Goh With The Flow: Wong Zhi Wei

A feel for the water is harder than you think

Theresa Goh, swimming in her ninth straight Asean Para Games, is penning a daily column for The Straits Times, sharing nuggets and personal anecdotes about some of her team-mates in the Singapore contingent.

Today, she writes about 15-year-old swimmer and debutant Wong Zhi Wei.

I can't say that I know exactly what it's like to be a visually impaired swimmer like Zhi Wei is, but I've had a taste of how difficult it is.

We used to train with blackout goggles. It simulated blindness and in the process, helped to heighten our other senses and improve our feel for the water. When that happens, we learn to become more efficient in the water.

Wearing the blackout goggles, I learnt to depend more on counting my strokes and be more mindful of executing my stroke technique properly.

It was hard. You realise how much you depend on your sense of sight to do anything, even to make the smallest of adjustments in the pool. You don't realise it until you lose that sense.


PHOTO COURTESY OF THERESA GOH

Zhi Wei is partially blind and has severe depth perception. He can't see things that are beyond 10m, and for things that are farther than 3m, they also often appear fuzzy.

Zhi Wei is partially blind and has severe depth perception. He can't see things that are beyond 10m and, for things that are farther than 3m, they also often appear fuzzy.

He then relies on counting strokes when he swims, especially in the final 10m when he approaches the wall. This helps him to remain in control of his strokes, and to ensure that nothing is left to guesswork.

He also relies heavily on his hearing and touch.

Unlike other swimmers, he can't see the hand gestures that coaches often make by the pool deck or up in the stands.

He wouldn't know if a coach is motioning for him to pick up his pace, or fine-tuning his stroke technique.

Listening and communication then become paramount for him. Zhi Wei is able to pick up cues that he's more sensitive to when people are talking.

Swimming, or doing any sport for that matter, while being visually impaired may seem unthinkable to the able-bodied, or to other people with a different disability. To me, though, it's all a matter of adaptation.

My disability hasn't changed since I was born, so all I've ever known is being able to do what I'm able to do. The same goes for Zhi Wei, who was born with his partial blindness.

Because of his different level of ability, he has cultivated a better feel of the water that many elite, able-bodied swimmers don't focus so much on. And that's a more underrated skill than most would imagine.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2017, with the headline 'A feel for the water is harder than you think'. Print Edition | Subscribe