TODAY Online - Family power lifts Kalai ahead of Para Games

Ex-Army officer aims to compete in the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro

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The 8th ASEAN Para Games will be held here from Dec 3-9, with some 1,500 athletes from 11 countries competing for honours. As Team Singapore readies for the battle on home ground, TODAY takes a closer look at each of the 15 sports that will be contested, and the inspirational stories behind the local athletes participating in them. The focus today is on powerlifting.

It is not hard to spot fitness trainer Kalai Vanen in a crowded room. Standing at 1.83m and tipping the scales at 96.5kg, the 56-year-old cuts an imposing figure at the gym he trains at in Fengshan.

Kalai, however, is not your typical gym buff.

When he was 22, doctors discovered a tumour in his left leg. And after seven agonising years, the former Army officer had no choice but to have the limb amputated.

But that setback has not stopped Kalai from enjoying a fulfilling life. Having come to terms with his disability, the Arnold Schwarzenegger fan has made sure to maintain his fitness levels. And not unlike a bottle of fine wine, Kalai has been growing stronger with age.

It is why Kalai’s good friend Raja Singh, who is also Team Singapore’s Chef de Mission for the eighth edition of the ASEAN Para Games (APG), invited him to represent the country in powerlifting at the Dec 3-9 showpiece.

When TODAY asked what made him take up the offer, Kalai replied with a hearty laugh: “Because he (Raja) asked me nicely. At that time we didn’t have any representation in powerlifting for the APG. The country needed a powerlifter and since they asked me, I took it as a form of national service and gave it a try.

“But I also told Raja that, at my age of 56, I needed a coach who can take care of my back. I didn’t want to go into a sport and end up getting hurt. He gave me the reassurance that it wouldn’t happen, so I agreed.”

Kalai, who will be entered in the 97kg category, is one of two Singaporean powerlifters who will take part in this year’s APG. Team-mate Melvyn Yeo, 30, will compete in the 65kg category.

While both only picked up the sport in February, they have already made incredible progress in the short period of time. The two train four times a week under coach Muhammad Hidayat, with each session lasting about four hours.

And Kalai has reaped the rewards of his hard work. From lifting 100kg at the start, he is now able to lift 155kg with ease. But, with the benefit of homeground support, he is hoping to surpass the 170kg mark during the APG.

“I have a specific target that my coaches have set,” he said. “But hopefully, with the crowd cheering me on, I’ll be able to exceed that. It’s putting everything I learn, my training, the mental preparations and homeground advantage together.

“Of course, the aches and pain of training don’t go away easily. But I just keep focusing on the things that are important, such as making my country and family proud when the Para Games is here.”

Kalai was one of the five para-athletes featured in an APG promotional music video — titled Ordinary — which was released recently by Sport Singapore. Thanks to it, he has been receiving a lot more support from members of the public than in the past. Sometimes, people even stop him on the street to offer words of encouragement. But none of that support can compare with what he receives from his family.

“My wife and children have been my greatest moral support,” he said. “My children, a son and a daughter, are the more vocal supporters. Both are studying overseas but they still keep in touch with me regularly to cheer me on.

“My wife is not that much of a vocal supporter. But I know she supports me from the things she does for me every day. Simple things like preparing my food for the day, folding my T-shirts and getting ready for me whatever I need for my training. It shows me how much she cares.”

While training for the APG remains Kalai’s main focus for now, he is already eyeing a bigger prize in the near future: Qualifying for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Making the Rio Games would be a remarkable achievement for someone who is still considered new to the sport. But having had his fair share of experience in taking on what he calls “life’s curve balls”, Kalai is confident the lofty target is within his reach.

“Past the APG, it’ll be time for me to prepare for the Paralympics,” he revealed. “The Para Games is just one stop towards that objective. I think it’s within range, because we have a few other qualifying events that’s coming up in December and January. So I’m aiming to secure a place during those meets.

“Nobody can determine if anything is possible or impossible. Yes, if I didn’t have the training, it’ll be impossible. But now that I do, I have the belief in myself and I won’t give up on my dream. After all, nobody can set a limit on someone else, or decide what you can or can’t do. The only person who can do that is yourself.”


Powerlifting is open to male and female athletes with any of the following eight physical impairments - impaired muscle power, impaired passive range of movement, limb deficiency, leg length difference, short stature, hypertonia, ataxia, and athetosis. The athlete must have the ability to fully extend the arms, with no more less than 20 degrees of extension in either elbow, and perform an approved lift. All eligible athletes compete in one sport class, but in different weight categories.


- The bench press is the sport’s single discipline, with 10 different categories based on body weight. Men compete in the 49kg, 54kg, 59kg, 65kg, 72kg, 80kg, 88kg, 97kg, 107kg and +107kg divisions while women compete in the 41kg, 45kg, 50kg, 55kg, 61kg, 67kg, 73kg, 79kg, 86kg and +86kg divisions.

- Competitors must lower the bar to the chest, hold it motionless on the chest and then press it upwards to arms length with locked elbows. When held motionless in this position the audible signal “rack” shall be given. An immediate decision will be given by the three referees through a system of white and red lights. - Athletes are given three attempts and the winner is the one who lifts the highest number of kilogrammes. If an athlete wishes to make an attempt in order to achieve a record, they can make a fourth attempt.

- In a tie, the person who weighs the least, wins.

About Team Singapore: The team consist of Kalai Vanen (97kg) and Melvyn Yeo (65kg).

Source: TODAY Online

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