major event.” Tham is uncertain if it can happen by 2022 or if she can even make it to the team then, but she has gathered a task force, written a letter of appeal to the Singapore National Olympic Council and dedicated herself to seeing it through.
Whether they would compete in the next Underwater Hockey World Championships in Australia this year depends on an internal poll—after all, it is a team sport where all must agree. Tham is also back to training for the next Asian Masters Swimming Championships after winning a medal in the 50m breaststroke last year. “In the 200m Individual Medley, I placed seventh and missed a medal by approximately 0.2 seconds,” she states, “and that’s without training for the event, so it got me thinking.”
It’s fascinating to observe such zeal. Her legacy and continuum make you realise that this lifetime is brimming with potential and, more importantly, there is much that can be done with it. So what does Tham want to do most? The lively spirit in her eyes gleams unmistakably as she answers: “What is life if not using God’s talents and maximising it? I just want to be able to be my best and find the best people to be with.”
Styling by Asri Jasman
Hair and makeup by Christian M
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