“Can I just say something? When I was a student, I would go to Wheelock after school, where Borders used to be and just sit at the magazine section, smelling the perfume samples and looking at pictures from Vogue and other fashion magazines,” Quah Ting Wen sheepishly admits, ahead of our interview. The 29-year-old national swimmer and I are sitting at the Longines Boutique at Wisma Atria, marking the end of the three-day tour of the Queen’s Baton Relay in Singapore ahead of the Commonwealth Games, which will take place from July 28 to August 8 in Birmingham, with Longines as the official timekeeper.
At the back of her mind, time is something that’s been circling around, given that she’s reaching the tail-end of her swimmer career. “Back when I was 16, you could ask me what I was going to be doing in the next few years, and I could say I’ll be swimming for sure! But now that I’m closer to the end, time both slows down and speeds up at the same time. I try to savour every moment of it. And at the same time, I look back on my entire 18 years of swimming and how much it has given to me,” she muses.
Quah’s foray into competitive swimming was an accidental yet natural process. As a kid, she loved lounging in the pool at the NUS Alumni House, where both her parents graduated from, until her fingers got pruny. Given that she enjoyed the water so much, her parents signed her up for a survival course, which comprised of the rudimentary bronze, silver and gold stars. After which, they asked if she wanted to learn the four strokes. Quah adds: “Being a kid, you don’t really say no to a lot of things. So I said yes since that meant having more time in the water.”
From then on, everything fell into place. She credits her form and technique to the first coach she had with lessons at Queenstown’s public pool, where the skill work for swimming was drilled in her. She recalls: “It was just laps and laps of drills and techniques. It wasn’t fast training, but very slow, very detailed work. I stayed with him for about a year until he passed away.”
At the age of 11, she then moved to a structured swimming club, where the Singapore Swimming Association brought in a coach from Australia to start the high performance National Training Centre. “I trained twice a day, 10 sessions a week. 5.30 mornings, 4.30 afternoons, with school in between. That was my life until I finished university,” Quah says.
While it might sound extremely gruelling to anyone who’s not in competitive sport, Quah layers her words with tenacity and focus; commanding a sense of ownership over a lifestyle that isn’t suited for just anyone. She affirms that there’s no other place as she would feel as comfortable as she does in the water. Perhaps it’s because the choice of getting into it was such a natural process for her; even if that meant setting foot into a career that demands most of your time, energy and sacrifices, with swimming being a sport that’s year-round and not seasonal, unlike others.
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Of course, she pauses and ponders when we discuss the mental hardships that come alongside it. “Swimming is an individual sport and it gets very lonely sometimes even though we travel and train as a team. But I think once you’re out of the school system, and you try to pursue sports in Singapore as a professional, it starts getting really lonely. And I feel like not a lot of athletes talk about it enough.” Thankfully, Quah has a strong support system to share her burdens with—her two younger siblings—Quah Zheng Wen and Quah Jing Wen—who have both followed in her footsteps in competitive swimming. “Because my mom was spending so much time ferrying me to the pool, my siblings just naturally got into the sport. They have me to thank for that,” she laughs.
Her eyes light up with every mention of her siblings and it quickly appears that her family remains to be an important fixture in her swimming career. “I absolutely love that my siblings are in the sport with me. They push me, they motivate me. We’re very competitive at the pool and also at home, but not with one another. I think we are very supportive of one another—when one of us fails, or faces a loss, we all feel that loss together. When someone succeeds, we all celebrate that together,” Quah says.
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Despite being the eldest of three, Quah finds herself emulating traits from her younger siblings with her daily mantras—in something she calls ‘power statements’. “I get very nervous before I race. I do tend to overthink a lot so I run through these power statements in my head over and over again, just so that there’s no space for the negative thoughts. I repeat: ‘I’m brave, I’m happy, I’m healthy and I’m strong.’ To be brave is something I see from my younger brother, who fearlessly takes on anything even if he isn’t physically prepared for it. As a perfectionist, I panic once something is amiss—as trivial as it can be—and that can affect my entire game. So that’s why I want to be brave.”
Your parents got really lucky with the three of you—didn’t they!
[Laughs] Yes, they aren’t like any “swimming parents” I know. They are not competitive nor do they know a lot about the sport. But back in school, my dad did play volleyball and my mom was a basketball player so I guess there’s sort of a relation there?
How have you learnt to deal with stress and the tremendous amount of pressures that come your way?
It has taken a lot of falling over and a lot of disappointment. I think being the oldest of three, I have to learn it the hard way where I don’t have someone older to guide me through. Or in the sport of swimming, I don’t have a senior to talk me through what being a professional athlete is like. But I think what has helped me the most is learning to surround myself with quality. People who lift me up and inspire me, instead of bringing me down. Surrounding myself with quality food, quality sleep, and rest—especially now that I’m older.
How has getting older affected your performance?
My recovery rates are a lot slower right now. Things that were so easy for me at the age of 17, now take me a lot longer to recover from. At the same time, I’m also stronger, more powerful than I was ten years ago, thanks to the weight training I’ve been doing. So it’s a good balance. I’ve learnt to also manage my expectations—to become more aware of myself, and when to take a step back. To understand that rest and recovery is not a bad thing. I think being a competitive athlete or even in school or at work, the mindset is always more is better. The more I do, the better. The longer hours I work, the better. It’s not a bad thing, but I think finding the balance and juggling in-between is important too.
With the recent incident of Simone Biles at the Olympics, there’s been a lot of conversation on mental health in the competitive sport space. What are your thoughts about it?
I’m very grateful that she talked about it, when she did and the way she handled it. I think it’s a very tough conversation to have in any line of work, but especially in competitive sport. Just because the world sees athletes in a very one-dimensional way—a lot of it has to do with media portrayal—so you only see the beautiful parts like victory. But very rarely, do they show the behind the scenes and the work that goes into it. And I think athletes don’t like to admit their struggles, and this includes myself given that I have a lot of pride when it comes to not wanting to admit to being weak. Because that’s who we are, that’s what we identify with—being an athlete means you’re tough, you’re strong, you’re no.1, and owning up to mental health struggles might come across as us looking weak or soft. It’s a tough conversation to have. But I’m very glad that people are opening up about it and it’s becoming more of a norm.
What’s your idea of self-care and quality time?
I’ve two dogs at home so I walk the dogs a lot. My quality time doesn’t have to be long or extended but it has to add value to my life. On Sundays, when I feel like i need a pick-me-up, I will have a mini spa day at home where I break out my bathrobe, my nice soap and body scrub and put on a little facial. Also, I like reading something that has no other purpose than to entertain me—like a fantasy novel from my favourite author Robin Hobb!
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To end off, what are your goals for this year?
To really embrace the four big games—Commonwealth Games, World Championships, SEA, and Asian Games. This is all in the span of eight months—this is the busiest I’ve been since COVID-19!