‘I was having panic attacks, blackouts’: Singapore shooter Adele Tan’s story of struggle and bravery
HANGZHOU – Adele Tan’s mask is off and she is weeping.
“Sorry,” says the Olympic shooter as she dabs her eyes, but there is nothing to be sorry about. Not when she’s being so brave. Not when she’s peeling back her world and revealing the struggles with self-worth which afflict so many athletes.
The mask is what athletes wear in the arena. Their faces are stoic, but it camouflages the whole truth. Behind that toughness lies a vulnerability. For every athlete shining, another is suffering.
And this is what Tan, now a cheerful, confident shooter who competed in the 50m rifle three positions (3P) event in the Asian Games, wants to speak about. Her “panic attacks” and “blackouts before competition” of a year ago. Her long, hard journey from anxiety to happiness which finally brought with it a valuable lesson.
Be “kind to yourself”.
Tan’s story began in 2021 when she returned from the Tokyo Olympics where she had qualified for the 10m air rifle. She should have taken a long break but the SEA Games were approaching in 2022 and she pushed on. It was the start of a cascade of unfortunate circumstances.
“I was in the start of my university,” she explains. “I always wanted to major in psychology. Because I was focusing so much in training, I could not qualify for the psychology programme.”
“So I was facing a lot of difficulty back then. And somehow after the Olympics, in the air rifle event I can’t shoot my usual training standard.”
Pressure nags and it corrodes. Pressure to shine again. Pressure to perform like an Olympian. “I kept quiet for two years. I was facing a lot of pressure, but I didn’t know how to express myself. Like, I thought I had to keep everything together because I was an Olympian.”
Then at the Hanoi SEA Games, the pressure told.
“I didn’t even make the final. It was the worst performance in my career. And I had to deal with a lot of repercussions after that. It was a lot of things to handle. Like people were asking, why can’t I perform? I am supposed to perform well, I’m an Olympian. Why didn’t I even make the finals?
Questions that hurt, questions which had consequences.
“So in subsequent local competitions, before my shoots, I was having panic attacks, I blacked out. My ears would ring. And one day I couldn’t take it any more. And my coach also found out and I decided to step away from the competition scene for three to four months.
“And that’s when I decided to be very honest with my sports psychologist. I just told him the truth. So the moment I decided to seek professional help, things got a little bit better.”
A dangerous stereotype of athletes is built through the words we use about them. Invincible. Unstoppable. In this environment, weakness is smirked at and so athletes lock up their distress. Tan used to think, “I have to keep everything together, I am supposed to keep everything together. That was my mindset.” As if athletes aren’t allowed to be human.
But her psychologist Harry Lim and her coach Kirill Ivanov were her allies with a reassuring message. They told her there was no rush. They said there was always another Olympics down the road. “They have helped me a lot. They have changed my mindset.”
Tan has decided to speak out for multiple reasons. Firstly, she heard The Straits Times’ Angela Lee video interview which affected her. Secondly, in June she had travelled to Jakarta for a training camp and met her friend, a shooter from another country who was in distress.
“The exact same situation happened to her and it was even worse for her because she couldn’t seek any help. We were having mood swings, insomnia... and I told her if you’re so unhappy, maybe you should take a break from it. I’m not sure if she listened ... but I realised more and more people are facing the same situation as me. That was why I decided it’s time to say something about it.”
An athlete’s health is fundamental. It’s why anyone plays sport to begin with. Fun might leak away occasionally but it shouldn’t ever vanish. Challenge must provoke but not be punishing. All this we forget, till athletes – Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps – remind us their world isn’t some fairy-tale planet.
On our video call, the gentle Tan reflected on what she had learnt. “I just felt that there was a certain standard I had to perform to every single time and if I didn’t perform to the standard I would be extremely hard on myself.” Athletes can be unforgiving with themselves, but her psychologist gently guided her in another direction. “I’m kinder to myself,” she says.
She also learnt that where she finishes in a competition does not reflect who she is. “I just felt like my self-worth was based on my results, and my achievements... But now that I have separated them ... I realised that actually I’m a very worthy person.”
Tan has switched to the 50m rifle 3P event and in Hangzhou she began with a below-par 92/100 but it was fine. No panic. No sweat. She just replied with a 98, 98, 98, 95 and 96. She has rescued herself in every way, mostly by speaking to her psychologist and coach, but not every athlete has such resources. And so as Singapore sport builds, this must remain a priority. Always we have to know how our athletes are doing. Silence is a defeating and dangerous position.
It’s been a draining conversation for Tan, but the shooter ends with a smile. Her truth has been a gift, for some athletes in Singapore will read her words and nod quietly in assent. It’s important for them to know they’re not alone.
Stress can make athletes hate a sport, but Tan has revived herself. Do you still love shooting?
“Yeah,” she replied. “I realised I love it.”