Lapping It Up

Swimming: Greatness of an athlete lies in the journey of getting there

National swimmer Quah Ting Wen will talk about her life as a competitive athlete and her journey to the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia in a new column for The Straits Times.

I have always been on the other side. I get asked questions, and someone records my replies. This time it is a little different. My name is Ting Wen and most people know me as a national swimmer.

A swimmer's life is pretty boring. The scenery varies between the black line of the pool floor and the ceiling of the building. We are constantly moving but, like a hamster on a wheel, we do not get anywhere or see places.

It is repetitive and it can get lonely. I have had the same schedule since I was 11. I swim twice every weekday except Wednesday, and once on Saturday morning. Morning practice sessions are from 5.30am to 8am, and afternoons from 4.30pm to 7pm. We swim anywhere between 160 and 280 laps a day, depending on which group we are in.

I have two or three weightlifting sessions a week lasting about two hours each, as well as two to three land training sessions.

I dread the days we have to do pull-ups. I suppose no one enjoys doing what he or she is poor at, but there is just a feeling of immense frustration at not being very good at pulling your weight.

When I am doing that exercise, I always think of the movies where the protagonist is hanging by her fingers from the edge of the cliff. I see myself as the character who is unable to pull herself up and thus falls to her death.

In the next 20 weeks, I will lift in the gym 60 more times, swim another 800km, wake up at 4.45am 100 more times, and do countless more hours of rehabilitation and strengthening exercises.

The best feeling is finishing practice on Saturday and looking back at the week, knowing my work was done well and that I get 36 hours of rest before Monday comes. I get a day off on Sundays, take three weeks off a year for a break, and then I am back at it again when the new season begins. It has been like that for more than half my life.

My dreams are what keep me going. Competitive athletes are all about goals. They are like stepping stones, bringing us as close to the top as we can get. My goals are what get me out of bed every morning, what drive me to keep going, even when my arms are burning after a long pulling set or when my lungs are screaming as we do an aerobic threshold practice.

For me, there is little worse than waking up at 4.45 in the morning and hearing the rain hitting the windows. It is the perfect weather for sleeping and the last thing I want to do is to dunk myself in a giant tub of cold water.

It is much easier to be comfortable, to do what is easy. But my mission is what helps me roll out of bed. My mission is to be a great athlete, to swim fast at the Commonwealth Games and to finish as close to the top three as possible. The thing about greatness is that most of the time it is not as majestic as most people think it is. Many people have the perception that the journey towards greatness looks like something from a sporting advertisement or an inspirational video.

In their minds, they hear motivational music playing in the background, they see the fluid visuals and the athletes perspiring beautifully while exerting themselves with grace and poise. Then they see us on the podiums with a medal around our necks and think, this is it. This is what greatness is.

But it is not true. Greatness is not in the results alone. It is part of the journey and that journey is not a smooth one.

There is nothing attractive about our labour, it's just endless sweat and faces contorted in pain and fatigue. Sometimes there is blood. And, more often than not, there are tears. Lots of tears.

Tears shed during training sessions when you fight against giving up but fail sometimes. Tears when you are frustrated that your mind cannot will your body into another lap. Tears that happen usually in the locker rooms, away from the eyes of your team-mates and your coaches, because you do not want to look weak.

Over the next five months, I am going to try and take you through my journey, which culminates in April at the Commonwealth Games.

In the next 20 weeks, I will lift in the gym 60 more times, swim another 800km, wake up at 4.45am 100 more times, and do countless more hours of rehabilitation and strengthening exercises.

In 139 days, I want to become a better athlete, both physically and mentally. I want to see how close to great I can get.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2017, with the headline 'Blood, toil, sweat and tears, tears, tears'. Subscribe