‘As long as I’m happy, that’s all that matters’

Alicia Wong

Paralympic swimmer Theresa Goh turns her disability into a triumph for herself and disability sports in S'pore. (Alan Lim Studio photo)

Under our "Inspiring People" monthly column, we highlight the incredible journey of one person who has overcome tremendous odds to achieve personal success. This column celebrates the triumph of the human spirit and we hope it will inspire you to reach for your dreams, too. This month, we bring to you a young disabled swimmer, whose cheerful outlook on life overcomes her physical disabilities.

Paralympic swimmer Theresa Goh sometimes wonders what life would be like if she could use her legs.

But she is quick to quash such thoughts, reminding herself that life is already good.

"It's easier not to think about it because life is not bad for me. There shouldn't be a reason why I'm regretting anything or wishing for something else, because I already have a good life. It's good and that's what I remind myself," she shared.

It is this honesty and optimism that comes across most strongly during Yahoo! Singapore's 40-minute interview with the 24-year-old, multiple gold-medal winner.

Goh was born with congenital spina bifida, resulting in an incompletely formed spinal cord. The condition left her without the use of her legs. She also only has partial hearing in her undeveloped left ear.

Goh, as a baby, underwent surgery to seperate the last three fingers on her right hand, which were fused together. She also had to correct her club feet. (Theresa Goh photo)

Not one to let it get her down, Goh turned her disability into an advantage. She started competitive swimming at 12, winning two gold medals at the National Swimming Championships in 1999. Since then, she has established herself as a force to be reckoned with.

At 15, the national swimmer briefly held the world record for 50m breaststroke and at 19, gave Singapore a second world record in 200m breaststroke. Last year, she won a gold medal in the 50m breaststroke at the 24th German International Swimming Championships and earned two bronze medals at the 2010 Asian Paralympic Games.

Goh's positivity is the first thing her father, Bernard, highlights while talking about her: "She only looks at the bright side. That's just the way she carries herself and carries on."

He and his wife have tried not to let Goh's disability hinder her from what she wants to do. Fror instance, she was allowed to climb up a 2m structure at the playground when she was nine.

"When she reached the top, I don't know whether she was happier or we were," he recalled.

Depending on her upper body strength, Goh made it to the top of the structure by herself. (Bernard Goh photo)

Goh's father first taught her to swim at five. She was later spotted by a Singapore Disability Sports Council (SDSC) staff and was eventually introduced to the SDSC's swimming squad.

"As far as I can remember, I've loved the water. The feeling of being weightless, having no boundaries around you," said Goh.  "I don't know if I was able to walk I'd still be a sportsperson. I'd like to think I would be because I like sports."

She has tried her hand at wheelchair racing, horseback riding, sailing and archery, among others. She also enjoys watching sports such as soccer — her favourite team is Manchester United — table tennis and athletics.

She joked that, after starting her rigorous training for competitive swimming, the activity had become "less fun". It is a "different kind of fun", she amended. "You know you are getting better and stronger, but you know you cannot take things too easily any more."

At her busiest, she trained 11 times a week. Now, she practices six to seven times a week.

She is studying part time at the SMa Institute of Higher Learning for a Bachelor of Science in exercise and sports science. She is also a contract worker at SDSC, where her duties include managing volunteers.

To team mate Yip Pin Xin, 19, Goh is the "big sister" she turns to for advice, be it over school matters or swimming. Goh "always gives me comforting words about how fast I can go when I'm unsure about myself," she added.

"When I first came in, I really looked up to her. ... She has achieved so many things in her life. I was very impressed, I am still very impressed by her," said Yip.

Much to be thankful for

"A lot of people ask me (about my struggles) but I really can't find any," confessed Goh.

She is thankful for parents who "were very strong" and, in spite of the shock of finding out their newborn had spina bifida, strove to learn all there is to the condition.

Goh and her mother. The swimmer is thankful for her parents, who influenced her positive thinking. (Theresa Goh photo)

"My parents are really optimistic, and it helped me be optimistic," added Goh. "They didn't over protect me but gave me a lot of freedom."

"When I started training at the SDSC, I was also very lucky to get all the help I got: the coaches I met, who trained me up to where I am today and gave me the opportunity to help myself," credited Goh.

"Disability sports is still quite new in Singapore, so to be able to be a face, in a way, is also something I'm lucky to have been able to (do). … It's a responsibility but it's something I kind of like," she said.

Theresa Goh's family and their cat, Abby. (From left to right) Goh's sister Marisa, 23; Goh; Goh's mother Rose Mok, 53; Goh's father Bernard, 54; and Goh' brother Nicholas. 20. (Theresa Goh photo)

Still, there have been some trying times.

Goh recalls how her parents had difficulty enrolling her in a kindergarten because of her disability. "So my parents did it the "cheater way". They didn't mention my disability until I was accepted," she said, giggling.

Once, she fell ill because of some food she ate. "The teacher didn't dare to touch me," recounted Goh. "It's ridiculous. I was just a sick kid." Her teacher ended up calling her parents to come down to the kindergarten.

Goh, who hopes to swim competitively for as long as she can, looks at her future with the same honesty and optimism she displays throughout the interview.

Goh hopes to continue swimming for as long as she is able to. (Theresa Goh/SDSC photo)

"I know a lot of people don't agree with this, but I don't like doing something I don't like doing. I don't believe in working in a job that pays well but I don't enjoy, then you'll be miserable, it'll be horrible. … as long as I'm happy, that's all that matters."

Theresa Goh is one of Yahoo!'s Singapore 9 nominees. Find out more here.

Related articles:

Meet Singapore's 'Mother Teresa'

'Don't blame, don't ask why ... just move on.'

Being comfortable in discomfort