Serious Sisu: Theresa Goh Rui Si
Theresa Goh Rui Si is a Singaporean swimmer and Paralympic medalist. She has competed in four consecutive summer Paralympic games. From a wide-eyed 17-year old in Athens 2004, to facing bitter disappointment in Beijing 2008, recalibrating in London 2012, and finally winning a bronze medal in the 100 metre breaststroke (SB4) in Rio in 2016, Theresa has dedicated years of effort to her sport. Theresa was born with congenital spina bifida, and is deaf in one ear. She started swimming at the age of five, and taking part in competitions by age 12. She has won medals at many events, including the ASEAN ParaGames, the World Wheelchair Games and the International Paralympic Committee World Swimming Championships. Theresa is an ambassador for the lesbian gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, and is passionate about helping young people, especially in Asia, to be comfortable with their sexuality and to find the safety to be open about it. Theresa holds a Bachelor in Exercise and Sports Science and would like to take Gender Studies or Disability Studies in the future. Theresa is currently deciding whether to train for one more Paralympic Games, in Tokyo in 2020. She also has her eye on swim coaching.
Theresa’s parents selected her name, because written in Chinese it contains four heart characters, representing her fragile start in life and the battle she has fought to thrive.
Your entry into the world was a difficult and dangerous one, describe what it was like for your parents
They did have to scramble a bit, but mainly because there wasn’t much information in the beginning about spina bifida. I am also the eldest of three, so they had no experience, and then here comes a kid with a different medical condition, born prematurely at seven months. They had been for all the usual prenatal check-ups, and they had no expectation anything would be different.
They learned there were nerves pushed out of my lower spine, affecting the lower part of the body. Doctors warned my parents they had to expect a low-quality life for me, which was understandable. It was step-by-step learning as they went along. My Mum was very proactive with her Yellow Pages searching, finding which doctors to go to–it was the internet of the time! I benefited from a combination of knowledgeable doctors, and my parents being open-minded and willing to let me learn along the way.
What lead you towards swimming?
My parents had a good balance for me and my younger sister and brother. When it came to sports, swimming was a family activity, which is very common in Singapore. We would play in the pool during the weekends, so it was already part of our lives. I was also given the opportunity to try different sports, so I tried wheelchair racing, horseback riding, sailing. In the end I chose swimming because it is quite unique in the way it makes you feel.
When I was 12, I got more serious and I was spotted by one of the volunteers at the Singapore Disability Sports Council. I was training with my dad, just swimming casually. He was teaching me the basics, so he was my first real coach, I suppose.
My first real competition was when I was 12 or 13, I went to Malaysia with a really big team. That was the first time I felt truly part of something. It was such a big thing for me that when I got home, I was really upset. I didn’t want to leave. I did really well in my events, but that wasn’t the main point. It was the feeling that I belonged somewhere.
Describe your first Paralympic experience in Athens
It was such a blur. I was just in awe of everything. There were athletes everywhere with different disabilities, and you know that they are there because they’ve been training for a really long time. Some of them are world record holders. It was just an amazing environment to be in. I had seven events in Athens and made it to all seven finals, my closest was fifth place. Being a ‘newbie’, that was really exciting.
What came next?
I came back from Athens aged 17, and I decided to go to design school because there would be no exams, which I thought might possibly be easier, but I was wrong. No exams meant projects, which meant late nights, which meant no training. It was something I’d never experienced before and it was actually fun, it was new.
I knew that if I kept going I wouldn’t be able to go back to training, because I wouldn’t want to. I had to make a decision to quit school or quit swimming. My parents were never pushy about it. My decision was my decision, so I quit school. I thought that I could study any time, but training is something that I could only do for so long. I went into full time training 13 times a week—every day, twice a day except Sundays. There was gym, swim, massage, physio, everything. It became my whole life.
What was it like knowing you would be on a training regime for the next four years?
It was kind of like signing my soul away, because it was 100% in, nothing else but swimming. I went into it thinking yes I’m ready, I’m excited, but four years is a really long time, so as we got closer to it I got tired and really burnt out. I felt like there was no period of time I didn’t feel pain or soreness. I was used to the pain, but I was tired mentally, emotionally and physically. I got towards the actual Games feeling really nervous, excited and scared, but also feeling like there was a cloud. I didn’t want to feel that way, but I knew that no one was going to wait for me. I couldn’t pause for a moment, I couldn’t tell my competitors to stop training.
What happened in Beijing?
When we got to race day I was just way too nervous and maybe wanting it a bit too much, and very exhausted. I didn’t perform to the best of my abilities. I came in fourth by just 0.07 seconds. We were all kind of taken aback and really shocked. But that’s sport right? You can only do so much and on the day do the best you can. You can get your best timing ever, and someone can also achieve their best time, and they can steal it out from under you.
How did you cope with the disappointment?
Because I had put so much into it and after that come out with what I felt was nothing, I was quite devastated. It was very hard for me to get back into swimming, so I left for a bit and went to do power lifting for about nine months.
It came to a point where I had to decide whether to continue swimming or change sport. I didn’t want to leave swimming feeling like I still had more to do, so I stopped power lifting and went back to swimming.
