Over the last weekend of October 2018, Team Firefly, which consists of Kyra Poh, 16, and Choo Yi Xuan, 17, prepare for their tie-breaker in the speed routine in a dynamic two-way event. Currently at a draw with the French team, Kyra and Yi Xuan have to perform certain moves in the fastest time possible. Earlier, Kyra scored a silver in the Solo Freestyle Open category as did Yi Xuan for the Solo Freestyle Junior category. This is her foray and win at a world-level competition. As always, Team Firefly says a quick prayer and high-ten each other before the women, the tension hiding behind their smiles, exchange nods as they rush into the vertical tube of roaring rushing wind. They won, of course. In a 0.77 second lead ahead of France, Team Firefly clinched the gold in 56.83 seconds at the third Federation Aeronatique International (FAI) World Cup in Bahrain.
CHOO YI XUAN: “We have been a team for almost eight years and this is our first major win as a team. It was real emotional. Before the competition…”
KYRA POH: “We thought we did our best. Even before the results were announced, my mom started crying and Yi Xuan started crying when she saw her crying.”
CHOO YI XUAN: “We all had a good cry.”
Kyra shows me a video of the exact moment when they were announced as the winners. They hug each other, the tears flowing freely.
Their win isn’t easy. In fact, nothing in their indoor skydiving career was handed to them on a platter. Before FAI, the pair were at the Asiania Championship and their training occurred during their examinations. But what made their win all the more miraculous is the sheer determination exhibited by teenagers. Maybe it’s the unfair label that the younger generation inherited: that they are entitled, hands out for a charitable payout. Maybe it’s the yawning gulf of our age gap that revealed our priorities at 16 (“Was I ever this ambitious?” “Did I ever excel at anything on a worldwide scale?”).
Out of their uniforms, Kyra and Yi Xuan look like your run-of-the-mill teenagers. They use words like ‘uncle’ when they refer to a family friend or words like ‘like’. They converse in the quaint shorthand of teenspeak that leans to the side of awkward, probably because there’s a nosey adult in front of them shoving a recorder in their face.
It’s an oft-told tale about their enduring friendship: in 2011, Kyra, then aged 10, and Yi Xuan, then aged 11, met at a swim club. One day, when they were done with classes, Yi Xuan’s father was late to pick her up. Kyra’s father didn’t think that Yi Xuan should be left to her own devices and suggested she join him and Kyra to meet Kyra’s mother, who was filming a commercial for a vertical wind tunnel on Sentosa.
Called iFly Singapore, the indoor skydiving simulator wasn’t open to the public but Kyra’s mother, Carolyn, was holding a try-out for friends and family to be in the video. Kyra and Yi Xuan had never seen anything like it before. Through the display, they saw people suspended in midair before they somersaulted or glided against the wall. Kyra was supposed to fly in the vertical wind tunnel and she convinced Yi Xuan to join her. Seeing their stints in the wind tunnel Lawrence Koh, iFly Singapore’s founder, asked if they could perform at the opening ceremony. It was the perfect showcase: the cuteness of children having fun in a safe environment. Carolyn has a relatively endearing term for them: ‘show monkeys’.
But later, the show monkeys would hear about the Skydiving World Championships and enter it; that was when they started to be serious about the sport.
CHOO YI XUAN: Our schoolmates and teachers are very supportive of what we do. Once in a while, our close friends will casually joke, ‘eh, indoor skydiver’.
ESQ: You’re speaking for yourself, right?
CHOO YI XUAN: Yeah but I’m sure it’s the same for Kyra.
KYRA POH: People are very interested because it’s such a new sport. For my school [SOTA], it’s nice that they are supportive, even though what I do isn’t an art form. People can’t wrap their heads around the fact that I’m enrolled in an art school and I’m doing something that’s sports-related. It’s cool that my school supports it as much as a sports school does.
ESQ: Is there a downside to this?
CHOO YI XUAN: Of course. I think in [Kyra’s] case it’s more stressful. Aside from indoor skydiving, she still has her schoolwork. As much as her school is supportive of her, she still has to submit her work like anybody else.
KYRA POH: There’s a lot of juggling.
CHOO YI XUAN: You’re doing an IB (International Baccalaureate) Programme, her [curriculum] is super long. KYRA POH: But I’d also put a lot of pressure on myself. I want to do well academically and at flying.
ESQ: Can the public attention be too much?
CHOO YI XUAN: Now we have to do even better. Or at least, maintain. We have to keep improvising new stuff.
KYRA POH: But at the same time, we’re spreading awareness about the sport. Before we started winning, before news of indoor skydiving was even mentioned, not many people knew about this sport. Everyone thought it was a tourist attraction. For the longest time, we were the only Asians who were in the top five.
CHOO YI XUAN: Now there are other Asian representatives in the scene.
ESQ: What’s needed to do what you do?
KYRA POH: Sacrifices. Willingness to train. I’m sure that anyone can fly but I don’t think that anyone can train as hard as we do or sacrifice as much. I don’t think they would want to.
ESQ: Was there ever a time when you felt like quitting? CHOO YI XUAN: I mean, we have to think the best of situations, right?
KYRA POH: Sometimes when I get upset, I would say, ‘oh my God, I hate this’, but I would never intend to quit.
CHOO YI XUAN: Well. I quit two years ago.
There was a point in time that the duo became a solo act. After a poor showing at a competition, Yi Xuan took a sabbatical. It was taking a toll on her; she needed to disconnect and reassess her priorities. Meanwhile, Kyra forged ahead, trying to better herself and focus. Yi Xuan’s decision to leave didn’t include a discussion with Kyra but the die had been cast and each had to live with the consequences.
