Athlete to airwoman

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25 Apr 2023 | PEOPLE

Athlete to airwoman

From somersaulting and hitting marks on the floor to guiding fighter jets in locating and hitting their targets, this former national gymnast continues to soar as an airwoman.

// Story by Benita Teo // Photos by Chai Sian Liang & courtesy of LTA Dai

English 华文

Former national artistic gymnast and Southeast Asian (SEA) Games medalist Lieutenant (LTA) Janessa Dai traded her springboards and balance beams for radars and headsets to become an Air Warfare Officer (Air Battle Management) [AWO (ABM)] in the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF).

PIONEER catches up with the 25-year-old, who recently returned from overseas studies at the University of California and is now at 201 Squadron, and finds out why she made the leap of faith going from athlete to airwoman!

LTA Dai traded her gymnastics gear for blue fatigues when she joined the RSAF as an AWO (ABM).

Hi LTA Dai, tell us how you got started in gymnastics!

LTA Dai: I was a very active kid who liked climbing and jumping around. But I was also very shy and quiet, so my parents thought it would be good for me to pick up gymnastics so that I could expend my energy and get out of my shell.

I started training at a club when I was seven and joined my primary school's team (St Nicholas Girls' School) in primary three.

It was in primary six that I began to take the sport seriously and opted to go to Nanyang Girls' High School via the Direct School Admission. That same year, the national team was calling up gymnasts for selection. I went for the selection, passed the trials and got into the team. I began training with the national team in secondary one.

LTA Dai's favourite event is the floor exercise as it gives her the freedom to express herself through tumbling and dance moves.

What do you love about gymnastics?

LTA Dai: I really enjoy the feeling of flying and flipping around, I find it exhilarating and exciting! I'm also not afraid of falling or getting hurt. It also gave me the chance to meet different people from different schools and get me out of my shell. I just fell in love with the sport.

LTA Dai’s parents got her started in gymnastics because she was an active kid who was not afraid of falling or getting hurt.

Which is your pet event?

LTA Dai: I competed in the All Around, which comprises four events: floor exercise, balance beam, uneven bars and vault. But my favourite is the floor exercise. I love the freedom that tumbling gives me. In floor exercise, there's music and choreography. Not only do I get to tumble and show off my gymnastic abilities, I can also express myself through dance, which I also enjoy.

I enjoy training for beam as well, but it's not as fun to compete in. Plus, you're restricted to that one plane on the beam, and it's quite high so it's kind of scary.

As a national gymnast, LTA Dai competed in the All Around event which comprises four apparatuses, including the balance beam (pictured).

What are some of the competitions you've participated in?

LTA Dai: In gymnastics, we turn senior at 16 and can start taking part in bigger competitions. My first major competition was the World Cup in Doha in 2014. I also participated in international competitions like the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships, Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championships and Asian Games.

My most memorable competition was the 2014 Commonwealth Games held in Glasgow, Scotland. We did pretty well – we were 7th for the team event and I placed 18th for the All Around Individual. It was one of my first major competitions and was an eye-opener: the competition arena was big and the crowd was huge. They were very supportive of all the participants, regardless of where we were from.

I even got recognised on the street! People just came up and told me, "Good job on the competition yesterday!" It inspired me to keep going on.

LTA Dai (second from left) with the SEA Games 2015 team. She led the team of debutants in clinching the silver medal.

You also led the national team in the 2015 SEA Games when you were just 17!

LTA Dai: The 2015 SEA Games was the biggest competition in Singapore that I participated in. I was also the team captain. I was in Year 1 of Junior College then.

It was daunting because the entire team, including myself, were all debutants competing in our very first SEA Games. There was a lot of pressure on us because the team had won gold at the last few Games.

It was a very worthwhile experience that taught me a lot. As captain, I had to manage not only the team but also my teammates' parents and the coaches. But I was very proud of us, because the lead-up had been very exhausting: we took time off from school to train full days, and we lived away from our families in the Games village. We eventually clinched the team silver.

