By Faith Wan (23S02B)
On February 6 this year, Dr William Tan, a neuroscientist and Paralympian, added another record to his lengthy list of achievements: being the first person to complete seven marathons across seven continents in seven days, in a wheelchair.
After 50 years of wheelchair racing, this challenge was his swansong. In addition to raising funds for seven charities, the 66-year-old Rafflesian also graciously dedicated the last leg of his race to RI200, Raffles Institution’s bicentenary.
To find out more about Dr Tan’s unique experiences, I speak to him over a Zoom call. Still donning his N95 mask, Dr Tan joins us at 9pm from his oncology clinic where he had just wrapped up for the day.
The word “challenge” is definitely no stranger to Dr Tan.
Being paralysed from the waist down after contracting polio when he was two, Dr Tan quickly decided that he would not let his condition stand in the way of his aspirations: he would be the writer of his own destiny.
He shares that one of the lowest points in his life was when he was diagnosed with stage 4 leukaemia and given 9 to 12 months left to live, after bleeding from the nose during a race in Paris. “I was very devastated,” Dr Tan remarks. As a doctor whose daily job involved looking after others, he found it hard to come to terms with his own condition.
Even after successfully completing his chemotherapy treatment with a success rate of 10%, he faced yet another hurdle when the bone marrow donated by his sister was rejected, leaving his joints weak and body frail.
This year, Dr Tan celebrates his 14th year of remission from leukaemia. Throughout his battle with leukaemia, his family was his greatest anchor. He fondly recalls his wife bringing him homecooked food during his stays in the hospital and quips that his relationship with his sister had improved tremendously.
After competing in his first marathon in 1980, Dr Tan spent arduous years perfecting his racing skills and eventually became part of the first Singaporean contingent to participate in the 1988 Seoul Paralympic Games.
Even though he was in and out of the hospital during his cancer treatment and was advised not to strain his body by his oncologists, Dr Tan took matters into his own hands by bringing his own dumbbells to the hospital. Defiant against the odds given to him, he even pushed himself to complete rounds of the stadium track.
“I would go to chemotherapy, sleep, eat, and repeat the cycle over and over again. I hated it.” — Dr Tan, on why he continued training during his cancer treatment. It was his undying passion for racing that kept the sense of hope alive in him. To him, chemotherapy was simply something standing between him and his sport.
Due to how taxing wheelchair racing could be on his body, for a period of time, Dr Tan stopped competing and instead joined the national Para table tennis team, and even bagged a bronze medal at the 2013 ASEAN Para Games in the men’s doubles.
But for Dr Tan, wheelchair racing has been and remains his greatest passion. He returned to wheelchair athletics in 2015, where he gave his best effort in the 200m race. Despite the age gap between him and his youngest opponent being forty years, he placed fourth and even set a personal best.
When he was invited to participate in the World Marathon Challenge in 2017, he had still been in the midst of his battle with cancer and had to decline. Hence, this year’s challenge manifested itself as something Dr Tan had to tick off his bucket list.
From the frigid winds and snowy terrain of Antarctica to the sweltering heat of Miami, this challenge was the ultimate test of endurance and pushed his body to its very limit.
Adding on to the sheer exhaustion of covering 295km within a week, Dr Tan also struggled with jet lag, only being able to sleep on planes, as most of his time was spent shuttling between locations. Having no sponsorships, he had the extra burden of handling all the logistics himself, including bringing extra racing equipment.
Things went south during the fifth race in Madrid, Spain, when Dr Tan’s racing wheelchair broke. Forced to use his daily wheelchair for the last two races in Fortaleza, Brazil and Miami, Dr Tan admitted there were moments when he thought of giving up.
“It was hard to control the direction [of the wheelchair], and I even went out of bounds into traffic lanes because of this.” Still, he pushed through, citing a few reasons.
Dr Tan is adamant that the race is not about personal glory, stressing that it was always for the nation, the 7 charities he was raising funds for, and the message he hoped to impart to the public—“Dare to dream.”
Over the decades, Dr Tan has championed various causes and charities both local and international, including The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund, the Singapore Disability Sports Council, and charities in the UK and Malaysia in supporting cancer research.
One of his biggest aims is to “inspire and nurture the young”. Fittingly, since 2016, he has also been the program director for the MindChamps Enrichment Academy. He also gives talks to students and hosts webinars where he shares his journey.
One of his greatest wishes is for parasport and its able-bodied counterpart to be held in the same venue and event. “We are not second-class athletes, in fact, we train even harder [than able-bodied athletes].”
Dr Tan believes that there is still much room for the growth of parasports, which hinges on public perception and attitudes. He also mentions the disparity in monetary awards for para-athletes and able-bodied athletes as something that nags at him and makes him “uncomfortable”.
Throughout his life, Dr Tan has held RI’s motto of “Auspicium Melioris Aevi”, Latin for “Hope of a Better Age”, close to his heart. His years in RI had instilled in him the mindset of “servants today, leaders tomorrow” and what it means to be a driver of change in society.
He is the prime example of what being a Rafflesian entails: someone with a heart eager to serve and the determination to conquer life’s challenges.
Dr Tan has maintained his connection with his alma mater over the years, such as by organising and participating in events like ultramarathons held in the school’s own stadium. As a small gesture, he even planted the RI200 flag amidst the snow after the Antarctic race.
Beyond his multiple world records and lengthy list of achievements, Dr Tan expresses that his humbler hope is to “set an example for young Rafflesians”. His story of tenacity and grit certainly has.