THE road to being legendary is usually paved with trials, tribulations, heartbreak as well as perseverance and persistence.
Living track and field legend C. Kunalan personifies perseverance and persistence. Having a small build and a late start in sprinting didn’t stop him from becoming one of Singapore’s greatest athletes. His feat of 10.38 seconds in the men’s 100 metres during the 1968 Olympic Games was a 33-year national record. He also did Singapore proud by winning 20 medals at the Asian Games and Southeast Asian Peninsular/Southeast Asian (SEA) Games.
Beyond his illustrious track record, this veteran sportsman sets the gold standard for being a loving husband. The Successful Ageing Singapore team met the legendary Mr Kunalan and his sporting half, Madam Chong Yoong Yin, both 74, to find out how they overcome life’s hurdles together.
Mr Kunalan and Madam Chong made an unlikely couple in the 1960s where mixed-race relationships were viewed with intolerance and hostility. Their backgrounds were vastly different too – he was a kampong boy while she was a city girl.
Mr Kunalan said: “We met on the track in 1963. We were in the Swifts Athletics Club and Teachers’ Training College Athletics Club. In 1964 we went to a physical education (PE) camp and were in the same group.”
Like a marathon runner, their friendship endured and steadily developed into love.
Madam Chong added: “We enjoyed each other’s company and shared common ground as primary school teachers who both loved sports.”
They became an item in 1964 and tied the knot on 17 April 1966, but the union was not welcomed by their families. They persevered and persisted despite the objections. Thankfully, their families came round by the time their eldest daughter Soma was born a year later.
Family came first
Running was an integral part of Madam Chong’s life since primary school and she was a national sprinter too. However, the avid sportswoman readily gave up competitive running and even career advancement opportunities when the couple became parents.
She said: “I taught for close to 40 years and was offered positions like Vice-Principal and Principal. But I declined. My family came first. As everything at home was taken care of, he could focus on teaching, training and competitions.”
Mr Kunalan taught for 50 years and was an Assistant Professor at the National Institute of Education (NIE) before taking on his current role as a Senior Manager with Sport Singapore in August 2010.
And they passed on their passion for teaching to Soma and her sisters Mona and Gina, who all became educators at one point. Mona even became an athlete like her parents, representing Singapore in four SEA Games in the 1990s.
In 1997, the Kunalans experienced a health scare when Madam Chong felt dizzy during a jog with her husband. A brain scan found a tumour which was subsequently removed. It was a difficult time for the devoted couple.
Mr Kunalan said: “She underwent surgery to remove the tumour but it affected the nerves in her face. She can’t hear at all in her right ear… that’s why her right eye and mouth also droop.”
To help with his wife’s rehabilitation, he went on morning walks with her before work and returned home after his teaching commitments to accompany her while she did her exercises.
When she went back to work after her medical leave, he helped type her lesson plans for an entire year before she retired.
Still each other’s “koyok”
Today, they are proud grandparents to two young ladies and a five-year-old boy and recently celebrated their 51stwedding anniversary. They are still inseparable and address each other as “koyok,” an endearment they’ve used since their courtship days. They also like visiting Labrador Park together to enjoy the evening sea breeze.
When asked for his secret to his youthful looks, the septuagenarian said with a chuckle: “Wife’s cooking! I like all the dishes she cooks… her fish and chicken curries, as well as Chinese soups, are good.
“I exercise too; every day, I either run or walk, do chin-ups or push-ups as well as abdominal crunches. We have to play our part to stay healthy and prevent diseases. As long as I can continue working and contributing to the sector I’m in, I think that’s successful ageing.”
Check out Mr Kunalan and Madam Chong’s daily exercise routines here.
Read our previous #SportingStar story on Mr Ang Peng Siong:The making of a champion