"A pool became this place for me which provided so much freedom compared to when I was on land," says Theresa Goh
Paralympic medalist Theresa Goh: ‘I was thinking: do I have to quit swimming and find a job?’
Rio bronze medalist in swimming on her journey, inconsistency in rewarding champions - and the freedom she discovered in the pool
Arguably, swimming is Singapore’s most popular sport. In 2019, although Singapore only had a population of 5.7 million, swimming pools recorded an estimated 6.52 million visits.
Furthermore, I was once a competitive swimmer and even came first in the 2015 Singapore International Triathlon, although it sounds like more than it actually is. Given my background, it was quite shocking to discover that I had never heard of Singaporean Paralympic swimmers and their achievements.
Not only had these athletes qualified for the Paralympics, but thanks to them a country with a six-million strong population has achieved three paralympic gold medals, one silver, one bronze and even broken several world records. Yet, a Singaporean teenager interested in swimming had never heard of Theresa Goh and Yip Pin Xiu – so why has my country done nothing to promote them?
Theresa Goh appears on my screen, a Pride Progress flag and a feminist We can do it poster in the background. She does not hold back when I ask her about the lack of attention Singaporean Paralympians receive: “As simple as it is, I think people view that those with disabilities are not equal to able-bodied people. Many still think Paralympians do not deserve as much and do not work as hard.”
Born on the 16th of February 1987, Goh is a swimmer best known for her breaststroke. She represented Singapore in Athens, Beijing, London and Rio, the final games resulting in her becoming a Paralympic bronze medalist. She retired from professional sport in 2019.
We met online primarily due to the recent surge of cases of COVID-19, and at the very same time when world-class athletes from all around the globe were flying to Tokyo to compete in the most unique games in modern history.
Curious to discover an athlete’s perspective on the games, I asked Theresa how she felt about the event taking place during a pandemic.
“I personally think they should have cancelled or postponed the event mainly because it poses such a large safety risk,” she replied. “On the other hand, I understand why people are trying not to postpone it and continue with the games instead. However, it is really quite dangerous. While we need to be able to move forward, progress and go back into a life as normal as possible, I think holding such a large scale game holds such a large, high amount of risk.”
Whilst discussing how COVID-19 was going to affect the games, Theresa made an observation which surprised me. Namely, she had found that accessibility for people with disabilities had improved due to the pandemic.
She said: “Previously, there were some events which were held in a physical space that I was not able to access but because everything is moving digitally, I can easily and smoothly access everything now.
“There is a lot more of an equal plane for everyone because even if I was someone who was visually impaired and needed to use a computer, it would be set up for me and my needs. Therefore, I could access the digital world just like everyone else.
“However, there is the matter of the financial background. Technology costs money. If you have more money, you have more technology which means more access. Even looking at people with disabilities, it is about having the means to access the same amount of technology as others with disabilities, who are wealthier.”
For equality’s sake, Paralympics and Olympics should be united
Wanting to know how Singapore produces champions only to subsequently forget about them, I asked Theresa how her journey in sports began.
Due to a condition affecting the development of the spinal cord, congenital spina bifida, Theresa has never had the use of her legs. As a result, she began swimming “as early as I could remember” because her parents always ensured she had some form of physical activity, whether it be for rehabilitation or exercise.
“Because I started so early, I was pretty good at navigating the pool. It became this place for me which provided so much freedom compared to when I was on land whether it was when I was using crutches or my wheelchair. I was still a lot more able-bodied when I was in the pool.”
Thus parental endearment resulted in Theresa finding her calling. At the age of twelve, she was introduced to the Sports Disability Council and began swimming competitively. She then went on to dominate international events including the World Swimming Championships and broke the world record in the 50 metre breaststroke at the 4th ASEAN Paragames in 2008.
Nevertheless, Theresa’s path in swimming was not always easy. After she failed to make the podium at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, she took a break from swimming to pursue powerlifting instead. Nine months later, she reached a crucial moment where she was forced to choose between the two sports. However, she realised her journey in swimming was not finished.
