Singapore Paralympian Theresa Goh stares down career crossroads

Justin Ong
Fit to Post Sports

Theresa Goh of Singapore prepares to compete in the Women's 50m Freestyle heats on day 1 of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Like many athletes in Singapore, national swimmer Theresa Goh is constantly reminded of the need to study hard and get a good job.

The multiple gold medallist and world record-breaking Paralympian is finishing up her bachelor’s course in exercise and sports science from the SMF Institute of Higher Learning – but not without some “pushing” from her parents.

According to Goh, her family wants her to get a master’s degree next. “They see it from the point of view of local companies, which they feel are still very ‘paper-minded’,” added the 26-year-old.

She was speaking to Yahoo! Singapore at the Athlete Career Programme (ACP) seminar held at Marina Bay Sands last week. Organised by the Singapore National Olympic Council’s Athletes’ Commission, the event focused on helping sportspersons transition to the working world.

Luckily for Goh, when it comes to career choices, her parents “are not so pushy”. “At the end of the day, they let me do what I want,” said the bubbly two-time Sportsgirl of the Year, who cannot use her legs and relies on a wheelchair.

While Goh can count on “very supportive” parents who have never placed limitations on her, it may not be the case for other athletes in Singapore.

The issue of local “sporting culture” was addressed by ex-national water polo player Yip Ren Kai during the ACP, which had over 40 Singaporean athletes in attendance.

“When you’re young, your mum tells you to study first. No sports,” said Yip, who works in content acquisition at Starhub. “Sports is an extra-curricular, not co-curricular activity.”

He added that a shift in attitude was needed, “We must show the parents that (their) sons and daughters can study, get good grades, work and play sports all at the same time.”

Theresa Goh and other national athletes in attendance at the ACP seminar. (Photo: SNOC Athletes' Commission)

Duty to family and country

As much as Goh expressed her desire to keep swimming, she also acknowledged the need for pragmatism.

“My parents have supported my full-time training for the past 14 years,” said the eldest of three siblings. “Now they want to retire but there’s no one (else in the family) working.”

Her hopes rest on Singapore’s Sports Excellence Scholarship, which draws on a S$40 million fund over five years to provide selected athletes with financial support to train full-time. Having gone through the interview process, Goh is now waiting for the outcome of her application, which will be announced in September.

“If I get this sponsorship, there will be at least some income, and a higher chance I’ll continue competing,” she said. “If I don’t, it’s going to be a little bit harder for me.”

In the latter event, she hopes to put her degree to use as a coach at the Aquatic Performance Swim Club founded by local freestyle legend Ang Peng Siong. Goh has trained and helped out at the Farrer Park-based facility for six years now.

Remaining involved in her passion is of utmost importance to her. “When I think about work, I want to at least do something that interests me,” she said.

These days, Goh is preoccupied with training for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And she should cherish every moment spent in the pool, according to Olympic gold-medallist windsurfer Barbara Kendall, who was another speaker at the ACP.

“Being an athlete is just the most incredibly precious time you have,” professed the New Zealander.

As for career concerns, Kendall’s advice was to step back and look at the bigger picture.

“It’s never too late. I went back to school last year and got a double degree,” said the 42-year-old, who has indicated that she would take a few more years to consider gunning for a master’s certificate next.