The #Strong movement is presented by the TRI-Factor Asian Championships Series

Just 1.5 years after picking up the triathlon, Nicholas Rachmadi was the first local to cross the line at last weekend’s Metasprint triathlon, and placed fourth overall among older and more experienced triathletes.

When Rachmadi took his first steps in the triathlon as a Secondary Three student, he was a demoralised national age group and inter-school medalist coming off a dismal swimming season. His swim times were stagnating. Younger athletes were catching up to him in the pool.

After the Singapore Sports school student clocked 8 minutes, 55 seconds over 2.4km for his school’s NAPFA test without any formal run training, his father, Paul Rachmadi, suggested he give triathlon a try on the car ride home. Rachmadi was initially hesitant as he was still passionate about swimming, a sport he had competed in since he was seven.

It was only after meeting his dad’s Ironman friend at a party and hearing about his experiences that Rachmadi began to seriously consider the triathlon. After a few days of contemplation, he decided to give it a shot.

“If you never try, you never know,” said Rachmadi, 16.

When his father asked the school if his son could train with the school’s distance running team, a staff replied, “Nicholas will not be able to keep up with the track and field athletes and we cannot customise a programme just for him, so he will need to get an external coach for himself.”

Instead of stopping him from making the switch to triathlon, the need to prove himself motivated Rachmadi even more.

With the help of his father and sports school alumni national triathlete Zacharias Low, Rachmadi got in touch with Eugene Lee, who previously coached triathlon at his school. Thus began his triathlon journey.

Rachmadi needed to practice his running, but he was too embarrassed to do his workouts on the school track. During his training hours, the track was occupied by the team the staff claimed he could not keep up with. Rachmadi then found a more conducive alternative: the school corridor.

For the next three months, Rachmadi would do his run workouts, which can last up to an hour, along the classrooms and the gym. Now and then, he drew curious glances from passersby. But the corridor provided a distraction-free environment where he could put in productive and focused training sessions.

To fulfill his commitment as a swim scholar, Rachmadi would then head to swim practice right after, which sometimes required an all-out effort. Not the most conducive training situation for a student-athlete forging his own path in his own sport.

“Looking back at those days, it makes me feel disappointed as it seems like I was unwanted,” said Rachmadi. “I was always alone and had no one to run with, so I had to constantly find ways to motivate myself even like imagining that I was running with a group of competitors.”

“It’s kind of saddening that no one actually believed in me back then and everyone was simply asking for results, which I didn’t even have since I had just started.”

Despite training under such conditions, Rachmadi won his first aquathlon race and the National Duathlon title for his age group.

The sweetest revenge came at the 2017 SAA cross country meet when he beat all but one of the Sports School athletes who raced. The team that he was “too slow” for. It was proof that his hard work was paying off.

Now, Rachmadi has gone to places only a few Singaporeans have been before: being selected for the Asian Triathlon Confederation training squad, competing regularly on the ASTC Asian Cup circuit, going for multiple overseas training stints, to name a few.

Rachmadi (right) with compatriot Cedric Chua (left), who topped the 20-24 age group, at the finish of Metasprint Triathlon. (Jing Zhi Chua)

His goals this season are to qualify for this year’s Youth Olympic Games and ITU World Triathlon Grand Final junior men race. He has to compete for qualification spots with other countries in Asia, including established powerhouses like Japan and Korea, as well as up and coming nations Hong Kong, China, Chinese Taipei, and the Philippines.

Finally, with his performance at the 2017 SAA cross country meet, Rachmadi’s school recognised his potential and determination and become more invested in supporting his triathlon pursuits. Besides being awarded the Merit Scholarship offered by his school, Rachmadi also enrolled into the three-year IB programme.

The extended programme, which runs an additional year instead of the usual two, is only available in five schools worldwide. More importantly, it gives Rachmadi time to arrange one-to-one make up lessons with his subject teachers before and after he goes overseas for training or competitions.

“I’m really thankful for my teachers as they would find time just to have make-up lessons with me during my free periods,” said Rachmadi. “Despite my packed schedule, they are very supportive of my sporting aspirations and they go the extra mile to ensure that my results are kept up to standard.”

Having staff members who understand the sports of triathlon in school, like Mr Jeffery Yeo (Deputy Director of Sports) and Mr Chin Khen Theen (General Manager of the Individual programme academy), also helped.

“Both of them would read my training journal and race reports, provide tips, and never fail to give me motivating comments,” said Rachmadi.

These days, he is approximating 25-30 hour training weeks, which include swimming 25km, cycling 300km, and running 25km. Rachmadi also makes sure to clock 8-10 hours of sleep every day, something impossible if not for his school’s support.

While training has translated into progress and wins at Nowra Elite Energy Tri Series and Metasprint Series this year, the student-athlete is focused on being more process-oriented, a lesson he picked up through his overseas training stints.

“At the Metasprint race, I focused on being process-oriented, like getting the swim start techniques right…it serves as mental preparation. When I toe the line at, for example, the Youth Olympic Games qualifier, I want to race without thinking about an outcome at all, but executing the processes right and being in the moment,” he said.

In the long term, his hopes are that this attitude will lead him to win a SEA Games medal, racing the world cup circuit, and ultimately, qualifying for the Olympics. He will have to navigate through more uncharted territories and overcome more unforeseen challenges.

But one thing is for sure: if he never tries, he’ll never know.

(Feature photo: Jing Zhi Chua)