Why I Play series: Para swimmer Theresa Goh

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SINGAPORE — With a couple of world records under her belt and a bronze medal from the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, Theresa Goh is a well-known name in the para swimming community.

The veteran athlete has been flying the Singapore flag and swimming competitively for almost 20 years. While she has tried all sorts of other sports from horseback riding to wheelchair tennis and even powerlifting, nothing has given her the same joy and feeling as swimming, a sport that she picked up when she was just five.

Yahoo News Singapore caught up with the 32-year-old at the recent Singapore leg of the World Para Swimming World Series, and she talked about the state of para athletes in Singapore and what keeps her coming back to the pool.

Theresa Goh has been swimming competitively for almost 20 years. (PHOTO: Stefanus Ian)
Theresa Goh has been swimming competitively for almost 20 years. (PHOTO: Stefanus Ian)

Q: How did you get involved in this sport? How did you come to choose which events to focus on?

A: It started as a form of rehabilitation. My parents wanted me to be active because, as a person with a disability who uses a wheelchair, they felt that having a form of physical activity was important. In Singapore, though, I think swimming as a sport came naturally because of how many pools there are.

I started swimming for fun when I was about five, my first coach was my dad. Later on, when I was about 12, I was spotted by a volunteer from the Singapore Disability Sports Council and they suggested to my parents that I joined the upcoming Swimming Nationals. After doing quite well at that event, I was then asked to join the swim training programme.

Since then, I’ve also started trying out the different disability sports available. I’ve tried wheelchair racing, wheelchair tennis, horseback riding, badminton and powerlifting, just to name a few I can remember at the moment. But I stuck to swimming because it was the most natural to me. It was – and still is – the one place i feel the most free.

I chose to specialise in breaststroke because after training all the different strokes, it was the one i did the best in. In the most practical sense, it was the one that gave me the most chance for success.

Which muscle groups are most involved in this sport? Which parts of your body ache the most after a training session or a race and why?

For me specifically, it’s mostly the upper body; arms, shoulders, back. There is also some core (muscles) involved to ensure my body position is high enough in the water because otherwise my legs will sink and create more drag. After a hard training session, usually my shoulders, pecs, and arms feel it the most. After a race, because I mostly race breaststroke, it’s usually my forearms that feel it after a race.

What are the biggest misconceptions people have of this sport? Have you received any not-so-nice remarks for pursuing this sport?

The biggest misconception, I think, is that para swimming – or any disability sport in general – is not as difficult, or maybe not as legitimate, as able-bodied sport.

Why I Play series: Para Swimmer Theresa Goh (PHOTO: Stefanus Ian)
Theresa Goh feels that the biggest misconception about disability sports is that it is not as difficult as able-bodied sports. (PHOTO: Stefanus Ian)

To be clear, I don’t think disability sport is harder, or more legitimate. I think all sports are pretty different. I know it’s been pretty commonly implied that, because I have a disability, whatever I do will never be taken as seriously. Or that just because I have a disability, the fact that I’m doing something that people don’t expect disabled people are able to do, it’s automatically an inspiration.

When it comes to sports in Singapore, I think some people still don’t view sports as a legitimate profession; compared to being a doctor, lawyer or banker.

In your years of swimming, what has been your most memorable experience?

My memory is terrible, so I don’t know if my most memorable experience is due to recency or because of how good the experience was, but I have to say it was definitely my Rio experience.

Basically the whole year leading up to the actual event in Rio was filled with great feelings and it felt like everything that could go my way did eventually. It was just made even more incredible with the way my Rio journey ended. It truly couldn’t have gone better to me.

What about your most heartbreaking?

Beijing 2008 for sure. I wish it wasn’t so, but I can still kind of feel the pain and sadness from the Beijing Paralympics.

Straight after the 2004 Athens Paralympics, I almost pretty much dove straight into Beijing 2008. I tried balancing school with training but I knew that if I did that, I wouldn’t be able to give 100 per cent to both. So, after I left Temasek Polytechnic to pursue full-time swim training for the next four years, I felt like I had given all I could give. When the end result wasn’t what I had envisioned, I crumbled.

