The love story of Singapore badminton players Derek Wong, 25, and Vanessa Neo, 27, nearly did not happen when Wong was rejected the first time.
Neo, who left Raffles Junior College to join the national squad in 2004, said: “I’m older and I wasn’t sure if I could accept someone younger. I was afraid of what others might say.”
However, Wong did not give up and continued to pursue the love of his life.
She decided to follow her heart and accepted him the second time he asked. They have since been together for seven years, with plans for marriage after Wong proposed to her last December.
“I wasn’t expecting the proposal, to be honest,” Neo said. “We do talk about our future and I told him our focus now is on the Olympics in 2016, so anything related to marriage will be after (that).”
To that, Wong said with a grin” “No harm ‘booking’ her first! I planned for this proposal since the start of 2013 and because we see each other so often, it was not easy to keep it from her.”
Both of them first knew each other when they were training at the Singapore Badminton Association. Neo was 12 and Wong was 10, but Wong had no recollection of seeing her.
The second son of 1983 SEA Games badminton men's champion Wong Shoon Keat and former national player Irene Lee, Wong was introduced to the sport at a young age of five and is now Singapore’s top shuttler.
His father was strict with him then, so he seldom went out and spent most of his time training.
He and Neo became close friends later when they played for the youth team. They started dating in 2007 when he joined the national squad full-time.
Training two times daily for six days a week, the couple see each other very often. Wong said: “We don’t face the challenges of the average couple who needs to find time to meet their partners after a long day at work.”
Some couples are unable to deal with seeing their partners too frequently, but that is not a problem with this couple.
Neo said: “Being in the same sport definitely helps the relationship and keeps it going. We can understand each other better as we go through similar things. For example, if our training hits a plateau or we win something, we can relate to it completely. We also encourage each other through bad days and celebrate the joy of good times together.”
Even when there is friction, knowing that they have to face one another, they will work to solve the problem immediately instead of avoiding it or leaving it to later.
The two admitted that they are very competitive, even “outside of the court”.
Neo said with a laugh: “We don’t want to lose. We can be playing games on the iPad or just mahjong, but we will fight to the end to win. No party will give in and it can get tiring sometimes, but that’s just the way we are.”
Wong and Neo became close friends later when they played for the youth team. They started dating in 2007. Photo: Cheryl Tay
EYE ON THE OLYMPICS
The focus now is on the Rio De Janeiro Olympics in 2016, and any wedding plans will be discussed after that.
Neo is ranked 11th in the world with Danny Bawa Chrisnanta in the mixed doubles category. Most recently, they reached the quarter finals of the 2014 OUE Singapore Open before going down against China’s Bao Yi Xin and Liu Cheng.
Wong is 39th in the men’s singles category. He failed to beat Sai Praneeth Bhamidipati in the second round of the OUE Singapore Open in April. His biggest win so far was defeating world number 19, Indonesia’s Dionysius Rumbaka, at the German Open in February.
Neo confessed that it would be tough to qualify for one of the 16 spots in the Olympics, but is aiming to take a medal back. This may be a crucial turning point for Neo as the results will determine if she would continue playing full-time. “I will see how it goes. Definitely we hope to do well, otherwise I may step down and do part-time studies while coaching,” she said.
Cheryl Tay first established herself in the world of cars and motorsports. A female in a male-dominated world, Cheryl is one of the few female motoring journalists in Singapore and writes for prominent titles locally and internationally. She is also a huge fitness freak and enjoys working out as much as she does writing about fitness. More of her at www.cheryltay.sg or @cheryltay11 on Instagram.