The COVID-19 pandemic has affected billions of people around the world through lockdowns, economic impacts and perhaps even the infliction of close ones with the virus itself. As people worry and struggle, millions of essential workers, including many from the rowing family, have courageously served to keep communities alive, nourished and protected.

Over the next few weeks, World Rowing will bring you some of their stories, how the virus affected their lives and their training and how they look toward the future. This story is about Joan Poh.

Poh had taken time away from work to train in Melbourne, Australia, hoping to benefit from what she calls ‘the rowing ecosystem’ there – the spring racing series, facilities and more.

“I was hoping that my qualification for the Tokyo Olympics, would allow some recognition and catalyse the growth of the sport locally,” Poh says.

But as the pandemic began to spread and the situation worsened, Poh was forced to change plans. Country borders were being closed and travel bans started coming into effect. Poh decided that it was best for her to return home to Singapore and continue training under the remote guidance of her Melbourne-based coach.

“During this time, my hospital in Singapore, the Tan Tock Seng Hospital, which was in the epicentre of our local pandemic management, reached out to enquire about my plans moving forward with the Olympics now postponed and qualifiers cancelled,” Poh explains.

She says that her colleagues were already being mobilised and the hospital staff’s leave had been cancelled.

“As a nurse, I was also beginning to feel a growing sense of responsibility and need to return to work to help in any way I could,” Poh says. “In the face of a disease outbreak in Singapore, I felt compelled to shelve my (rowing) pursuit and dream for a bit and return to the hospital to contribute and give back because my hospital has really been supportive beyond what I could have ever asked for from an employer in the past years of my sports pursuit.”

Poh returned to work at the hospital, serving in the acute peritoneal dialysis area and trying to keep-up with what she calls the ever-changing work processes and instructions due to the pandemic. Despite working full-time in a stressful, essential job, Poh has managed to stay positive.

“My plan right now is to keep living in the moment, control the controllables and keep on doing ‘the next right thing’,” she says, quoting the animated film Frozen 2.

“When I am at work, I will put on my scrubs and be the best nurse I can be for my patient, to touch every life I come into contact with, literally and figuratively. One person at a time. When I put on my training attire to go about my daily 5km run or sit myself on the ergometer, I will be the most present and give my best in each stride or stroke, so as to best prepare for when we hear the next news or rising opportunity.”

Poh’s training has been severely limited by the pandemic and she is not sure what this will mean for her future in rowing. Living in one of the most densely populated areas in the world, space in Singapore is extremely restricted. Luckily, she managed to secure a storage room across the street from her apartment and some gym equipment from her rowing club before everything shut down. Poh says she will train in public, on her ergometer, being lit up by passing buses.

“While it is still challenging to achieve some days, shelving my sporting aspiration during this time feels like the right thing to do,” Poh says.

But perhaps the most inspiring from this young, essential worker, is her relentless belief in hope and the human spirit.

“I also deeply believe that where there is hopelessness, therein lies hopefulness too. This has been a strange but special time for us. Amidst all of the panic and uncertainties, there’s been so much outpouring of kindness and togetherness. While the economy and jobs took hits, we saw nature show signs of healing for the first time in a long time,” says Poh.

According to Poh, sometimes even the smallest actions, or inactions are enough.

“I deeply believe that we will heal.  There are people like you and I and many more others who are not brought down by this pandemic but instead, go on to find means and ways to continue to serve, to continue to keep abreast of what may be going around the world, to in our small but non negligible ways go on to bring hope and positivity to everyday life, one person, one community at a time.”