By Jeanette Wang
HER arms whip around backwards, turning about 100 cycles, as she swims across
the length of the 50-metre pool on her back.
Her head, with eyes gazing at the sky, is submerged just below the surface. Her
legs, scrawny, drooping and lifeless, trail behind her like an anchor.
Yip Pin Xiu’s backstroke swimming technique is unlike Olympic champion Kirsty
Coventry’s, but the 16-year-old Singaporean is still the world’s fastest in two
Born with muscular dystrophy, she set the 50m (1min 00.80sec) and 100m (2:08.09) backstroke world records in the S3 category in April and May this year, smashing two of German Annke Conradi’s eight-year-old marks.
Paralympic swimmers are categorised by disability into 13 divisions: S1 to S13.
Those in the S1 category have the most severe diagnoses.
Pin Xiu will race in the 50m backstroke and 50m freestyle at the Beijing Paralympic Games, which starts today and ends on Sept 17. She has been tipped, along with Theresa Goh, to win Singapore’s first Paralympic medals. Goh, 21, will contest the 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle and 100m breaststroke.
“I’m quite happy not being able to kick,” said Pin Xiu, who gets around on a
Her condition deteriorates slowly, and her skeletal muscles weaken and degenerate progressively.
When she started swimming at age five, inspired by her brothers, Augustus, now
21, and Alvin, now 23, she could still walk and kick.
At 12, she stopped kicking and was wheelchair-bound the following year.
To have an idea of how the Bendemeer Secondary 4 student cuts through water,
try swimming with legs tied together and with fists instead of hands.
Able-bodied world record-holders Sophie Edington (50m back, 27.67sec) and
Coventry (100m back, 58.77sec) swim much faster than Pin Xiu. They slice through water, arms turning gracefully, and take about 30 strokes for 50 metres. They use their palms and forearms like oars.
Pin Xiu’s fist-like hands and weak wrists cannot catch much water, so she compensates with super-fast strokes.
Olympic backstrokers swim with their nose and mouth above water most of the
time, gaining extra propulsion with their flipper-like legs.
Pin Xiu’s head is tilted back and submerged, so that her hips can rise higher
in the water, reducing the drag created by her limp legs.
To start, she is dangled by her arms, which are held by her coach Ang Peng
Siong. To turn, she swivels 180 degrees on her back. There are no explosive
starts or tumble-turns.
But Pin Xiu and breaststroke specialist Goh make up for their disability by
training twice a day, taking a break only on Wednesday mornings and Sundays.
They swim about 42km weekly.
Their strokes are analysed by a biomechanist to obtain peak efficiency. A
nutritionist, psychologist and physiotherapist ensure the duo keep in form.
Said former Olympian Ang, 45: “We modify the programme according to their
disability. But the principles of training still apply, such as strength training and energy systems.
“The basis is to be as efficient as possible when they swim.”
Goh, who holds the world record in the 50m (52.94sec) and 200m (4:17.38)
breaststroke in the SB4 category, has spina bifida, a birth defect which prevents the spine from forming properly. She is also paralysed from the waist down.
Her stroke, honed over a decade of competitive swimming, is smooth and rhythmic
as she glides through the water with dolphin-like movements.
Without propulsion from her legs, which are crossed and bob along behind her,
she takes 50 strokes to cover 50m.
A big part of Goh’s success lies in her upper body strength. Despite weighing
50kg, she can bench-press 80kg.
Over the years, Goh’s and Pin Xiu’s shoulders have broadened, their upper
bodies have thickened and medals have been hung regularly around their necks.
Will they create history by bagging another medal or two in Beijing? Only time will tell.