SINGAPORE - It was the hair which first told me Theresa Goh was unusual. The hair she loved but didn't have that day. The hair that she, with spina bifida, had shaved off for kids with cancer.
What a woman, I thought.
It was the first time I met her, 10 years ago, for a book I was helping to write for the Singapore Disability Sports Council. She sat in her wheelchair, smile like a sunbeam, and extended her right hand. Two fingers were not fully developed but she wasn't self-conscious about it.
When she was in school, curious kids asked about those fingers. She wasn't sure and so she asked her mum, who armed her with a terrific reply: "She told me to tell them, 'My mum ate them'."
These were the first lessons I learnt from Goh. That she was funny and natural and put people at ease. That she had an honesty so searing that it made you consider your own integrity.
Last year, when we were discussing her long, turbulent, brave, 17-year quest for a Paralympic medal, which she finally fulfilled in Rio 2016, she looked me in the eye and said: "On the big stage, I always tended to crumble." The unvarnished truth is a rousing thing.
Singapore sport without Goh, 32, who announced her retirement on Monday (Sept 16), will go on but it'll just be less joyous. Fortunately, her buddy, Yip Pin Xiu, 27, will be around and there's a friendship here that glitters more beautifully than any medal.
There is a fine tale from the 1936 Olympics about Japanese pole vaulters Shuhei Nishida and Sueo Oe, who were tied for second but refused to vault off against each other. Eventually Nishida was given silver and Oe bronze, but when they got home they went to a jeweller, had their medals cut in half and forged new medals that were half-silver, half-bronze. This is the sort of friendship Goh and Yip have.
Last week, in the midst of her world championships, I texted Yip to ask if she'd write a small goodbye note to Goh for The Straits Times. I apologised for the intrusion in the midst of competition but Yip replied: "It would be my pleasure."
So in between winning gold on Wednesday and Friday, Yip wrote. I expected 150 words because I know typing is tough for her. Her disease, Charcot Marie Tooth, ensures that her muscles degenerate progressively, to the point where her fingers are now bent and she can't type with them. So she uses her knuckles.
Still, she sent me 504 words on Goh; 504 words of love and respect.
This is why I admire these women. Because they set standards in everything they do. Because they're sturdy, resourceful, articulate and independent. Because their wheelchairs are their rides not their prison. Once, in Australia, they even sky-dived together. Dear god.
Because they don't want pity, just an acknowledgement that, first and foremost, they're athletes dedicated to going fast. Because they own enough medals to start a small shop. Goh, on request, once sent me a picture of a chest so full of medals it looked like a pirate's treasure.
They've been on our front pages, our sports pages and now in our record books. Yip, who has three Paralympic golds, once told me, "I never saw people like me on TV, I thought I was alone" and their visibility has been a message of hope and possibility, merit and opportunity.
They came to the pool to swim and they found in water both freedom and purpose. They trained to become champions but inadvertently became our trailblazers and our teachers.
They've helped erase stigma, stood up for gay rights, modelled for cosmetics, made us reconsider if we're truly inclusive, reminded us sport belongs to everyone and made us confront the idea of able.
And they've done it with a smile.
Sport never stops yet it pauses briefly for a nation to salute the best among us. This is a good time for that. To say thank you to TG and good luck to PX. To be grateful for them both. To appreciate their spirit - on Wednesday (Sept 18) they're off to Iceland and, knowing them, will probably challenge each other to a dip in an icy lake.
Most of all, in this Formula One week, it's a good time to remember that heroes are found on all types of wheels.
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