QUAH Zheng Wen probably isn't familiar with Fermat's Last Theorem or hasn't quite figured out real algebraic geometry, but he has a little in common with John Nash. The genius, whose death occured two weeks ago and whose life was the basis of the film A Beautiful Mind, once said: "You don't have to be a mathematician to have a feel for numbers." Quah, 18, whose swimming life is reduced to seconds, decimals, metres, would hastily agree.
Numbers drive him and define him. Like 4.50am, which is when he rises every day. Like 10, which is his training sessions per week, worth roughly 55km in total, and to make that clearer it's 1,100 lengths of a 50m pool.
And, like 12, which is how many events he has entered in the SEA Games across six days. It is the most of any Singaporean, it sounds too many, too crazy, too tiring. But he's unmoved, he's done it before at this year's National Age-Group event in March, he's ready. He'd better be.
Athletes don't know their own limits, which is why they break them. They can, at times, achieve anything because they try anything. Alexander Dityatin, the gymnast, won eight Olympic medals in 1980 on the floor, pommel horse, vault, horizontal bar, parallel bar. Ville Ritola won a record six Olympic medals in 1924 in the 5,000m, 10,000m, cross-country and 3,000m steeplechase.
But it's swimmers who are the greediest. "If you set your imagination to anything, it can happen," said Michael Phelps, whereupon he won eight golds at the 2008 Olympics. In liquid, where the muscle strain is less than on a track, swimmers can race with a staggering frequency. They're like fish who don't sleep.
Quah will have to sleep, for his daily routine at the Games resembles hard labour. Listen:
- Early morning wake up
- 1,700m warm up before heats
- 800-1,200m warm down
- Ice bath maybe, mummy's cooking, two-hour sleep.
- Then it's evening. Race time.
- 1,500m warm up before
- 800-1,200m warm down after.
Not bad for an asthmatic.
He'll have his inhaler with him in his bag. And extra googles, cap, swimsuit. Two towels. A nose-clip for backstroke. But no lucky charm, no four-leaf clover. He's too real for that. "I don't rely on trinkets. It doesn't sit well with me if I have to rely on them to do well. I rely on myself."
Physically Quah is angular, mentally he is intense. His zeal is born from pain, from the "crazy" sets that coach Gary Tan used to push him through. He'd do the 100m four times, back to back, with 10 seconds' rest between each, followed by a 400m IM. Then he'd do this whole set eight times. And what athletes learn as they push the physical envelope is not the volume of lungs but the size of hearts. "It cultivated a belief that I can't give up."
On the blocks for some races, next to Quah will be Joseph Schooling. Bigger aura, larger physique. A team-mate yet a competitor. "Rivalry doesn't drive me," says Quah. "But seeing him do the things he does makes my dream possible. If he, one of us, can do it, so can I." He knows: On his journey to try beating a world he has to first beat swimmers within his own world.
For a young man of perspiration, Quah has a little poetry in him. Swimming is an opaque sport and even underwater cameras cannot entirely reveal its liquid art. Swimmers, for instance, talk a foreign language of catching the water and Quah speaks of "how you feel the water, how you pull it. A week out of water and your hands feel like sticks in it".
On his best days, Quah is in full control of his body, he's "calm, serene... body light". But this never lasts in sport, for there are lethargic days, failing days and it's how you manage them, how you rinse off disappointment, or ensure triumph doesn't distract you, and just keep racing, again and again, which is what the athlete wants.
For six days Quah is going to walk a line between excitement and calm. And right now he's readying for it by lying on the floor of a cold, silent room at the OCBC Aquatics Centre. His team are around him. The lights are off. The music from Gladiator is playing. He's supposed to be visualising and perhaps he's thinking of the perfect race, unfolding in the perfect time, and ending with the perfect number.