SEE PHOTOS & WATCH VIDEO: At 19, Her World’s Young Woman Achiever has earned more medals than most athletes her age. Disabled swimmer Theresa Goh talks about inner strength, and how she wouldn’t want to walk even if given the chance
With practiced speed, Theresa Goh wheels herself to the edge of the swimming pool and grabs hold of a stainless steel handrail that is part of a ladder leading into the blue water. In the wink of an eye, she’s swung herself off her wheelchair and into the pool, spearing her way towards the other end of the pool with the grace of a sleek dolphin.
We’re at former national swimmer Ang Peng Siong’s swim school at Farrer Park, filming a video of his protégé for our Young Woman Achiever award ceremony. She’s not training but, when asked to swim a few leisurely laps, she is off like a shot.
She can clock about 1 minute and 34 seconds doing the 100m freestyle—most able-bodied swimmers take two minutes. Her homemaker mum Rose, 48, jokes that she never worries about drowning when Theresa, the eldest of her three children, is around.
Observing her natural grace in the water, it’s obvious why the 19-year-old is so worthy of admiration. Born with spinal bifida, a birth defect that affected her spine and crippled her legs, Theresa overcame her physical disability to become our nation’s top disabled swimmer.
But what truly makes her a heroine is her unflagging determination to succeed. Theresa has done for local disabled athletes what Peng Siong himself did 20 years ago for swimming in Singapore—she gave Singaporeans a face to represent a select group of deserving athletes.
Look beyond her disability and you realise she’s done more for Singapore sports than most able-bodied athletes have at an international level. In 2004, she shot to fame with five personal bests at the Paralympics—more than any other Singaporean did at that Olympics. She clinched a silver at the Visa Paralympic World Cup last year and, at December’s Asean Para Games, she was the most bemedalled Singaporean athlete with three golds.
But she’s just getting started. Peng Siong notes that she’s still not peaked yet. “Imagine what she would be like once 2008 rolls around,” he says of the Beijing Paralympic Games, the Olympics for disabled sportsmen. “We’re all excited.” He hopes she’ll win a medal there, a standard no Singaporean has achieved yet.
Maybe her success has something to do with how comfortable she is in the water. Ask Theresa why she enjoys the sport so much and her answer is simple: “In the water, I can go anywhere.”
Love of the sport is one thing that gives Theresa her winning streak. But there’s not doubt that her maturity and her can-do attitude have contributed to her wins in the pool.
“I’ve known her so long and I’ve never seen her down before,” says Singapore Polytechnic student Calvin Tan, 18, Theresa’s buddy since their Tampines North Primary School days. She isn’t just a friend, but a mentor to some of the younger swimmers as well, like Yip Pin Xiu, who trains alongside Theresa at the Farrer Park swimming complex.
“I was going through a difficult time a few months ago. But Theresa told me to believe in myself. I look at her, she’s such a confident person and that alone influences me enormously,” says the 14-year-old, who calls Theresa her “big sister”.
Indeed, when it comes to swimming, Theresa’s confidence seems unshakeable. Just before the Asean Para Games, reporters asked her how many medals she was confident of winning and her reply was: “Three events. Three medals.”
She came back with three gold medals.
It may sound arrogant but Kevin Wong, the executive director of the Singapore Disability Sports Council (SDSC) tells you straight off that Theresa is tainted by none of the hubris that coaches and sports officials often bemoan in young athletes.
The girl herself is conscious of the hopes placed on her. “Training is a responsibility. I’m not just letting myself down if I don’t take it seriously,” she says a gravity beyond her years. “I’ll be letting down my parents and Uncle Siong.”
THE GOOD DAUGHTER
To give credit where it’s due, a lot of what Theresa is today is thanks to her parents, who raised her to be a champion in and out of the pool. On meeting Rose, it’s clear at least where Theresa inherited her good nature from.
Her eyes crinkle often with laughter even when she recalls how difficult Theresa’s birth was for her. The baby was born two months premature and Rose spent a day in the hospital trying to hold back the birth with medical aid. It was only after Theresa emerged that the couple discovered she was born with spina bifida.
