Swimming: Theresa Goh, unicorn of the water, hangs up her goggles

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From the tough times to the lessons learnt, Paralympic swimmer Theresa Goh talks about her swimming career after announcing her retirement from the sport on Monday (Sept 16).
Theresa Goh is also the country's first swimming world champion, triumphing in 2006, and became the first local female swimmer to compete at the Paralympic Games when she raced in Athens in 2004. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - Theresa Goh wakes when it is still dark and knows the next 10 seconds are crucial. She wants to go back to sleep but if she stays awake past that 10-second window, getting ready for her morning training session is less of a struggle. If she does not, "it means I need more help waking up, like (from) my parents. Or I end up a little late for training".

Goh announced her retirement from swimming in a Facebook post on Monday (Sept 16) and laughed as she explained why she still considers morning training sessions the hardest challenge of her career.

Sometimes she reminds herself of her goal, other times she thinks of her competitors and how they are training. And then, she drags herself out of bed.

"But I end up really happy at the end of the session," said Goh, reflecting on what was routine for the better part of the last 20 years that she has been a competitive swimmer.

"If I can get up, then I'm good. If I go back to sleep, it's a tough fight. Those 10 seconds are the hardest I've ever had to go through," said the 32-year-old.

Everything else was, to her, "doable".

"As long as it doesn't kill me, it's doable. It's always about being able to 'tahan' (Malay for endure), being able to do it until you cannot. But before you say you cannot, try first," said Goh, who is the eldest of three siblings.

"You could say the same thing for morning training, but I don't know, man; I just love to sleep."

Toughing out those 10-second windows have amounted to a slew of accolades that include a Paralympic medal, world records and the distinction of being one of the most recognisable faces in Singapore sport.

  • Key achievements

  • - Singapore's first Paralympian swimmer, competing at the 2004 Athens Games

  • - Singapore's first swimming world champion, winning the 200m individual medley (SM5) at the 2006 International Paralympic Committee World Championships in Durban, South Africa in 4min 6.39sec

  • - Former world record holder in the 50m and 200m breaststroke

  • - Most bemedalled Singapore athlete at the Asean Para Games - she has 33 medals, of which 30 are gold, from nine editions

  • - Paralympic bronze medallist in the 100m breast SB4, clocking 1:55.55 at the 2016 Rio Games.

She is also the country's first swimming world champion, triumphing in 2006, and became the first local female swimmer to compete at the Paralympic Games when she raced in Athens in 2004.

Speaking to The Straits Times at her Clementi home as her cat Lobster padded around her, Goh said her decision to retire was a gradual one, made firmer by the feeling that she was "done".

"That's the only way I can describe it, because I go a lot by feeling and I feel ready to move on," she said.

Recalling that she had tried to quit "a few times" in the past, she said: "I thought I would have left after Rio. I told Inbal (Pezaro), one of my Israeli competitors, 'I think this is my last one, I don't think I'll see you at the next one.' But in the end, I saw her (at meets) for the next two years."

There were moments of fear from "just leaving something behind that you've been a part of for so long" and occasional feelings of uncertainty. But Goh knows she will always be "the swimmer".

"Even if I move on to another role, let's say I become a chef, most people will still know me as Theresa Goh the swimmer, and I'm glad that is something that is tied to my identity," she said.

She was born with spina bifida and is paralysed from the waist down. The pool was where a 15-year-old Goh felt light and free, and at 32, it remains the one place where she feels the freest.

"I think swimming is probably the most important thing that has happened to me. It's shaped everything. I cannot imagine what I would be like if I didn't have swimming," said Goh, who first picked up the sport at age five.

"It's taught me a lot about discipline and being able to take hardship. Surprisingly, it's not my disability that taught me how to take hardship, but more the swimming part of me.

"Just being in training and being exposed to failure and the stresses that come with competitive sport has taught me a lot more than I can imagine. And being able to take pain and discomfort and challenges is something I can only do because I've been a competitive swimmer."

She wears a ready smile but her most painful moments were in 2008, when she was tipped to win a medal at the Beijing Paralympic Games but fell short of the podium by 0.7sec.

She thought her world had ended. She would lie in bed alone crying, not fully understanding her sadness. She stopped crying eventually, but months later still felt pangs of sadness when she thought about it.

"I placed a lot of emphasis on my results. I was so worried and (thinking that) people were going to be disappointed in me. Then after I was done, I realised the world didn't come crashing down... I had a few moments where I realised everything is just moving forward regardless," said Goh, who took a nine-month break from swimming after the 2008 Paralympics.

"And then just thinking that life is just too short to be so unhappy, so I decided to change whatever I was doing and just did things that made me happy. Those were the years I learnt a lot about myself.

"I can't say that I am completely happy right now, I don't think that is something we can always achieve. But I'm content and I'm good with where I am right now. Because I know that everything I do is consciously chosen and that I do it because I want to. And that's something I've changed over the past few years."

