I think it might get somewhat overwhelming trying to explain just how much goes into cutting a little bit of time from our personal bests each time we race, and what that means to us. Let's say it requires a personal obsessiveness and the help of a lot of people.
My alarm has been going off at 4.45am four times a week since I was 11 and I spend close to 25 hours a week in the pool. I do that about 49 weeks a year and have done so for the last 14 years. That comes to a total of 17,150 hours in the water. I keep a log of training sets I have done since I began training competitively, and I have covered about 23,794.7km so far. That is more than halfway around the world.
I race the sprint and middle distance events now, so I swim only about 45km a week (900 laps). When I was younger and swam the distance events, I could cover up to 70km a week (1,400 laps).
I was lucky enough that my first coach was a fanatic about technique. It was paramount that I got the small things right and he would get me to do laps and laps of drills, just working on my stroke. I also do a mix of aerobic, anaerobic, sprint, lactic and power work in the pool, spread out over 10 sessions.
We have all sorts of equipment to help us focus on different parts of the body. Fins and kick boards for our legs; buoys and paddles for arm work; rubber cords to hold us in place as we swim on the spot; and parachutes attached to our waists to give us more resistance when we have power sessions. If you add the gym sessions, it's quite a hectic week.
Considering how much we train, food is a big deal to us. Buffets excite us and watching the amount and the speed at which the male swimmers eat still amazes me. My brother can wolf down three plates of pasta while I am not close to halfway through my first (I am a painfully slow eater). I am not very strict with my diet, only watching it more closely when I have to race. Nutrition before and after practice is crucial and I try to fuel myself correctly so that I can put off the fatigue for as long as possible.
Since we train in the early morning, swimmers also treasure sleep. I am usually exhausted by Thursday and it is a constant reminder that recovery takes much longer as I get older. I think my biggest weakness in the past was not listening to my body, and trying to push it even when what I really needed was rest, sometimes to the point of injury. I have come to understand that recovery is just as important as the hard work and there needs to be a balance of both to achieve longevity in the sport.
Coaches are nurturers, mentors, teachers and role models. Every one of my coaches has played an integral role in my development, not just as a swimmer, but also as a person. I learnt focus, discipline, responsibility, diligence and perseverance in the pool, and those values have served me well in other areas of my life.
Science and technology have helped to give us an edge as we chase faster timings. I have learnt that to be a good athlete, you need to be a student of the sport and that includes knowing and understanding the different aspects of training. In Singapore, we are fortunate enough that our support team consists of biomechanists, physiologists, psychologists, nutritionists, masseurs, physiotherapists and strength and conditioning coaches. They help us understand ourselves as athletes.
The sports science came a little later in my career. What have been the constants from the day I started this journey are my family and all my coaches. Coaches are nurturers, mentors, teachers and role models. Every one of my coaches has played an integral role in my development, not just as a swimmer, but also as a person. I learnt focus, discipline, responsibility, diligence and perseverance in the pool, and those values have served me well in other areas of my life. There is very rarely a successful athlete without the guidance of their coach.
Support comes from home, too. I am lucky that my siblings are in the same sport as me. It gives me great comfort to have them to lean on when I am struggling. What also comforts me is knowing that my parents are in the stands every time I race. Some people do not like that and find it stressful, but I love it. My parents have worked hard to give me the opportunity to do what I love and for that I am very fortunate and very grateful.
Swimmers are the ones standing behind the blocks on the day of their race, but we are buoyed by the people around us. It is a strenuous team effort by passionate individuals but, when all the small parts come together in unison, it is a beautiful thing that makes all the hard work worthwhile.