Crazy, thankful and realistic are three words that para-equestrian Maximillian Tan uses to describe himself.
They encapsulate his life thus far — an inspiring one set against a backdrop of adversity, struggle and a touch of daring.
The boyish-looking 30-year-old was born with cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects muscle tone, movement and motor skills. At the age of seven, he started therapeutic riding, while harbouring dreams to work in the creative arts because of his love for singing and acting.
But fate had other ideas.
The accidental Paralympian
What began as an enjoyable form of physiotherapy to help improve his muscle tone and balance developed into a passion that has given Mr Tan the opportunity to be a part-time para-athlete on the global stage.
Since his first competition in Melbourne in 2006, he has competed at the 2012 International Para-Equestrian Dressage Championships, the 2014 World Equestrian Games and the 2015 Fédération Equestre Internationale Para-Dressage Nations Cup.
As part of Team Singapore alongside fellow para-equestrians Laurentia Tan and Gemma Foo, he has also represented Singapore at the 2012 London Paralympics and the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. His next challenge: the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
His sports journey has been an arduous one, and will continue to be so. Mr Tan is no stranger to the rigours of competition. Injuries have become an inevitable part of his Paralympian endeavours.
He says: “I have fallen from, and been thrown off, horses. I try not to remember the injuries, but every fall is usually the result of something I did that caused the horse to behave in a certain way. It’s a lesson not forgotten easily.
“I have had injuries to almost every part of my body — and more than a few that dented my ego, for sure!”
Giving back to society
Mr Tan used to regard the prospect of competitive para-riding as “a far-fetched idea”, but today, he looks forward to more achievements and inspiring others.
And he is grateful for the strong support from his family — his parents David and Shem, and his sister Su-Lynn, a former national water polo team captain — who have been with him every step of the way.
Says Mr Tan: “I’ve heard parents and teachers telling their wards that they should aspire to be like me, not just in sports and education, but holistically. I have not let my disabilities set me back, and I focus on what I can do instead.
“Whenever someone comes up to me and compliments me, their words inspire and motivate me further.”
When he is not catching up with friends and checking out the local arts scene in his free time, he gives regular motivational talks about how he lives life to the fullest to encourage others with disabilities to lead active lifestyles. He considers service to the community as an important part of his life, and cites his parents’ efforts as a motivating factor.
His father used to volunteer as a side walker (someone who walks next to the horse to ensure the safety of a beneficiary rider) at the Riding for the Disabled Association of Singapore (RDA) and his mother helped at a not-for-profit, volunteer-based organisation, Sailability.
“They seldom spoke about the work they did, but always declared their satisfaction for helping,” he explains.
“Any form of community service is good for making a contribution, and knowing that you’re giving back. Involving yourself with your community also broadens your network and makes you more aware of what’s happening around you,” he adds.
Life’s enduring values
Mr Tan singles out resilience and courage as two of life’s most important values.
As someone whose life has constantly been filled with challenges — he could not speak till he was four, nor hold a pencil till he was nine — these values have propelled him towards sporting success.
He also attained a degree in creative producing from Chapman University in the United States.
Even then, he has been told time and again that the road ahead is a tough one.
Says Mr Tan: “It was challenging, but whatever came my way, I embraced it and attained my goals. And here I am today.
“People are scared of the unknown, but you never know what you can or cannot do until you try.”
This mindset is something he hopes today’s youth will adopt. Contrary to some naysayers, he disagrees that they do not have the resilience or discipline to pursue their dreams.
In fact, he considers them much more resilient and disciplined than previous generations, given how they grapple with more life choices, more distractions, higher expectations and a faster pace of life.
He adds: “Today’s youth must equip themselves with the ability to persevere in hard times and have the courage to forge ahead. Pursue what you want with passion, and you will find a way to contribute to society.
“Push yourself and take that risk. There will be times when you fall. When that happens, pick yourself up and try again.”