Paralympian swimmer Theresa Goh with her cats Lobster (left) and Sebastian. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Her first and only Paralympic medal - bronze in the 100m SB4 in 2016 - came 17 years after she started swimming competitively, and it was proof that "I do best when I'm happy".

Goh still watches that race; in fact, she last watched it just over a week ago, when she was preparing for her final race at the Sept 9-15 World Para Swimming Championships in London.

"I was just watching how when we came out to the blocks I was waving at someone in the stands, I was smiling and I was so happy and it was so different from what I usually do," said Goh.

"Usually I'm stone-faced and staring straight ahead, and it was just like night and day when you compare Rio and any other race."

She used to feel distant from the idea that she was the face of her sport, and is unsure of the legacy she is leaving. But she does not want to leave the world a worse place than it was.

"I hope I've done something (for para swimming). I hope I've been able to be a good pioneering example. At that time, I did it without really thinking about it, but I'm glad I did it and I'm glad I was there at the right time, at the right space," said Goh. "I don't know about leaving a legacy but I just want to be able to contribute, even to disability sports in the future."

One of the reasons she did not quit swimming earlier was the worry that the young swimmers were not ready to take over.

"PX (Yip Pin Xiu, Goh's best friend and fellow national swimmer) is only one person, and I was worried that if I left and there was no one to take over, then no one would talk about para swimming again," said Goh.

"I didn't want it to be like that and just that worry made me feel responsible, even though I'm not. Being able to see younger swimmers like (Toh) Wei Soong, Sophie (Soon) and (Wong) Zhi Wei come up now also made me feel like, 'OK lah, I guess I can go.'"

A simple but clear example to her of how disability sport has grown here is the fact that news relating to it is now in the Sports pages of this newspaper, instead of being in the Home section. While she hopes to see disability sport in Singapore continue to grow, she also hopes for progress in perceptions.

"I want to see a little bit more of the closing of the gap in equality. I still kind of feel like sometimes there is that disparity in the way we are perceived," she said.

Theresa Goh celebrating after winning bronze at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. PHOTO: ST FILE

After the Rio Paralympics, where Yip won two golds, there was debate over whether Paralympians and Olympians should get the same monetary rewards.

Asked about it last week, Goh replied: "I've said it a few times, it's not important but it's a signifier. There's always an underlying message in there somewhere. They can say all they want, they can congratulate all they want, but that shows that they still don't see us as the same."

Chuckling, she added: "You can bring down the prize money, you don't have to bring it up to a million. Bring it down so it can be equal."

She has been the face of disability sport in Singapore for the past decade but she does not see this as a burden: "It's been a whole learning journey for me, just understanding the role I'm playing. It's still something I'm learning about even though my competitive career is ending."

Goh also hopes to continue learning more about the topics close to her heart, such as the environment, animals, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues and racism. She came out as gay two years ago and attends human rights conventions in Hong Kong.

"If you want to create change, you have to do it and not just say or think about it. We all have a role to play in whatever capacity we have," she said. "For me, it's about always being open to criticism and being able to still grow with your message, and not just be set in one thing and never wanting to evolve."

A worse world to her is an apathetic one.

"I think there's always that group of apathetic people who just do not care or are like 'I'll take a neutral stand' and I think neutrality is just not enough anymore in a lot of cases. Taking a stand could make that difference, but I'm not saying to do it without making an informed decision," said Goh, who has four cats and owns a cap that declares its wearer a "friendly neighbourhood feminist".

"What you're doing and saying now can change the lives that are around now. When you leave it won't matter, but it does now. So why not make it better while there's a chance to?"

She does not see herself as an activist - yet.

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"I keep trying. I see a lot of my friends who are and I compare myself to them and I'm nowhere near that because they are so much more vocal and opinionated and they seem a lot smarter. I definitely want to venture in that area but I also want to be able to do it when I'm a bit more well-versed in certain issues. I don't want to spout nonsense."

The story of her swimming journey is documented in the newspaper clippings and certificates compiled by her mother Rose and kept in four thick folders, one of which also contains a signed Andy Lau album cover.

The other stories of her life are told in the seven tattoos on her person.

Her first-ever tattoo is a nautical star wrapped by a banner with the words "In family I trust", there is one of her first cat's paw print and another representing her parents Rose and Bernard. Also on her skin is a character from the Declaration of Universal Human Rights, as well as an image from one of her favourite movies (Hedwig And The Angry Inch) and the Greek word "Tetrapharmakos", which is part of a recipe for leading the happiest possible life.

Her most recent tattoo is of a narwhal on a globe with the phrase "ad astra per aspera" - Latin for "through hardship, to the stars". Goh chose a narwhal simply because "it's like the unicorn of the water and that's what I feel like".

She is no mythical creature, but one cannot be faulted for finding her feats legendary.

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