Firsthand: Woman, 40, plays rare canoe polo sport competitively, does not intend to retire soon

She talks to us about canoe polo, retiring from sports, and how one fosters a tight-knit team.

Hannah Martens | April 08, 2024, 06:30 PM



It is quite possibly the most overused cliche in sports: “Teamwork makes the dream work.”

It is the backbone of countless sports movies where the underdog team learns to set aside their differences and work together, eventually triumphing in the championships.

And it is true.

Speaking as someone who played team sports competitively for the better part of her youth, I can tell you that a good team dynamic is just as important as skill and technique.

However, it is not so easy to build one.

I played on numerous teams for different sports but instead of a dream team, I was left with trauma, courtesy of catty teammates, cliquish behaviour, and bullying.

I closed that chapter of my life thinking that perhaps I just wasn’t cut out for team sports.

Hence, I was apprehensive when I stood at Pandan Reservoir on a Sunday afternoon in the blistering heat, waiting to speak with the Singapore Women’s Canoe Polo team (they call themselves the Black Merlies) and watch them train.

What is Canoe Polo?

Canoe Polo, as described by the Singapore Canoe Federation, is a game that combines water polo, basketball, and kayaking.

It takes parts of the three games to make a fast-paced ball game that is played over two 10-minute halves.

@mothershipsg You probably didn't know, so let us tell ya. #sports #canoepolo#sgtiktok ♬ original sound - Mothership

Watching the Black Merlies train was pretty fascinating as it became apparent that this is not an easy sport to master.

Manoeuvring the canoe so effortlessly while keeping their attention on the ball requires technique and what ball players like to call “ball sense”, an instinct for where the ball would be travelling to.

Lethal and aggressive, the Black Merlies were like sharks, if sharks moved on water in sleek carbon fibre composite boats.

Gif by Hannah Martens

They were so comfortable with their paddles — which functioned as an extension of their arms — but still alert enough to drop their paddles when it’s time to catch the ball.

I was even baffled at how they caught the ball with one hand while I struggled to grasp it.

It took me a few minutes to get the ball out of the water for this photo.

A training drill.

When it was time to play a game, the Black Merlies allowed me to kick off the match.

I threw the ball into the centre of the “court” and watched as the players zipped towards it in a frenzy.


That Sunday, for three hours under the hot sun, the Black Merlies played match after match to train and hone their skills, before capping it all with a paddle out to the middle of the reservoir for a spot of endurance training like it's no big deal.

Gif made by Hannah Martens

I, on the other hand, was left with sunburns, a tan and a desperate need for a cold drink, as I prepared to speak with the oldest member of the Black Merlies, 40-year-old Ong Shu Wen.

Playing and competing at 40

Ong never really considered retiring from the sport.

Even now, when she has reached peak physical fitness, the idea of leaving the sport is a mere thought in the back of her mind.

She plans to retire only when she’s been “overtaken” by the junior players on her team.

Besides, Ong feels that she’s at the height of her mental capabilities right now and her 20 years on the national women’s team have improved her gameplay. In other words, she still has much to offer.

Having picked up canoeing in junior college, Ong wanted to try something new in university and found canoe polo, something that was new and fun.

She joined the National University of Singapore team and, a couple of years later, the Black Merlies in 2004.

She has been on the women’s national team ever since.

Ong doing a drill.

There’s one drawback about being the oldest on the team: slower recovery.

Ong shared that while her performance at training and games is still consistent, the impact from injuries is bigger and her recovery slower.

“After training, my body can feel quite battered,” she added.

But no, she does not want to compare herself with others as her competitive nature pushes her to improve.

Her only wish is to build up the juniors in the team to the point that they eventually surpass her.

“My dream is for my teammates to be so good that I am at the substitute line.”

Building the team

As the oldest, Ong is also the de facto leader who takes on the responsibilities of leadership, like peacemaking.

Conflicts and arguments are bound to happen within any team, she said.

Disagreements are inevitable and when they happen, teammates feel unhappy, but they can work it out.

Ong also relishes the challenge of finding common ground and working out issues when tackling a disagreement.

This is where a strong team culture is important, said Ong.

“We try to create a culture, a more positive culture. My mentality is that disagreement is good. When we work it out, that’s where we level up and we get a better understanding of one another from then on.”

It also helps that the Black Merlies have a policy of never bringing conflicts home, or in Ong’s words, “What happens on the court should stay on the court.”

Aside from that, Ong’s other tip is to let a team’s culture develop  in its own time, in tandem as the team matures.

The Black Merlies have come a long way since they started in 2002.

Ong (second row, third from the left) with the Black Merlies.

At their peak, the Black Merlies has 19 players on the water during training sessions.

“That’s something that we are very proud of… we want to build a team that can grow because the seniors will slowly phase out, and we want continuity.”

The growth of Canoe Polo in Singapore

Internationally, Singapore’s presence in the canoe polo scene remains strong, as the women’s team tries not to miss a single competition.

They compete regularly in the Canoe Polo World Championships and are one of the top teams in Asia.

The women first won the Asian Canoe Polo Championships in 2015 and placed second in the recent Asian Canoe Polo Championships.

In the world rankings, the Black Merlies are in 11th place. By and large, they are going from strength to strength.

But the same can’t be said of the local canoe polo community

While funding and support for the national canoe polo teams have improved, the community has dwindled over the years, Ong lamented.

After the Covid-19 pandemic, a few tertiary schools disbanded their teams, so there are now fewer teams playing the sport in schools.

This spells a problem for the Black Merlies who typically take in players when they move on from their school teams.

A dwindling number of players coming from the varsity teams means less fresh blood for the Black Merlies.

It turns out that younger folks don’t gravitate to the sport as much, and judging from the numerous pieces of equipment one needs and the fact that the Black Merlies don’t have a dedicated training space like a stadium, it’s easy to understand why.

Ong carrying her equipment to the court.

Still, Ong hopes resolutely that canoe polo in Singapore will grow with more schools participating in the sport.

“The dream is to become a CCA, and then we have such a big community that we have so many games.”

Speaking on the sporting scene in Singapore, Ong shared that while there is support, less-recognised sports tend to struggle as results are needed to gain support.

As for canoe polo on the international stage, once it is recognised as an Olympic sport, it will mean more visibility and prestige.

That is her hope.

End of the day

As we wrapped up our chat, Ong grabbed her stuff and hurried over to her teammates who were patiently waiting after training so that they could all have dinner together.

As I watched her race to the changing rooms, I thought about Black Merlies and the deep bond between teammates. I could see the team culture that Ong was so proud of, evident in the way the women supported other women and encouraged each other to push for greater heights.

Teamwork truly makes the dream work.

Top photos courtesy of Singapore Canoe Federation.