ST Athlete of the Year: Unflinching Yip Pin Xiu strokes her way to history

This is the seventh and final nominee of the 2021 ST Athlete of the Year award. All of them have defied the odds, injuries and the pandemic to chase their sporting dreams, setting new standards of excellence for others to follow.

Yip Pin Xiu after winning gold at the women's 100m backstroke during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games on Aug 25, 2021. PHOTO: SPORT SINGAPORE

SINGAPORE - In a Starbucks in March, a rush of caffeine and a jolt of adrenaline. Leaning across a table, Yip Pin Xiu - on request - is showing me a video on her phone of her 50m backstroke swim at the 2020 Paralympics. A case of the great athlete inspecting her own greatness.

As she describes the day of the race, she pauses the video. Her coach, Mark Chay, had called that day from Singapore and she told him: "I am so nervous, I can barely breathe."

Athletes don't like to choose a medal because it's like picking a favourite child. Every one has its own weight, its own rival, its own challenge. It's never just about the race, but the road taken to it.

People remember medals but, as Yip will tell you, "the journey is something people don't always resonate with. The decisions you make to get where you are".

Tokyo, for Yip, was "an emotional cycle" because of the pandemic and the quarantines. "I felt more alone," she says. At one point she was forced to do what she'd never done, which is take a two-month break from water.

"It took me four months to get back to who I was," she explains. "I had no access to a physio and I lost flexibility. I became a normal person again."

But always she believed the Games would happen and, as she says, "if people said it would be cancelled I would get slightly annoyed. I had been training really, really hard and didn't want this type of negative thoughts in my head".

Eventually she got to Tokyo and won the 100m backstroke gold and then on the bus to the 50m final the nerves started fluttering.

Maybe it was waiting for a week to race again after the 100m. Maybe it was the fact that she'd never done a repeat gold. She'd won gold and silver in 2008, didn't medal in 2012 and won two golds in 2016 and now she had a chance to repeat that feat. Maybe it was also the fine talent of her rival, Miyuki Yamada, then 14.

Champions have faith in themselves and yet slivers of doubt sneak in under the door and opposing thoughts fence in the brain. Yip knew her best was enough but "at the same time I was worried that things wouldn't work out the way we wanted them to work out".

On the bus to the venue, as she spoke to Chay, things rocketed through her mind. "The 100m was a week ago and in the first 50m on that day Yamada was very, very close. I was worried she would be more explosive. I am usually composed but my breathing was shallow and there were too many thoughts in my head."

But Yip is a nominee for The Straits Times Athlete of the Year Award, which is backed by 100 Plus, because she has that champion quality: She knows how to meet the moment.

There is, of course, always more to her than speed. There is the dignity she carries, awareness she creates, discussions she opens. She seems frail on first glance but is powered by resolve and principle.

When asked in 2021 about the gap in payouts for gold between Olympians ($1 million) and Paralympians ($200,000) she pointed with quiet firmness to its inequality. The payout was raised.

There are many sides to Yip but so much - who she is and what she says - stems from how she races. And now here she was in Tokyo, ready in lane 4, Yamada in lane 5, the end 50m away and her start simply no good.

"I am usually faster in the first 25," she says, "but I had a bad start. By 15m, she was ahead. By 25m, I could sense she was still ahead."

But Yip carries experience and also memories. "In the 50m at the 2013 world championships, my rival was ahead of me and in the last 5m my strength seeped out of me. It was psychological. I couldn't let that happen again."

In Starbucks, Yip puts off the video and puts her phone down because she knows the ending to the race. It's an ending which makes her want to keep swimming and an ending which might help take her to Paris in 2024.

That day in Tokyo she overtook Yamada to win her fifth Paralympic gold. No other Singaporean has won one.

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