Instead of the bowling alley, Jazreel Tan could’ve actually been winning medals for Team Singapore in the swimming pool.
Unknown to many, the current skipper of Team Singapore’s women’s bowling team made her foray into competitive sports with swimming, winning several age group medals, and was even poised to represent the nation.
However, as Tan reveals, air conditioning turned out to be the deal breaker.
Says the 25-year-old: “Actually, I started out as a swimmer. My brother and I used to go to the Singapore Swimming Club every week. We were pretty serious swimmers but one day my brother decided to quit. And every time I was at swim training he would just be at the bowling alley next door, enjoying the air conditioning. And all he had to do was throw some balls!”
But what started out as a frivolous excuse to escape the tough swim sessions soon turned into a real passion.
“At first it was the air conditioning that made me change my mind,” says Tan with a laugh.
“However, I soon started to really get interested in the intricacies of the sport. There are so many things that you cannot see. It’s very interesting to be able to make decisions and strategise on how to play the lanes. It’s about watching other people play and how your ball reacts to the lane. Like in golf, factors like how thick the grass is plays a part in the game – it’s the same for bowling, just not so apparent. It’s a lot about judgement,” she adds.
Having gained strength and fitness from her swim training, Tan, who was then just six-years-old, found it easy to pick up bowling as the weight of the ball proved to be no problem. She possessed a natural flair for the sport, and she promptly made the bowling team at Methodist Girls School (MGS).
Her time at MGS came to a halt after only three years, when her parents ‘engineered’ a move for her to the Singapore Sports School, in an attempt to hone her bowling prowess. It was also difficult for Tan to participate in competitions because of the conventional system the school had – she did not manage to travel for tournaments during her first year with the team.
“I didn’t like the idea at first because I had already been in MGS for three years, and to change schools was so disruptive. But my parents kind of dragged me into Sports School. Looking back, I guess that was one of the best decisions because I managed to improve a lot,” she says.
Tan continued her education in the Sports School with the two-year diploma programme, following which she left the country to study at Wichita State University, an esteemed institution in the United States renowned for its excellent bowling programme.
But while the move to study in Wichita State University exposed her to a high level of competitive action, and in turn groomed her to become the bowler she is today, Tan says the she also grew as an individual. In fact, she claims that “having survived in the U.S. for four years and learning to become independent is my greatest achievement in life thus far.”
A self-confessed introvert, Tan has no qualms, even till today, with cooping herself at home. She says that she’s very much a “zhai nu” (female geek or otaku) who once found it difficult to initiate conversations with people she wasn’t familiar with, and that she mostly conversed exclusively with close friends.
“I was very different back then (before she went to the United States). I think the overseas experience really changed me as a person. It forced me to grow up and made me more independent. I used to hate talking to people who aren’t my friends, but being there it helped that aspect,” she shares.
Even though she was in a different country, Tan would frequently make the headlines back in Singapore with her bowling feats. She was named United States Collegiate Bowler of the Year for three consecutive seasons (2010/11, 2011/12 and 2012/13), along with several other accolades. Despite the onset of fame, Tan was surprisingly grounded, and she reckons that part of it had to do with her taciturn nature.
When asked how she managed to excel on both the sporting and academic fronts, Tan is surprisingly humble. She merely shrugs and flashes a smile before providing some comic relief: “I don’t know. I mean, I wasn’t that good of a student in primary school, secondary school and during my diploma programme. Maybe being the Asian that I am, I was naturally hardworking!”
The truth, though, was that the university had a holistic education system in place that did not allow students to compete in their respective sports if they had not reached stipulated benchmarks.
“If I didn’t achieve a certain score, I wouldn’t be able to bowl, so I worked hard on school work. I really wanted to bowl,” she reveals.
She may have started bowling from as early as five-years-old and has earned numerous gongs at the annual Singapore Sports Awards, such as five Team Meritorious Awards and an individual one, as well as getting named Sportsgirl of the Year twice in a row (2008, 2009), but Tan is still determined to succeed on the bowling lane, though she also does concede that she does feel weary at times.
“Bowling makes me happy. I really enjoy the competitive atmosphere. I mean, there are a lot of times when I get sick of bowling but I realised that if I actually do feel that way, it means that I still care for the sport. And I think that’s very important, because the day I feel nothing for bowling is the day I think I should quit,” she says.
It doesn’t seem likely that Tan is going to quit anytime soon – she reveals that she will be bowling fulltime for the foreseeable future – at least not until she has attained her ultimate goal of winning an individual Gold medal.
She adds: “Right now I just want to win more tournaments and get that number one tag. I would love to be able to win an individual Gold medal at any competition. I’m still really passionate about the sport and not reaching that ultimate target is what’s pushing me now.”
With regard to life after bowling, Tan says that she would likely explore her options in the sporting events and management field. Her parents, who are self-employed, did offer her an option of managing a family-run café or restaurant, but Tan is hopeful of putting what she studied in university – Sports Management – to good use.
“I’ve interned in a few event companies before and I really love sports, so I might go down that route. I don’t want a nine-to-five office job,” she says.
INSPIRATIONS & MUSES
Tan doesn’t seem to smile much in public. While her teammates joked among one another following their Gold medal win in the Women’s Team competition, Tan was spotted sitting alone on the bench, going through social media feeds on her mobile phone.
Having bagged Gold in the Women’s Team event, two Silvers – one from the Singles competition and another from the Women’s Trios – and a Bronze in the Individual All Round contest, Tan is the most bemedalled athlete from Singapore in this latest edition of the Asiad.
Yet, when asked how she felt about her latest accomplishment, Tan draws a deadpan face and goes, “Isn’t it Joseph Schooling? Oh. It’s me? Really? Cool.”
But while she may seem disinterested to most things, to call Tan an emotionless athlete would be far from the truth. Anyone who has watched Tan on the bowling lanes would tell you she is wildly passionate about her sport. She marks each strike with a cheer, then walks back to her teammates, high-fiving everyone with an athletic bravado. And if one is lucky enough, he might just be able to spot Tan pouting after failing to get a strike, or flash a rare smile when she does. These moments betray her apparent indifference, and as it turns out, she isn’t as aloof as she seems – one just needs to hit the right button.
And that button happens to be K-pop.
Tan instantly lights up when Korean pop bands like 21NE and Big Bang are injected into the conversation. For a 25-year-old bowling superstar who boasts having a slew of accolades under her belt, Tan displays an enchanting adolescence for someone of her status. She squeals like a teenager when talking about her favourite acts, before adding that she’s planning to catch the YG Family concert in Macau later this month.
But as fanatical as she is about her K-pop stars, the likes of G-Dragon or Rain have no place in heart as a source of inspiration. Instead, her idol is Filipino bowling legend Engelberto “Biboy“Rivera.
“He’s 40-years-old now and he’s been at the top level of competitive bowling for over 20 years. That takes a lot of discipline. To be able to be at the top of your game at such an age is commendable, plus, he’s so down to earth, and that’s a very important thing,” Tan says, with a reverent tone.
She adds: “For many people, when they get to a certain level of fame, they tend to fall into the trap where they get a little egoistic. For Biboy, however, he sets a very good example – though he has won so many awards he’s still willing to grind it out on the lanes and try to improve himself every day.
“I hope I can be like him someday, you know, to inspire others.”
And that is arguably an ironic statement – for unbeknownst to her, Tan, with her four medals and girlish charm, has already inspired a nation.