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S’pore champion takes up odd jobs to cover competition costs

National fencing champion Puah Zee Cher is not someone who lets obstacles get in his way.

This tenacious spirit has helped the 23-year-old epee fencer rise from sparring partner to where he is, even though he is ineligible for competition funding from the authorities as he is not a carded athlete due to his previously low ranking.

What he has is a high threshold for hardship. So the computer science undergrad at the Singapore Institute of Management has no qualms juggling studies with training and odd jobs such as dishwashing or waiting tables to pay for his expenses for overseas competitions.

Puah had wanted to compete on the 2023 World Cup circuit, hoping to improve by sparring against the world’s best.

But, as he was ranked No. 28 in Singapore then, he did not meet the requirement. Only the top 12 get opportunities for international competitions, but he asked Fencing Singapore for a slot whenever someone had to miss the trip.

Even then, Puah faced another challenge – money. After his parents footed half of the expenses for his first World Cup competition in Bern, Switzerland in November 2023, he has been funding his competition expenses, which ranged between $2,000 and $4,000 per trip.

He took up a part-time coaching job, but it was not enough. So he also found odd jobs at fast-food joints via an app. This pays $12 to $18 per hour, earning him about $40 to $150 for each shift.

“I did a lot of dishwashing and waitering,” said Puah, who also had a stint as a clinic assistant.

Puah chose to take on odd jobs this way as it is more flexible compared to giving tuition, which requires more commitment.

With the added income, he went on two more trips – the Grand Prix in Doha in January and the Heidenheim World Cup in Germany the following month.

While competing in the team event alongside Si To Jian Tong and Simon Lee in Germany, he lost two matches but beat France’s reigning Olympic champion Romain Cannone.

Boosted by this feat, he won the national championship at home in March, improving on his runner-up finish in 2023.

Puah said: “I gained quite a bit of experience facing the strongest fencers in the world.

“And when I came back to compete at the national championships, I felt that if I could beat the fencers overseas, I could beat those here.”

His local ranking has since risen to No. 3, behind Si To and Lee. He is hoping to keep up his good showing so that he can be carded as a national athlete during the SEA Games selection period from September 2024 to May 2025.

While admitting that it is “very, very, very tiring” to have to work, train and study, Puah said he has little choice.

He said: “I work on rest days when I should be recovering from training. I’m certain I can perform better if I had adequate rest, but it’s not possible at the moment because I need money for competitions.”

Fencing Singapore’s technical director Marko Milic said: “Problem right now is that the system we have doesn’t recognise these kinds of efforts that somebody is putting in place.

“He just missed the window by a bit and we have sent the nomination (to be carded) for him, but there are very strict rules from Sport Singapore. He didn’t have enough data points for the cut.”

Milic added that he had seen Puah’s name previously in his six years here, but he was “never close” to being a national fencer at age-group level.

“Usually, if you don’t do well at the cadet and junior level, then there’s almost no chance you will be representing at the senior level,” said the Serb.

“For somebody who is not funded at all, washing dishes to make it possible and to come to this level, that for me is something.”

Puah, who flew to France on May 14 for his next international competition, is aiming for a SEA Games gold medal.

He said he will keep going, unless he has to support his family financially. He added: “Even if I stop competing, I’ll still fence.”