Para-swimmer Yip Pin Xiu splashes to gold after nine-year drought

Para-swimmer Yip Pin Xiu receiving The Straits Times Star of the Month award from ST sports editor Lee Yulin and F&N Foods managing director Jennifer See. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - Yip Pin Xiu sits in her wheelchair in pretty sandals, her feet so tiny that she has to shop in the tweens' section in the mall. Her size 1 feet, indirectly caused by Charcot-Marie-Tooth - an inherited disorder that causes nerve damage and weakens the muscles progressively - however, are no measure of what the para-swimmer has achieved in her career.

Once a painfully shy child who "didn't have friends" from Primary 1 to 4, Yip is now a confident young woman who has won three Paralympic gold medals, holds two world records and recently added Nominated Member of Parliament to her CV.

But a crisis of confidence hit the 27-year-old this year, after she endured four months of frustration and disappointing results at the World Para Swimming World Series meets in Melbourne and Singapore.

"I felt very low... as an athlete I tied myself to my performance and if I didn't do well, it was difficult because it was so much of who I was and that's very unhealthy," she said.

After parting ways with her coach of eight months, Han Jun, Yip worked with former national swimmer Mark Chay and rediscovered her mojo just in time for the World Para Swimming Championships in London last month. She won the women's 50m and 100m backstroke S2 to finally end her nine-year drought at the world meet.

After winning gold in the 50m freestyle S3 in 2010 in the Netherlands, she finished second in the 50m backstroke in 2013 and did not medal in 2015. She did not compete in Mexico in 2017 after Mexico City was hit by an earthquake.

She added: "For those nine years, I was still training very hard. When I won I felt like I was back on top of the world, back on the right track as my end goal is still the Tokyo Paralympics."

For her achievements in London, Yip was named The Straits Times Star of the Month for September. ST sports editor Lee Yulin said: "Pin Xiu is a shining example of an athlete who continually seeks to break new ground. Her winning of two gold medals at the world championships nine years after her first one is testament not just to her longevity but also to her spirit."

Yip does not blame anyone for those lean years, explaining that she split with Han because he was more of a developmental coach and not a good match for her. Yip, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age two, cited the lessons that her coach Ang Peng Siong taught her.

She said: "Since I was young, Uncle Siong always said not to blame anybody. You are responsible for the good things, and the bad things. If you want something, you have to do something about it."

While she did not provide details, Yip is in discussions to finalise her coaching team ahead of the Tokyo Paralympics, where she aims to go faster and to retain her two titles.

She is already looking ahead to the 2024 Paralympics in Paris, but is undecided on whether to continue till 2028.

Muscular dystrophy can cause progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass and Yip, who was reclassified from S3 to S2 in 2015 - the lower the number, the more severe the impairment - does not know what the future holds for her. But Yip, the young girl who once ate alone in the canteen during recess because "people didn't want to talk to me", has weathered so much more.

She added: "I don't think about my condition, if I do I will go down a deep hole. I choose to believe that it won't get worse. I do whatever I can, try to be independent and don't let people tell me what I can or cannot do."

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