When I asked Theresa how she persevered through this tough period in her sporting career, she explained: “I went back into the pool and tried to reframe my mind. I tried to learn to enjoy the water once again. It was tough. Every time I entered the pool, I was reminded of my experience at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. It was a conscious decision to change how I felt about the water and my failure because up to the point of 2008, I wasn’t ready to face that.
“But I knew deep down I wanted to keep going and I was going to try. It was a very internal thing. It would have made more sense to do something else. Staying in the sport was not easy and the future was uncertain. I had to mentally reframe to learn to be okay with not winning and getting what I wanted. If things didn’t turn out the way I wanted [them] to, it was about knowing how I dealt with that.”
She did not have to deal with failure again, though. Her new approach towards swimming led to her great success: a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
This is a story about maturing as an athlete. She said: “I had an injury up to that point and in order to train for Rio, I knew I had to first ensure I was injury free and mentally ready. I also had to prepare myself if I did not achieve my goal of gaining a medal. I had to reframe my mindset before going all in. I managed to do all that.
“Even though I was extremely nervous and the games felt like the Beijing Paralympics, especially because my parents came to support me, the feeling was very different: I was more excited than nervous. I was looking forward and ready to race instead of dreading it. I knew deep down that whatever happened, I would be okay with it. But it was good it went my way.”
I am once again appalled that I learned about her struggle and success years later. Being aged ten at the time is hardly an excuse, as during the same summer of 2016, Singapore had also gained its first Olympic gold medal in swimming – and I, along with the entire country, watched in awe.
Joseph Schooling, the nation’s very own hero, was greeted by thousands, including the Prime Minister, upon his return home. On the television screen, I watched him parade through the streets on a massive bus whilst the country ecstatically cheered him on. A couple of weeks later, Yip Pin Xiu and Theresa Goh returned home from the Paralympics with two gold and one bronze medal. Not only did they not receive the same amount of recognition and attention Schooling had, I never even knew of their existence.
Singapore has had a history of treating Paralympians unfairly. From the very beginning, gold medallist Olympians were awarded one million Singapore dollars (S$) in comparison to the S$100,000 gold medallist Paralympians received. This sparked an uproar after Paralympian Yip Pin Xiu’s first gold medal win at Beijing 2008. Subsequently, the prize money was raised to S$200,000 – still a five fold difference. In 2016, this resulted in the fact that two gold (S$200,000 each) and one bronze (S$50,000) Paralympic medals were worth less than half of what the Olympic gold medalist received (S$1,000,000).
The government defended the allocation of the prize money by stating that it was solely due to Olympians having a larger competition base than Paralympians. Indeed, para-swimming is not only smaller (in Rio there were in total 593 para-swimmers and 955 Olympic swimmers), but each event is split into 14 categories: athletes with physical disabilities compete in categories one to ten, those with blindness and visual impairments start in categories 11 to 13, and category 14 is for athletes with mental disabilities. In effect, during the Rio 2016 Paralympics, Yip Pin Xiu won the women’s 100 metres backstroke event in the S2 class, which was a straight final as she was one of six competitors.
Yet, the government’s argument is significantly weakened by the fact that Singaporean paralympians were initially not funded at all. Until 2013, Theresa did not earn a salary from the sport. She recounts: “It came to a point where all my peers were earning a living and preparing themselves for financial freedom. I was really worried because I didn’t have much savings. I wasn’t ready to think about the future. It came to the point where I was thinking – do I have to quit swimming and find a job?”
Furthermore, economically, it would not hurt Singapore’s economy to award equal cash prizes to both Paralympic and Olympic athletes. According to the World Bank national accounts data and OECD National Account data files, in 2020, Singapore had an estimated GDP per capita of 60,000 US dollars, one of the highest in the world. Surely it would not be injurious in any way for the government to reward our Paralympians equally with able-bodied athletes?
