The sight of paraplegic athlete William Tan, in skin-tight attire on a low-slung handcycle, is likely a familiar one to many people and acts as a fitness motivation for the others.
He made history in 2005 by setting a world record as the first paraplegic to finish 10 marathons in seven continents in 70 days. Over the last three decades, he has taken part in more than 100 wheelchair marathons, most of which were undertaken to raise funds for charity.
Last Friday evening, Dr Tan has again seen wheeling furiously on his handcycle along East Coast beach. But few passers-by knew that he was in the middle of a 31-hour ultramarathon, and even fewer knew it was his swansong.
“This is my last, last one. I am 61 years old already,” said Dr Tan, with a chuckle, as he spoke to The Sunday Times during a brief interlude 12 hours into the ultramarathon.
It started at 4.30am in East Coast Park last Friday and ended on the tracks of Serangoon Junior College at 11.30am yesterday.
Dr Tan hand-cycled for 31 hours to mark the 31st anniversary of Bizlink Centre in Chai Chee, a charity that serves people with disabilities, and to raise funds for it. He felt that the charity marathon would make a fitting end to his sporting life as he believed very much in Bizlink, which champions training and employment for the disabled.
“I feel strongly that there should be equal opportunities for employment for the disabled because it gives them dignity and a sense of self-worth,” he said.
Dr Tan himself did not have it easy. He was struck by polio at age two and could not walk or run. He was harassed by bullies from as early as his kindergarten days.
His resume now may be impressive – doctor, neuroscientist, civil servant, Fulbright and Raffles scholar and Paralympian. But he started off not being able to land a job for a full year after graduation.
Said Dr Tan: “Earning a living for the disabled is important because they don’t want handouts but a sustainable way of life and a sense of achievement.”
Dr Tan has raised about $38,000 from the marathon so far and this will be matched dollar for dollar by a government trust fund. The money will go towards such objectives as supporting Bizlink’s operations and its beneficiaries.
Last Friday, two wheelchair users and 20 other beneficiaries from Bizlink who have intellectual or physical disabilities joined Dr Tan in his marathon along a 300m stretch at the park.
Madam Rohani Abas, 63, was nervous about being able to keep up with Dr Tan in her wheelchair. After 10 minutes of wheeling herself alongside Dr Tan, her arms grew sore and heavy and she began lagging behind. But she managed to catch up with him towards the end.
“I want to learn from him. He is unable to walk, yet he can do so many things for others,” said the production operator who lost the use of her legs after a fall.
Dr Tan has long been a strong advocate for the disabled. As president of the Handicaps Welfare Association in 1986, he pushed for a centre that assessed and matched the disabled with jobs.
Ever the daredevil adventurer, Dr Tan’s initial idea for the fund-raising was to bungee jump in his wheelchair by the Singapore river. It was deemed too dangerous and rejected by the organisers.
So Dr Tan went back to what he was familiar with – ultramarathons. That still involved risk and required training as his doctors have urged him not to push his body to the limits, given his brush with stage 4 leukaemia back in 2009.
Since last year, Dr Tan has been training in the gym, on the roads or running track for two and a half hours daily to be in tip-top condition for the marathon. The only breaks he took during the 31-hour stretch were short runs to the toilet or to gulp down liquid meals.
Dr Tan said growing up with polio and later contracting cancer have shaped his priorities. He urged people to not merely have a bucket list but to fulfil those goals now.
After his battle with cancer, he stopped doing ultramarathons on the advice of his doctors. With cancer now about 10 years in remission, he has finally checked this charity ultramarathon off his bucket list.
Next on his list is a wedding reception for his friends and family.
“I will do it soon,” said Dr Tan with a laugh. His wife Stephanie, 54, is an operations manager. They registered their marriage eight years ago but he has been too busy to have a wedding dinner.
Said Dr Tan: “Living life to the fullest means not only chasing my own personal dreams but living a life to benefit others. That is the best legacy.”
By Janice Tai. Straits Times. Photo: Straits Times. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 25, 2018, with the headline ‘One last ultramarathon for paraplegic fund-raiser’.