Meet Judith, A 63 Year-Old Master Scuba Diver

All photography by Matthew Ng

“It was the first time I felt truly scared,” Judith, or Sow Fong, says. “When you’re young, you’re not scared. But when you get older, you learn that you can get hurt.”

63 years old, and soon turning 64, she is telling me about an accident that she had about 2 months after first picking up cycling 4 years ago.

She was cycling on the road, and upon reaching the Sembawang Gambas Avenue junction, a car that was driving too close to her made a sudden turn. Veering to avoid the car, she ended up skidding and falling. The car didn’t stop at all, and probably hadn’t realised what had happened.

Since then, she became extremely fearful of riding on the road.

It took her several months to overcome the phobia. With help from her cycling friends, she eventually got back on her bicycle after making a full recovery. She is still fearful at times, but she is more conscious of riding safely and looking out to avoid mishaps. 

Today, Judith is an “MSD”—a master scuba diver, just one level below a Divemaster. At the same time, she says that she doesn’t need to be certified anymore than she already is. This is good enough for her to enjoy scuba diving for leisure, and she now wants to shift her attention to new things, like picking up a musical instrument.

She then tells me the story of how she first got into scuba diving. At 32, she found herself working in Saudi Arabia. Having grown up in a kampong with a river behind her house, she has always loved the water and dreamt of being able to dive.

“I’ve always loved the ocean,” Judith says, “Women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia, so when I met a dive instructor who could drive me out to the coast of red sea and teach me diving, I just went.”

She tells me that it wasn’t hard at all for her to pick up scuba diving when she first started.

Her precise words were, “When you’re young, nothing is hard.”

Going on to recount a diving episode when she was the dive buddy of a tall Caucasian man twice her height, she sounds completely chill and unfazed. This happened many years ago, when this diving buddy was having problems clearing his mask and had started to signal to her that he wanted to surface. She could feel that he was panicking.

In such situations, Judith tells me, one needs only to observe safety practices and stay calm. Eventually, they surfaced. She realised that he had pulled his mask on too tight. To loosen the grip of the mask, she released air into it slowly.

On first being introduced to Judith, I ask her what I assume must be on everyone’s mind when meeting someone like her for the first time: “Do your family and friends worry about what you get up to?”

Afterwards, watching her gamely pose in her wetsuit and oxygen tank, doing everything our photographer Matthew tells her to, I find it hard to believe that she’s even a year above 55. As the morning sun beats down on us, she beams from ear to ear as we angle for the right shot of her against the ocean.  

Later, I learn that apart from scuba diving and cycling, Judith also plays badminton regularly.

In a way, it’s strange hearing Judith talk about being scared. This is a woman who, when she was younger, worked at a makeshift hospital as a volunteer on the Thai-Kampuchean border to help with refugee relief work. During the Ethiopian Civil War in the eighties, Judith was in Tigray volunteering as a nurse. Knowing exactly what the dangers were at the time, she left all her savings—all of $2000—with a friend with instructions on what to do with the money should she not return. 

“You mean your parents just let you go?” I ask.

She replies, “I knew and they knew that they would not be able to stop me. And anyway, I just said I would be working in Africa, I just didn’t say what.”

Judith shares that she is single, and has always wanted to live life on her own terms. Having also recognised very early the importance of keeping fit, she jokes that physically, she doesn’t look fighting fit, but is instead fighting bulges. She is, however, blessed with both the drive and good health to pursue her interest in sports with little difficulty.

For about 6 years, Judith worked in Melbourne. This was when she met her neighbour Gwen, who was 80-years old at the time and living what she called her self-funded retirement. This meant that she wasn’t dependent on a state pension or on anyone else. She lived off her own savings.

Gwen became Judith’s inspiration, and showed her the importance of being reliant on herself. It was then that she resolved to never have to depend on anyone, either physically or financially, other than herself. 

At the same time, Judith admits that it isn’t always this easy. There are days when she doesn’t want to do anything at all, and doesn’t even want to get out of bed.

But she says, “You have to get over it. You just need to get up and do it. Go cycling, meet people, socialise, get on with life.”

The most surprising thing I eventually learn about Judith is the fact that she once wanted to join the religious order. After a few years, she realised that it wasn’t for her. Today, a nurse by training with operating theatre experience, she has transitioned into administrative work. While her work is demanding, it’s also interesting and she gets to be involved in projects that are meaningful to her.

In particular, team building and sharing her experiences to train younger colleagues are both very fulfilling.   

Eventually, our conversation strays from her life and we end up talking about my own plans for the future. I tell her that I’ve thought about working overseas, but haven’t quite decided where to go.

“You’re young now, so if you want to do it, you should do it,” she says, “At this age, being scared doesn’t mean anything.”

I think to myself that I should probably listen to her. After all, she’s been diving for longer than I’ve been alive.

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