Yi Xuan would return to Team Firefly. Her burden is alleviated thanks to the Singapore Sports School (SSP) allowing her to drop her swimming major and focus on indoor skydiving. But Yi Xuan would have returned to the sport even if SSP didn’t have an option to drop a subject. Her break allowed her to recuperate and, filled with a renewal of energy, Yi Xuan took to flying alongside Kyra again.
ESQ: What’s an average day for you?
CHOO YI XUAN: A month before the actual competition, we’d train almost every day.
KYRA POH: It’s like how people would complain that they have exams but we have that and also the competitions. For our recent competition in Bahrain, our training occurred during our exams. So, we’d be training, studying, training, studying. I sleep at 4am.
“Before we started winning, before news of indoor skydiving was even mentioned, not many people knew about this sport. Everyone thought it was a tourist attraction.”
ESQ: Do you do anything else outside of the indoor skydiving sessions? Like core training?
CHOO YI XUAN: I don’t think there’s a need to but we want to keep ourselves fit and improve our stamina.
KYRA POH: Her school has all the equipment for her to use.
ESQ: Have tried to go to Yi Xuan’s sports school and…
CHOO YI XUAN: [laughs] It’s too far for her.
KYRA POH: Yeah. I don’t think I’ll travel that far…
CHOO YI XUAN: To go to a gym.
There’s a cruel poetry to their lifestyles. In order to fly free, they have to sever the weighted line that pulls them down, family and friends who weigh them down.
Their average training day: they wake at the crack of dawn for school; Yi Xuan’s school ends at around two and she would head to iFly Singapore to train first. Kyra’s school would end at around five and then she’ll beeline down to train with Yi Xuan. Later, Yi Xuan will drop out at 8pm to return home and Kyra will continue her own solo training until 10pm. Even after their training ends, they still have to contend with schoolwork. Their flight time per day is two-and-a-half hours, with breaks in between every 30 minutes because of how draining a session could get.
But they still keep at it. Despite the gruelling schedule and tiredness of it all, they know that rewards await at the end of the journey.
ESQ: Do you miss out on being teenagers?
KYRA POH: Kinda. We do have to sacrifice our time with friends, of course. I’ve to call my mom to ask ‘can I please have lunch with my friends?’ and stuff like that, even when we have to train.
CHOO YI XUAN: A part of us misses that.
ESQ: Do emotions run high during the competitions?
CHOO YI XUAN: [to Kyra] Is it every competition that you’d break down?
KYRA POH: Yeah.
ESQ: Do you have a good cry?
KYRA POH: More like a bad cry. I think I’m a very emotional person. I get stressed.
ESQ: What about you, Yi Xuan?
CHOO YI XUAN: I don’t think I cry as much as Kyra.
KYRA POH: Yeah, she’s more of the comforter, telling me that it’s okay, it’s okay.
CHOO YI XUAN: Sometimes she gets scolded by Auntie Carolyn or if she stresses herself out before the competition but there’s nothing I can do because that’s her right? So, I’m calming her down.
KYRA POH: My mom doesn’t pressure us at all. She pushes us to do our best but sometimes we reach that tipping point but overall, it’s all worth it. Even when I know I’d cry 10 times, I’d still go through it all.
ESQ: What’s Carolyn like as a manager?
CHOO YI XUAN: I think we feel great if we make Auntie Carolyn proud of us.
KYRA POH: When she’s in manager mode, she treats us like athletes. She treats us as adult athletes. She’s hardcore. She’s full-on coach. There’s no pity or anything.
CHOO YI XUAN: I think Kyra gets it worse because after she’s finished with training, she still has to see her mother at home. So, if it’s a bad training session, she will get it. She tells us what we need to hear and not what we want to hear.
KYRA POH: She always tells me—which is also difficult—during a competition, that she’s no longer my mom, I’m your manager. I’m here to tell you what you have to hear. If you’re shit, I’ll tell you that you’re shit. I think this sort of candour is good but obviously, it’s tough because she may be playing the manager role but to me, she is still my mom and I’d sometimes get emotional. She’s our manager but she’s also our mom. She’s our ‘momager’.
Carolyn tells me that as a manager, she acts as an ‘honest critic’ but this role is only relegated to their training. “We work hard, yes, but we also play hard after that.” Initially, Carolyn found it tough to keep her emotions separated but it got easier to compartmentalise. And sometimes, the girls’ own nature would take over; even when the girls are drained, they would force themselves to push through the session.
To date, Team Firefly has amassed accolades and world records, and all before the legal drinking age of 18. They want to see how far they can take it in indoor skydiving while there’s still time. They are meant for each other. Yi Xuan lacks confidence so Kyra will psyche her up; Kyra gets stressed easily so Yi Xuan calms her down. The two will be a constant in one another’s life, like planets in each other’s orbit. Kyra says that she wants to go to the same university as Yi Xuan. I ask what if that doesn’t happen. They look at each other like they had never considered this, as though they haven’t thought that far ahead in the future. And just as you think that reality’s teeth are about to close in on them, they laugh and their train of thought resumes to its normal service, albeit on a different track.
Carolyn tells me: “Sometimes people forget that they are just teenagers”.
But in Yi Xuan’s defence: “How many teenagers get to train, get the satisfaction and win the World Cup?” Is it an impetuous comment or a firm-footed mission statement?
Their calling is the twin pillars of youth and beauty—their bloom affords them the opportunity of pursuit and the sheer allure that arises in that chase. They might never attain perfection but there’s something enviable in their act of trying.
As we watch them in that grandeur of weightlessness, unfettered by the worries of the world, we’re reminded that they are adolescents, and were once children, and we hope that they remain in that joy-like state for a little while longer.
Photographs by Lenne Chai (ADB Agency)
Styling by Eugene Lim
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