Despite an uncertain future, Yip Pin Xiu does not dwell on the past or her previous achievements. Her priority: making the most of what she still has.
BY SIM CHI YIN
She speeds across the pool as if propelled by some kind of motor. Like the blades of a helicopter in flight, her arms whip backwards again and again.
To be exact, she does that an incredible 100 times in just under a minute – almost two strokes per second.
That is how Yip Pin Xiu blew away her opponents on Monday and just how the Paralympic swimmer not only took the 50m backstroke (S3 category) gold but also won it with more than seven seconds to spare.
To seasoned swimmers, it is not the most efficient way to swim the backstroke. But Pin Xiu, who was born with muscular dystrophy – a disorder which, essentially, sees her body progressively degenerate – has little choice.
Making the most of what she still has is something she has learnt to do time and again – and quickly.
“I just go with the flow. And don’t think so much about things,” said the 16-year-old a day after she ended her Beijing Paralympics outing with Singapore’s first Olympic-level gold, plus a silver and two world records.
She also earned $100,000 from the Singapore National Paralympic Council through its Athletes Achievement Awards scheme.
Dishing out a bit of her famously-infectious positive energy, Pin Xiu said: “I’ve never wished I could kick again. I like the way I am now. I enjoy being me. If I could kick, I might not even be world record- holder in three events.”
Up to her 11th birthday, Pin Xiu could kick and run around almost like any other child – although more slowly and in the foot-to-knee braces she had to wear from age 2, when her leg muscles started weakening.
In Primary 5, when she found that she could not make it up the four flights of stairs to get to her classroom anymore – even if she took her time and worked up a big sweat – her classmates carried her. The following year, she was in a wheelchair.
While life on land got ever more difficult, she found reprieve in the water, said Pin Xiu, who followed her two older brothers to swimming lessons from age 5.
“It wasn’t easy for me to walk on land, but it was easy to ‘walk’ in water and I liked that I wasn’t slower than the other kids,” she said.
But even in the pool, she has had to adapt with each change in her body.
Four years ago, when she started swimming competitively, her front crawl was better than her backstroke. In competitions, she has since dropped from the S5 category to the S3.
Paralympic swimmers are grouped by functional ability into 13 classes: S1 to S13. Those in the S1 category have the most severe disabilities. Today, having totally lost the ability to kick and finding it harder to rotate her trunk, she swims the backstroke even in her freestyle races.
Stretching her arms out at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions and churning them repeatedly, that is the “magic stroke” that she has devised with coach Ang Peng Siong and used to smash world records.
Even as her muscles continue to degenerate, her left eye has started losing vision and her handwriting is becoming more and more of a scrawl, she has defied nature in the pool and made phenomenal cuts in her backstroke times.
Ang, a former Olympic swimmer, said: “Medically, we know she’s getting weaker, but in the water, she’s getting stronger. She shows that the mind can determine how one actually feels and does.”
No one will question Pin Xiu’s grit or tenacity – especially now that she is the first Singaporean to have had the national anthem played in her honour at either the Olympics or Paralympics. But no matter how strong her will to battle nature is, there are fears that her fight against the disease she was born with is one she cannot win.
The precocious teen, though, says she is “probably, for sure, very likely lah” going to swim for Singapore again in the 2012 London Paralympics.
She is “a bit” concerned about whether her body will allow her to be there – and win again. But the ever-upbeat Bendemeer Secondary 4 student who likes to window shop and watch movies said: “I don’t think about it yet.
“I can’t control how fast my competitors will improve or how my body changes. I will just keep swimming. I will not stop because if I do, I don’t know how badly my body will deteriorate.”
The good news: Singapore Sports Council sports doctor Cormac O’Muircheartaigh, who has been taking care of Pin Xiu for the past three years, said the disease is progressing slowly and her training has helped strengthen muscles not yet affected.
Her parents, too, want swimming to help stay the hand of the life-sapping disease. Her mother, Margaret Chong, 53, a senior officer at Singapore Airlines, said: “Winning medals is a big motivation for her, but to us, it’s really about helping her to maintain her health.”
On the journey to London, Pin Xiu – still a girl who hugs her mum before sleeping every night – can again count on fellow swimmer Theresa Goh, 21, who has been her “da jie” (big sister) and pillar of support in Beijing, giving her pre-race tips and helping her with her trouser buttons or at meals.
Ang wants to take both of them – and more – to London. He said: “I really hope Pin Xiu will be there in 2012. By that time, I also hope to see more Pin Xius and Theresas.”