I went to the London Games in 2012, but it felt like it was just another competition. I was definitely more relaxed than Beijing, but it was just not the same, I still didn’t feel at my best.
Describe the process of re-balancing after that
I had been carrying an injury, so I went for surgery to fix spurs inside my shoulder joint in December 2014. Then I went back to training under a new coach, Mick Massey.
I still didn’t have faith in myself. It was that feeling of trying to do your best but not knowing how it will work out. I was training, and my goal set for Rio was to make it to the finals in 100m breaststroke, my pet event. I’m in the SB4 category, which is around the middle of classifications from 1-10. [The lower the number is, the greater the severity of the disability].
What I liked about my coach was that he didn’t rush things. We would set a goal and work towards it step by step.
What was your mindset approaching Rio?
I decided I was just going to do my best, no pressure. After Beijing, there was a lot of working on my happiness and finding out what I wanted. I got to 2015 and decided ok, I’m going to work towards really giving everything I can for Rio and possibly Tokyo in 2020.
One of the things that also made a difference was a spexScholarship (Sports Excellence Scholarship), where they pay full time athletes to train. It allows us to treat our sport more like a job and feel more financially stable.
In lead up to Beijing, I hadn’t learned yet to give myself a break. All day every day I was thinking about swimming, which was really tiring. I was not mature enough mentally to know how to handle it all. From 2015 onwards I had a mind shift and felt more sure of myself. I felt like life is so short, I didn’t want to live it doing something I didn’t want to do.
What was different about your fourth Paralympic Games, in Rio?
My parents came to Rio with me, so that was part of it. They weren’t at Athens or London. I thought, what if it happens again? They’re going to be so hurt, and so am I. I kept reminding myself that I was doing well in training and I was prepared.
The morning of the first heat, I got ready, got to the blocks, and felt not nervous at all. I thought, what is this strange feeling of calm? I felt a wave of joy and happiness, looking up in the stand to see my parents. I raced and got a four second PB–it felt like a dream. I touched the wall and was looking at my time and waiting for it to turn back to the actual figure. I thought there was maybe a technical error.
Before the next race I was a little more nervous, because I knew what was at stake. I knew I had to hold on for the whole time. When I touched the wall it was just a wave of relief, I had third spot. A bronze.
How did it feel to have your medal?
It was relief, disbelief. My long-time Israeli competitor, Inbal Pezaro, was in the changing rooms before the race, and she told me: this is your time.
It was nice that she said that. This was someone I’ve known through my whole swimming career. To have that kind of support from her was pretty unbelievable.
I got out of the pool and I cried into her shoulder, cried into my team mate’s shoulder, went and cried into my mum’s shoulder. My coach was crying when I saw him. Everybody had been on edge, they knew what was possible.
How do you feel now about one more Games?
I felt before Rio like Tokyo would be my last Games, but now I’m very tired.
I’m not so worried about results anymore. It’s about whether I want to continue doing this. Currently we’re training towards the ASEAN Para games in Malaysia, then we’ll see what happens after that. Right now I just really want to soak everything in and enjoy life.
What other challenges do you want to take on?
Recently I’ve been more involved in identifying as an ‘out’ athlete, especially in Singapore. I feel like sexuality is something a lot of people don’t talk about in Asian countries. When I was in Hong Kong recently for an LGBT conference called ‘Out Leadership’ people were asked to name one ‘out’ athlete in Asia. No one could. I think that’s a little bit disturbing. I don’t want to be part of the problem, so I am trying to move towards being a part of the helping.
What approach are you going to take?
I will be looking at ambassadorial roles and speaking more publicly. I really don’t know how anyone could be surprised, seeing as I’m not really ‘in the closet’, but I just don’t know what the reaction will be.
I talk to schools and corporates, but I am a little bit hesitant to approach that topic in schools, because I know how sensitive it can be. I’m cautious with teens and kids in Asia, because I don’t want them to come out and then be at risk. I push the message about coming out if you are safe and you feel like you can. If you don’t feel safe, please don’t. Everything in your own time, I definitely don’t think it’s an obligation.
Will you draw on some of the psychological strength you’ve learned through your sport in approaching this challenge?
Yes, there is a certain part you learn from it. When I get scared, there’s that sense of knowing why I’m scared but also identifying why I don’t have to be, backing myself up with the reasons to be braver, and believing in them.
What is your advice to parents of kids who may have more challenges than usual to combat?
To parents, I say I know it’s hard, because no one receives a manual on how to steer your kids. The important thing is to have a balance of giving freedom and knowing when to push. What really helped me was being given the room to make my own mistakes, not to the point of permanent harm, but being allowed to fail really helped me.
If I had gotten my bronze in Beijing, things would have turned out differently. My failure led me to ultimately succeed. I really think it made me the person I am today. It taught me about humility, a lot about patience, and a lot about not giving up.
For girls, I think … it’s hard to be a girl in this world. It’s really not the easiest, but you’re born into it, you’ve got no choice. Ignore what people might say. I haven’t really listened to the negatives about what girls can and can’t do, maybe because I’m stubborn. I would encourage girls, boys and any person to just do whatever makes you happy. Because when it comes to the end of your life, you can’t rewind.