LTA Dai executing her floor routine at the SEA Games 2015. On top of clinching her first Games medal, LTA Dai was happy to see her friends and fellow Singaporeans turn up to cheer for the team.

It was very heart-warming to see the Singaporeans who came to support us – their cheers were so loud! My friends also came to support me. After the competition, we got to meet our little fans, some of whom were starting out in gym.

I remember one parent telling me: "My kid is also called Janessa and she wants to be like you!" It was very heart-warming and it made everything worthwhile.

LTA Dai (seated) working with Military Expert 1 Chelsea Simran Samuel, an Air Operations & Systems Expert, to provide real-time control of air assets from the Air-Land Tactical Control Centre.

Why did you make that switch to join the military?

LTA Dai: In junior college I began thinking about what I wanted to do as a career. All my friends wanted to be doctors and lawyers, but that wasn't for me. I wanted something that wasn't deskbound and, more importantly, was meaningful and served a bigger purpose.

I was representing Singapore as a gymnast and felt it would be meaningful to carry on this form of service by protecting the nation. I signed on in April 2017, shortly after my 'A' Levels.

LTA Dai (second row, third from right) at her BMT graduation parade in June 2017.

Why the RSAF? I enjoy gymnastics because I like the feeling of flying and freedom, so the air force seemed like it would suit me perfectly. As AWOs (ABM), we control aircraft to provide timely, accurate and responsive air power for the RSAF.

I'm too short to be a pilot, but as a controller, even though I'm not physically in the air, I'm still contributing directly to Singapore's air defence. I'm currently undergoing training to learn to manage the airspace and work together with our aircrew in achieving our missions safely and successfully.

LTA Dai (third from right) at her Officer Cadet Commissioning Parade in May 2018 with (from left) her parents, younger sister, aunt and uncle. Although initially surprised by her decision to sign on, LTA Dai's parents were supportive and quickly came round when they saw her doing well in her training.

How did your family react to your decision to join the RSAF?

LTA Dai: My mum told me that she thought I was joking, until I took her to the Central Manpower Base to sign my contract! I've had an interest in biology since I was young, so my parents always thought I would become a doctor or something similar. In fact, I did my degree in Molecular Cell and Developmental Biology.

So when I brought up my decision to sign on with the RSAF, they were like, "…why?" (laughs) It was only after I had signed on, and they saw that I was doing well in Basic Military Training (BMT) and Officer Cadet School, that they were convinced that I was serious.

Adjusting to military life was easy for LTA Dai as gymnastics had instilled in her qualities like discipline and resilience.

Was it difficult adjusting to military life?

LTA Dai: The transition to military life was actually quite smooth because gymnastics training instilled discipline in me. My personal goal was to do well in school (in addition to sports) and that took a lot of discipline on my part.

We used to train for long hours almost every day and, between school and training, I didn't have a lot of time left, so I had to prioritise my homework and studying for exams. It was also easy to get into a routine, like waking up early.

Gymnastics also taught me to perform under pressure, especially in front of big crowds and under scrutiny (of judges). It trained me to set aside everything and focus on the task at hand. When I'm controlling aircraft, it's crucial to focus on the mission, maintain situational awareness and not be distracted by external factors.

LTA Dai (on the uneven bars) training together with the girls from her coach's club. She hopes to inspire the next generation of young gymnasts to grow and develop their skills.

What's next for you?

LTA Dai: Right now, my focus is on my training in the RSAF. Gymnastics-wise, I'm training recreationally and maintaining my skills.

Since coming back from my studies, I started training in my coach's club together with girls who are in primary and secondary school. I realised that I really enjoyed interacting with them and guiding them or offering advice.

It's meaningful, especially when they watch me train and I tell them that they can be like me one day. I hope I can inspire the next generation and see them succeed. I want the local gymnastics community to expand and develop!

Watch this flippin' talented gymnast in action!

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