What made 2015 so special for the five ST Athlete of the Year nominees

Para swimmer Yip Pin Xiu spurred to still push the limits

For 24-year-old Yip Pin Xiu, finding "different ways to make me faster" was crucial as it reaffirmed her faith in her talent. It also taught the 2008 Paralympic champion that it was not time to give up yet.
For 24-year-old Yip Pin Xiu, finding "different ways to make me faster" was crucial as it reaffirmed her faith in her talent. It also taught the 2008 Paralympic champion that it was not time to give up yet.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Despite her worsening condition, she's motivated to refine technique to improve

In the water, joyous and liberated, Yip Pin Xiu has never needed any help. In the water, you cannot tell if she has muscular dystrophy or that she uses a wheelchair. In the water right from the beginning, she says, "people didn't know I was different".

Of course that is not completely accurate.

Because in the water, once Yip Pin Xiu starts to swim, you clearly know she's different. She's not like everybody else because as she demonstrated again in 2015 she's faster than everyone else.

Fast enough to win the 50m backstroke at the 2015 Asean Para Games, while competing in a category with less disabled swimmers, in front of a home crowd while wearing pressure and worrying about what people expected from her. But somehow when the race is about to begin, she's "calm and steady".

Fast enough to set her eighth world record - just repeat that to yourself, eighth - and first since 2009, even though muscular dystrophy eats away at her muscles and motor control but somehow, from somewhere, she finds her strength.

STEPPING ON THE GAS

It was nice to know I can do it again.

'YIP PIN XIU, Paralympic gold medallist, on setting her eighth world record and first since 2009.

Fast enough to even please herself. Days later she will watch a recording of her race and now says: "It was so exciting." The world record wasn't too bad either. "It was nice to know I can do it again," she says. And nice "motivation" to do it, well, even again.

Different? Yes she is.

You have to be if you're confined to a wheelchair and still want to fly.

Theresa Goh, her buddy who's also a brilliant athlete, texted her last year in May: "Want to go skydiving in Australia?" Sure, she said. A day later she thinks, "What have I got myself into?" A day before the jump in August on the Sunshine Coast, she thinks, "What if I die?"

But she, the Beijing 2008 Paralympic gold medallist, who swims 44 lengths in practice, sometimes training twice a day, who meets life without complaint and with some lovely alloy of grit and grace, is ready on the day of the jump.

"Let's do this," she thinks.

Her instructor - to whom she is strapped - has never taken a disabled athlete up in the air before, but here she is, out of the plane, 12,000 feet high on a "beautiful day", feeling the fierce wind buffeting her face during her freefall and then enjoying the tranquillity of an open parachute in an open sky. "I felt like a bird," said the woman of the water.

Now she's considering para-sailing.

Different? Of course she is.

Different was also what 2015 was for her, a year that ended with radiance but began with dissatisfaction. As an athlete she was "stagnant" and "plateauing", at that vexing place where your talent gets stuck and you don't get better and can't move faster. You train, you sweat, you push, but those fractions of a second can't be found.

And so she changed her stroke.

Last February a new team, which included coach Mick Massey and biomechanist Ryan Hodierne, tested her and filmed her and tinkered with her technique. In the most simple terms, she was pushing her arm outwards rather than downwards into the water and not gaining the extra push she could earn from a stroke.

This refinement of her technique which she is still mastering, and the building of her fitness, and her team telling her she was better, all this didn't directly create the world record but it did something valuable. It unstuck Yip and invested her with confidence because it reminded her there are "still many ways I can improve".

This had nothing to do with wheelchairs or the Para Games or muscular dystrophy. This was just a swimmer desperately trying to find "different ways to make me faster". And finding it was crucial for it reaffirmed her faith in her talent: She could still be better, she could go faster, she could find those fractions. It told her, simply, that "it's not time for me to give up yet".

Yip Pin Xiu is remarkable not just because she's an Asean Para Games gold medallist and a world record holder but because she's a pusher of limits. Like all great athletes she's made - as 2015 proved - of a distinctive wiring, her ambition, stubbornness and belief all woven tightly together. Sometimes to take on the world you just have to be unlike the world. Just different in the water.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2016, with the headline 'Spurred to still push the limits'. Print Edition | Subscribe