Having attained Paralympic glory, veteran swimmer Theresa Goh is out to prove that passion and perseverance trumps all else.
It is 5am the morning and Theresa Goh is awake. The Singaporean swimmer and Paralympic medallist busies herself with getting ready and just half an hour later, she is in the pool for her first training of the day. The sun has barely even risen when training wraps up, and Theresa returns home for a quick bite before leaving the house again for the gym. She schedules in a quick lunch, then heads back to the pool for evening training. By the time she is done for the day, the sun has already set.
This is the gruelling schedule that led Theresa to clinch the bronze medal for the women’s 100 m breaststroke SB4 final at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. When Theresa emerged from the pool and realized she had scored a podium finish, she recounts that she took a moment to let it sink in. The medal was the culmination of 17 years of training and more than a decade of perseverance. “I will never forget that moment,” says Theresa. “You can only give a 100% and I gave that 100%. I was so relieved this moment finally happened for me.”
While Theresa’s grit and determination through the years has made her a role model for many aspiring athletes, the 31-year-old’s story is also a lesson that passion and perseverance are the only abilities that truly matter.
Theresa is Singapore's most decorated ASEAN Para Games athlete
An Independent Childhood
Theresa was born with spina bifida, a condition that confines her to a wheelchair due to incomplete formation of the spinal cord. Although she was born with a disability, Theresa recalls never feeling that much different growing up. “When you are a kid, you do not really understand the implications of what it means to have a disability,” she explains. It was only when Theresa was 11 years old that she realized she was different. Still, she counts herself lucky to have never faced any discrimination at school.
It was her parents, Theresa believes, who faced the most hardships. “For example, they tried to enrol me in several pre-schools and found out that every time they revealed my disability, they would be rejected. So my parents had to be creative and enrol me first. Only when I was accepted, they would inform the school of my disability,” she shares. “That was one of the ways they navigated the world back in the early 90s, when disability was not talked about very much.”
At home, Theresa was not treated any different from her siblings. “If I did something wrong, I was punished,” she recalls. “But my parents did try to bring me up to be more independent. When we renovated our home, they made sure that the light switches were brought down so I could reach them. Simple things like this allowed me to do things without needing help.
Theresa credits her success to her family's unwavering support over the years
Taking To The Water
Aside from her independence, Theresa also credits her parents for her sporty nature. “They got me to try all kinds of sports: wheelchair racing, tennis, basketball, badminton, kayaking, horseback riding. But swimming was the one that stuck,” she reveals.
Ever since Theresa was five, the Gohs spent their Sundays at a swimming complex near home. Right from her first encounter with the water, Theresa fell in love with swimming. “In the water, there is nothing in my way, no physical obstacles. I can truly go anywhere. It gives me a sense of freedom that land does not,” she shares.
Soon enough, what started off as a hobby turned into a full-fledged career. At the age of 12, a volunteer from the Singapore Sports and Disability Council discovered Theresa’s potential and convinced her father to let her train competitively. Two years later, she became the top para swimmer in Southeast Asia after winning six gold medals at the inaugural Asean Para Games (APG) in Kuala Lumpur. She is currently Singapore’s most bemedalled athlete from the biennial games, having garnered 30 golds as of 2017.
But competitive swimming, Theresa admits, was not entirely part of the plan. “To be honest, I am not the most competitive person. I take things one day at a time,” she confesses. “It was only at my first Paralympics in 2004 that I realized I wanted to be an elite swimmer. It was the one place I felt like a part of the majority, not the minority. That was a feeling I wanted to feel over and over again. And I knew that for that to happen, I had to go to the Paralympic Games.”
Theresa keeps active by engaging in a range of different sports
No Pain No Gain
Theresa is the first Singaporean female swimmer to compete at the Paralympics, making her debut at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. But despite an illustrious swimming career that saw her setting world records since the age of 15, Theresa’s journey has not always been smooth sailing. She faced her biggest disappointment at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008 when she missed her shot at a medal by a mere 0.07 seconds.
Having qualified for the finals during her first time at the Paralympic Games in Athens, many expected Theresa to return from Beijing with Singapore’s first Paralympic medal. “That was my biggest downfall. I had never encountered failure like that,” Theresa recalls. Disappointed in her showing, Theresa left the sport for nine months and went into power-lifting instead. “I knew that if I pushed myself to continue swimming right after the 2008 Games, I would end up hating the sport. I needed a change in environment and I decided to do what was best for me.”
Eventually, Theresa realized she missed her time in the pool. “I felt like there was something unfinished there,” she shares. “But I also knew if I went back, I had to change my mindset. I would not go to training because it was an obligation, but because I wanted to and it made me happy. I scaled back on training but every time I went, I enjoyed myself. Being in that state of happiness allowed me to have an amazing lead up to Rio. I would not take any of those moments back.”
If there is one place where Theresa feels the most free, it is in the water
A Championing Voice
These days, Theresa balances her training schedule by lending her voice to causes that she deeply believes in. Most recently, she was appointed HSBC Singapore Rugby Sevens 2018 Ambassador, where she took part in wellness talks and spoke about the importance of supporting local athletes in their pursuits from a young age. She also shared her personal journey as a pioneer for disability sports in Singapore.
By swimming competitively during the infant days of Singapore’s para-scene, Theresa had the chance to witness its development first-hand. “Things have definitely changed a lot,” Theresa shares. “Paralympic athletes are taken more seriously now and there is a lot more integration.”
She hopes that one day, society will give Paralympic athletes the same amount of respect accorded to Olympic athletes. “Both the Paralympics and the Olympics are world-class. But in some ways, I still want to see a distinction between Olympic athletes and Paralympic athletes. Not because one is better than the other but because we both deserve respect. We both train an incredible amount of hours,” she muses. “I do not want a Paralympian to be called an Olympian just because it is easier. I cannot speak for everyone but I wish people treated us equally, not better. I do not want to be treated better. At the end of the day, I just
want to be treated like an athlete.”
The 31-year-old enjoys embarking on solo trips around the world
Theresa was inducted into the national Sports Hall of Fame alongside fellow athletes Laurentia Tan (L) and Joseph Schooling (R)
This article was first published in the MillionaieAsia Issue 48 - June 2018