Esther Tan Cheng Yin

First female naval diver and endurance sports specialist

She is just 1.55 metres and of slight build, not exactly what you envision when you think of navy divers. But that is what Esther Tan does for a living. She is Singapore’s first female navy diver, and holds the rank of Major in the elite Naval Diving Unit. She specialises in search-and-rescue operations and explosive ordnance disposal.

Esther enrolled in the navy in 1995 and in 2000 she applied to join the naval diving unit. She passed the physical and medical tests and sailed through the interview, and she has not looked back since.

She wasn’t always fit and failed the fitness tests when she was in secondary school. But basic military training got that sorted out. As a naval diver, she needs to be able to move around with some 39 kg of equipment, and you need strength for that.

When Esther was at the Nanyang Technological University on a navy scholarship to get an electrical and electronic engineering degree, she developed a taste for adventure-racing. She has now taken part in dozens of international marathons, triathlons, Ironman and other adventure races all over the world.

Perhaps the most gruelling was the Australia XPD Adventure Race 2006 in Tasmania, when she only got 29 hours of sleep in the 10 days she took to complete the 700km course. In 2007 she was the only woman in the Asian team in the 2007 Adventure Racing World Championship, which is also known as the Olympics of adventure races.

In 2011, after two years of planning, training and preparation, Esther set out to climb Mount Everest. She chose to approach the summit by the trickier and much more dangerous north ridge. To acclimatise, she and her team mates trekked four times from base camp to the 7,000 metre level. Then finally it was time for their push for the peak. But just 100 metres short of the summit, strong winds and increasingly bad weather forced them to make the difficult decision to turn back.

Esther, in an account published in the South China Morning Post, wrote that for someone as competitive as she is, turning her back on the Everest peak was very hard. But she knew that ‘although I had this one chance to summit, I had only one lifetime to live”. She realised also, she said, that “the joy of the journey and the gift of being with great people” was far more important and rewarding than getting to the top of the world.

In 2006 Esther was named Her World’s Young Woman Achiever. She now works in the navy’s intelligence unit, but she makes sure she keeps fit by running every other day and hitting the gym at the weekends.  She wants to make sure that she can, as a naval diver, continue to carry 39kg of gear.

In March 2014, shortly after being inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame, Esther’s adventure with the navy took her on a four-month deployment on a navy frigate to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden.

For nearly a decade in adventure races, I have been privileged to stand beside great racing mates, walk the trails where great adventure racers have trod, listen to great adventure stories and bike alongside athletes twice my size.

 I’m inspired by the incredible drive and great competitive spirit of those awesome athletes whose hard work and commitment fuels me. 

To all women out there, there is a huge demand for you in one of the world’s most challenging sports. We play a bigger role than just being a "mandatory gear" on the team.

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