Media are yet another problem. According to the Disability Studies Quarterly research, reporters from the United States, New Zealand, the Middle East and Austria did not want to cover the 2002 Winter Paralympics due to one of the following reasons: they felt that there was a lack of audience interest and appeal, the games was not an actual competition and there were too many logistical challenges in covering the event.
Singapore is a good example of the blind circle in which Paralympians find themselves: lack of funding and media coverage decreases popularity, which in turn serves as a justification for lesser funding.
A lot has changed, however since the Paralympics was initially launched in 1948 as a gathering of British veterans of the Second World War.
“I think it has gotten a lot better over the years. From the perspective of a paralympic athlete, from when I started in 1999 till now, I have seen a lot of change”, Theresa Goh told me.
“Previously, newspapers used to place athletes with disabilities in the home section, now they are actually placing us in the sports section. It seems so simple now, but it was the way they did it in the past. Nobody really thought too much about it or they could not really say anything about it.”
In response to the injustice in society, I ask what needs to be done to speed up the process of bringing equality to sports.
“Change is inevitable”, Goh answers. “But it is also about you as a person, and how you are able to make change wherever you are. It is a conscious effort, because it is quite simple: it starts from things which then lead to viewing both [groups of] athletes as [being] equal. First thing is to increase the amount of representation, because how often do you view paralympic athletes? A very simple example was when the Olympic games were shown on tv. Up to very recently, the paralympic games were not shown on tv but when they did, it was very specific on focusing on our local athletes.
“It is a very simple example because it is only about viewership but then it is about people viewing it and seeing how the amount of hours dedicated to the Olympics is equal to the athlete’s effort. But when the Paralympic games come around, only a half an hour/hour highlight is shown which is going to somehow change one’s mindset possibly because they don’t deserve as much/not as high performing. It’s almost as simple as ensuring you mention the paralympics whenever you mention the olympics.
“It is a conscious decision by many parties whether it is media viewership, the newspapers. Whenever you think about publicity of the Olympic athletes in Singapore do you think about the Paralympic athletes? I think it really starts from there because the more people are interested, the more they would give.
“It is a supply and demand kind of thing”, she summarises, adding that in Singapore Paralympics will be streamed via MeWatch service.
unbeaten world records
Since January 21, 2008 Theresa Goh’s 52.68 has not been beaten in 50m breaststroke SB4 class.
Since May 27, 2007 her 4:17.38 remains the fastest in 200m breaststroke SB4 class.
Source: The International
There is another part of this picture which indicates that Theresa is an even more unlikely heroine: she is not only a person with disability but also identifies as being queer.
When I asked her how being a part of the LGBT+ community affected the support Singapore offered her, she laughed and said: “I honestly think they sometimes leave it out. It is easier to be blind to the fact I am a queer athlete because many times, the things people highlight are my sporting achievements. They don’t mention it unless they really have to or they subtly put it in. I don’t think it is a celebrated thing yet.
“However, I’m grateful that The Straits Times published my coming out story because I never expected it. It may not have been the complete story, many things were cut out but it was still true to my story and as good as I expected it to be.”
This last quote completes the image of Theresa Goh: despite being female, Asian and a queer person with a disability she constantly looks at the bright side. A wall-breaking optimist.
There is, however, a larger issue evoked by her story. In Singapore, Theresa is just one of thousands of people belonging to minorities, who hold an incredible amount of potential. However, the vast majority of them are deprived of familial support and opportunities to thrive.
I just cannot prevent myself from imagining what would happen if we provided them with funding and opportunities to pursue their passions. A small island nation with a mere six million people could become a factory producing champions just like Theresa Goh and Yip Pin Xiu.
So what could one do to help this factory emerge? Our society is truly shaped by the principle of “supply and demand”, so by taking the time to watch the upcoming Paralympic games, one is expressing one’s support for these inspiring athletes. The more people watch it, the more popular it will become. Although the change is slow, I hope I will live to see the day when Paralympians will enjoy true equality.