SINGAPORE: Swimming has given Theresa Goh a golden crown.
"This is natural," the 25 year old says, twirling her short, wavy golden—brown locks.
"I did dye it very dark brown, but because I don’t wear a swim cap, the water’s turned my hair this colour."
And in a first hint of wits beneath Theresa’s seemingly stern facade, she playfully adds, "so no, my hair colour and style aren’t inspired by Tao Li".
While maintaining a mane difference to Singapore’s butterfly swim queen who once famously sported short, blonde locks, the Paralympian swimmer is like Tao Li —— both determined sportswomen who have each made their mark.
The two—time Paralympian who has represented Singapore since 2004 prefers to compare herself against her best friend and fellow Paralympic swimmer Yip Pin Xiu, who won Singapore its first gold medal in 50m backstroke at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games.
"I’m very average —— I’m not like Pin Xiu," says wheelchair—bound Theresa, although there’s no denying she has made waves in her sport and created ripples that positively influenced those around her.
In a separate interview, Pin Xiu revealed that she looked up to her big sister Theresa for inspiration.
Meanwhile, Theresa says she gets the occasional stranger walking up to her, telling her "you’ve done Singapore proud", or "keep doing what you’re doing".
Theresa started competitive swimming when she was 12 after being talent—spotted in a public pool by a sports volunteer.
Her first competition in 1999 —— the National Swimming Championships where she won six medals —— set the pace of her sporting career.
Theresa has since won numerous gold medals at major games, such as the ASEAN ParaGames in Thailand in 2005 and 2008, and the US Paralympics Swimming National Championships in 2006.
She was also ranked world—number—two after her 100m breaststroke time of 1:58:14 (SB4 category) at the 2007 German Open.
In the upcoming London 2012 Paralympic Games however, Theresa will compete in the 50m and 100m freestyle events instead of the breaststroke.
"Breaststroke is more technical so it takes more effort to shave seconds off my timing," she explains.
That, coupled with the fact that more younger and stronger breaststroke athletes are emerging, led Theresa to make a strategic decision to focus on freestyle.
Theresa competes in the S5 Paralympic category for freestyle, which puts her in the middle of the S1 to S12 range of disability levels.
So far, Theresa’s been hopeful where training and preparation are concerned.
"My target time for 50m freestyle is below 44 seconds. I’m now at 45, but to shave off that one second takes a lot of effort," she explains.
"For me, there are balance issues because I can’t use my legs to kick and my arms will have to do all the work in water. So I’ve got to ensure I’ve got enough arm power and that my freestyle techniques are properly executed before I can go for the burst."
Theresa’s secrets to her "burst" are her strong arms which can lift 110kg of weights at the bench press.
What will also power her to the finish is her positive outlook in life.
She’s got the nerves
Theresa’s fierce determination in the water has its roots in the early stages of her life —— born prematurely, her body has had to fight off potentially deadly infections.
Suffering from spina bifida, where the vertebrae along her spine weren’t fully formed, Theresa was made more prone to life—threatening infections due to her exposed nerves and tissues.
Although having no use of her lower limbs caused by her condition, Theresa grew up to be a fit, healthy, young woman with a positive outlook.
"I’ve never been a negative person. That’s the way I had been brought up. I hadn’t really gone through hardship and didn’t face severe difficulties in life," says Theresa.
"My parents were the ones who faced hardship —— when I was born, they had no idea I would be like that and they had to deal with the stress of bringing me up and providing me with care. It’s not easy to cope with a premature and disabled child, so I really respect them for it.
"When I was growing up, my parents decided that I will not be brought up as a disabled person, so they treated me like any other child."
Theresa only started being treated different when she started school.
"My teachers and classmates treated me differently in that, they showed me more care, and I didn’t have to do PE lessons," says the Tampines North Primary School and Dunman Secondary School alumnae.
"And I was quite happy with just sitting there and watching my classmates sweat it out," she adds with a laugh.
She’s no "masochist"
The major stress in Theresa’s life was probably in 2004 just as she was about to start year two in Temasek Polytechnic, where she studied design.
"I was quite close to quitting swimming," Theresa says, revisiting the pros and cons she weighed during her two—month decision period when she had to choose between studying and swimming.
"I enjoy being in water, but I don’t enjoy training. It’s only human. Training pushes us to the point of pain and I’m no masochist. But I also recognise that I had gained a lot from swimming, such as an improvement in my health and confidence."
In the end, Theresa opted for the "safer" option of quitting school, since she felt she wouldn’t be able to return to her sport if she had left.
For one who firmly believes "everything happens for a reason", Theresa certainly felt she made the right decision.
Shortly after she plunged herself into full—time training, Theresa set the world record for the 200m breaststroke at the US Paralympics Swimming National Championships, with a time of 4 minutes 30 seconds.
A year later, she came out tops in the 2007 Danish Open in Denmark, bagging gold medals in the 100m breaststroke, 100m butterfly, 100m freestyle and 200m individual medley events.
At the Beijing Paralympics in 2008, however, Theresa’s hopes for an outstanding showing sank.
"I returned from the games slightly disappointed because I had expected medals," she reflects on her performance.
"Then I realised I had placed too much emphasis on the outcome of the games... I had put in my all and trained my hardest and I should be proud of my results."
Theresa, who is now set to complete her part—time sports science degree, puts in 10 training sessions a week to prepare for the upcoming London Paralympics.
"For the London Games, I’m going to try not to place so much emphasis on the outcome and to focus on training hard and doing my best in the events," she says.
To motivate and inspire her efforts, Theresa doesn’t look too far.
"I draw inspiration from myself. It’s good to have role models but what if one day, your role model fails you, or stops doing that thing that inspires you?
"So I depend on myself because I know that I’d be driven the moment I set my mind to achieving a certain goal," she explains.
Reflecting on her career, Theresa says: "When I was just starting out in 1999, I never thought I’d ever participate in the Paralympics as it seemed like such a distant dream.
"All I wanted to do then, was to compete for my country and to see how far I could go, but after 13 years, I’m on my way to my third Paralympics."
When Theresa takes to the pool at the 2012 Paralympic Games, whether she conquers the 50m and 100m events or not, what’s certain is that she’s covered the distance beyond the games and pool.