Any new parents would have been crushed by the news, but the couple refused to rail against fate. “It was pointless to pity ourselves. We simply made adjustments in our life for a newborn baby like anyone else would. For instance, the moment we knew about Theresa, we went hunting for a flat with a lift landing,” says Rose.
“You never told me anything about the delivery,” Theresa says, turning to her mum with guilt in her eyes.
“There was no need to tell you, no need to bring up the past,” Rose replies in soft tones. The little exchange alone tells volumes about the amount of positive energy that Rose and her manager husband, Bernard, invested in raising Theresa.
The moment their firstborn emerged, the couple refused to spoil her just because she was disabled. “She had to realise not everyone in the world would give way to her. So from a young age, she had to learn to accept it and rely on herself for help. She had to clean her room and do her chores just like any other girl. Now she can go anywhere and do anything by herself.”
They have always encouraged Theresa to challenge herself, even when the going is tough. When teachers at several primary schools told them that she would be better off at a special school for the disabled, they fiercely rejected the idea.
“There’s nothing disabled about her mind. We wanted her to learn and socialise with other children at the same learning pace,” Rose remembers with indignation. It took about a month before they finally enrolled her at Tampines North Primary, which had facilities for the handicapped. They also got her a swimming coach when she was 11 for “therapeutic purposes”. When her coach realised Theresa was a gifted swimmer, he entered her in local competitions arranged by the SDSC. By 13, she was already representing Singapore in the Paralympics.
Her parents played a crucial part at yet another crossroads of her life when she almost gave up swimming two years ago to concentrate on her studies. “I’m only getting passionate about swimming right now. In the past, swimming was something I wanted to only do for fun,” says Theresa wryly.
“When I entered Singapore Polytechnic, I met new friends and was studying an exciting course in animation. I wanted to just be a normal teenager who studies and has friends.”
Most parents would be delighted with such a decision, but Rose and Bernard felt Theresa was making a big mistake and dissuaded her. “She would have regretted her decision sooner or later and ended up wondering: ‘What if I had continued swimming?’” says Rose.
Theresa eventually did postpone her polytechnic studies to give swimming her all. “After thinking things through, I realised that you could always study whenever, wherever, but you’re only young once and sports is something you do best when you’re young.”
But perhaps the greatest secret to Theresa’s success lies in the way she has embraced her handicapped condition. To her, being in a wheelchair is as normal as breathing or having hair. All this is thanks to her supportive parents and friends.
“No one has ever made fun of my handicap or made me feel inferior or different. I’m fortunate that way,” she admits. “My life has been very smooth and untroubled.”
Far from inferior, Theresa has done more with her arms and hands than most. Besides being a champion swimmer, she’s also an amateur artist specialising in portraits. “My whole family can draw,” she says with pride. “My dad loves sketching faces and my mum doodles cats. My sister is in design school and my brother sometimes doodles as well. When I quit swimming, I hope to be an animator and work somewhere like Lucasfilm, because it’s one of the best ways I can think of to make money from drawing.”
Because of her many blessings, she has never wasted time wondering how different life would be if she wasn’t handicapped.
“I’ve had so many good things in life that happened because of my handicap. Through organisations like the Asian Women’s Welfare Association, I’ve attended leadership camps where I’ve learnt how to be a little more opinionated and to question decisions rather than just blindly follow orders. If it’s up to me, I’m usually happy to just be a follower, because I prefer staying out of the limelight.”
But staying out of the limelight is no longer an option for Theresa. We predict that our Young Woman Achiever award will be the first of several more awards for her in 2006.
She will be representing Singapore at the March Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. Her prediction for the Games: two events, two personal bests. “I can’t say I’ll be winning a medal for sure because there are some strong competitors out there,” she says candidly. “But I’m sure I’ll set my own personal records.”
“If it weren’t for my handicap, I don’t think I would have been this strong,” she says. “Even if there’s some mechanical way to help me stand on my own two feet, I wouldn’t do it. I’m comfortable in wheels.” HW