I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, but I do believe some things at least happen to serve as a lesson for the future. It was pretty beautiful how it ended up – that my parents were able to be at both Beijing and Rio, so it wasn’t just me who got to feel a sense of redemption.

Share an inspiring story you have of a tournament or an experience with teammates that made you love this sport even more.

It’s not one particular event, but I can recall a few incidences. In the call room, when they were calling the names of competitors in the event and couldn’t find one of the people in the list, a fellow competitor knew that the person in question was just waiting outside the call room, so they informed the official who was calling out the names.

I think that’s a small incident, but she could have just kept quiet and let her competitor miss her event, but she didn’t.

Another incident was with a long time competitor of mine. We have raced against each other many times, especially in the breaststroke events. The four years leading up to Beijing, both of us were slated to get the top two podium placings. She ended up getting second, and I was fourth.

In Rio, when I was in the changing room for the same event, I exchanged a few words with her and I remember something she told me that surprised me but gave me a boost in confidence. She said, “This is your time.”

When I came out of the pool, after having won my first Paralympic medal, hers was the first shoulder I cried into.

Why I Play series: Para Swimmer Theresa Goh (PHOTO: Stefanus Ian)
Theresa Goh has encountered many instances of kindness among her fellow competitors that has inspired her. (PHOTO: Stefanus Ian)

Was there a time you felt like walking away from the sport? What made you stay?

Many times. It’s hard sometimes, especially when I was younger. I felt like I was missing out on social events and fun with friends. It was also probably during the period I was burnt out and just exhausted all the time. At that point, I stayed because I felt like I had to stay.

The next time I felt like quitting was right after Beijing and I was so affected by the result that I felt like I couldn’t be near a pool, so I did leave swimming, but only for nine months. I joined powerlifting for nine months but returned because I felt like I had to give myself another shot. I didn’t feel done yet.

Years later, financial worries were piling. So when the spexScholarship (Sports Excellence Scholarship) was first introduced, I applied for it. The first time I applied, I was rejected and that hurt my ego and honestly made me question whether it was really time to quit.

But I stayed, because deep inside I felt strongly that there was a small spark returning. I told myself that they rejected me for good reason; I wasn’t performing at the standard I needed to be. So I set goals and planted myself properly into training and aimed for the next competition to do better at and applied the next time and finally got in.

What was the worst injury experienced?

Swimming isn’t a really high impact sport. The most common injuries we have are shoulder injuries because of overuse. But, to me, the worst injury I experienced wasn’t anything physical.

It was mental. I think physical injuries can generally be dealt with. If it’s too serious, and you have to quit, at least it’s pretty certain. When I was going through mental and emotional hurt, it was hard for me to even pinpoint how i was supposed to help myself. I wasn’t sure if I would ever get to the point where I was going to be well enough to swim.

I had help from my sports psychologist but it was so internal that I felt the most uncertain with life in between 2008 and 2010. In those instances, I think it really helped that I was able to listen to myself and kind of figure out what I needed to do, which comes with a lot of listening, self awareness and lots of patience.

What life lessons has this sport taught you?

That nothing is as serious as you think it is at first. Happiness above all else. However morbid it sounds, I constantly think about the end of my life and how life is so fleeting. I don’t want to waste this life. Do no hurt, and be happy. In a general sense, that’s all i need.

How can people get involved if they’re interested in this sport?

Contact me on my Instagram! Or they can also contact the Singapore Disability Sports Council, you can find them on their website or on Facebook.

Can you tell me in one sentence why you love this sport

The feeling of the water as it surrounds and carries me, the feeling that I am a master of my surroundings, which I don’t always get on land – I don’t think I will feel like this anywhere else and this is why I swim.

Why I Play series: Para Swimmer Theresa Goh (PHOTO: Stefanus Ian)
Why I Play series: Para Swimmer Theresa Goh. (PHOTO: Stefanus Ian)