Theresa Goh (@wheelie_wonka); a Singaporean household name, is a National Swimmer and Paralympic Medalist. Bagging medals upon medals at multiple International Swim Competitions throughout her years, she is nothing less than a National treasure and inspiration.
On a sleepy Tuesday morning, the OOWA team went down to the time-worn Farrer Park Swimming Complex. Theresa glides through the water in the far-right lane of the pool; a sanctuary of her own. The air was cold, a musk of chlorine and a chorus of squealing children dance in the 7 a.m. breeze.
With a cup of Kopi-O, and a galaxy-printed cap, Theresa slumps back into her chair with a grin. We take a look at the story behind the Para-swimmer, to find a laughter-filled narrative of sexuality, cats, movies, and just about everything else.
Theresa first touches on her sexuality, and her latest interview with Singapore’s Local Paper; the Straits Times.
T: “I recently came out of the closet with my sexuality on a Straits Times interview. In all honesty, I don’t think I would have done it if it wasn’t for the fact that my friend was a writer with the paper, and she managed to get the go-ahead with this topic. I think it’s because I’ve previously had a couple of bad experiences coming out through the media, such as the erasure and subtlety of the mention of my sexuality in other articles and Q&As. For example, I got featured in a dating article once, and they didn’t mention a thing about my sexuality. I mean, how will people know if they can approach me? Wrong team here. [laughs] So based on those experiences, I didn’t expect anything from our local news media outlets in the next 10 years. However, the other day, after Pink Dot was announced, my friend approached me to do an interview. She’s been thinking of doing something like this for awhile now, and she thought that this would be a good time. So, she came up to me and asked frankly, if I wanted to come out to the Straits Times."
"I was a bit hesitant at first, if this would be another case of censorship due to said previous experiences. Thankfully, she reassured me that it wouldn’t happen. Ultimately, the interview that was published did show my story which is something I’m very proud and happy of. Initially, I was afraid of what the public would say about it, as me being happy with what I personally said is taken from a first-person perspective and does not reflect what the public opinion may be. But I was proven wrong when I started to get my first few comments, of which were all immensely supportive! They all went along lines of how the interview was “Good and Enjoyable,” I was so relieved.”
Just now, you kept using the term “Coming out to Straits Times’”, rather than “... to the world”. It would seem as if coming out to the local news seemed like a bigger hurdle than anything else?
T: “Yeah, I think it’s because I feel like the Paper is the gate to what most people will see and read, especially Singaporeans. Most people subscribe and read the Straits Times actively; it’s if you will, a household name. Most families, when they want to teach their children to read the news more actively, will encourage them to read the Straits Times. If these children read my article, and they come upon this topic, it is highly probable that they will strike up this conversation with their parents. I know it’s just a small interview, but at the same time, it holds a lot of opportunities for us to open up to such conversations. If the Straits Times didn’t allow the publishing of my sexuality, I would have to go about a much longer route to get to where I am with the media now. And thus, create less opportunities for other vulnerable individuals to raise the topic and be proud of themselves.”
Theresa also shares about her love for her three lovely felines at home.
T: “I feel like most people actually start out as ‘Dog People’, just like my Mum who was previously completely opposed to cats. However, once you get your first cat, you’re a convert. [laughs] We got our first cat back in 2004. She actually followed us home from the ground floor, up the lift and all the way up to our apartment. So just imagine a tiny little fluff-ball running after us! I was thinking to myself, “What is it doing!”, and little did we know, it followed us home."
"My Mum at that time, who wasn’t a ‘Cat Person’, forbid the cat from going into our house, and so we had to play with the cat outside our door. When it was time for us to go in, we has to leave it outside. At first, there was no way that our parents were going to let me and my siblings keep the kitten since we were still, “Irresponsible kids.” So we went to bed, thinking that we’d never see the kitten again. However, the next morning, we woke up to see our Mum pacing around the living room, whispering, “Come here, Meow Meow…”. We were so confused, like we had no idea what was my Mum doing. Then, she came into our room, and right behind her was our little kitten! That was the first mistake they made; letting the cat come in. [chuckles] Afterwards, she followed us everywhere. From that initial apartment, to our rental flat, and finally to our current home. However, the moment we moved in, she scratched up the new sofa! Our parents are huge pranksters… They went into their room, and started to shout at each other, “Look, now that we let the cat in, it scratched the new sofa!”, “We have to give it away, it’s too much of a hassle.” They spoke loud enough so that we could hear from the outside, and knowing us, they expected us to be standing right outside the door listening. My siblings and I got super upset, but afterwards, they opened the door and smiled at us, beaming, “Just kidding!” I swear, if I ever have trust issues, I blame them." [laughs]
"So that was our first cat; she stayed with us for 12 years. She was incredibly loyal to us as well. When approached by anyone other than our family, she would be super cold and aggressive. When she left us, it was really difficult. However, we just knew we had to get another cat… we overdid it, and got three. It was in really good timing that we got the first of the three. I’m not a believer in buying pets, I’d much rather adopt one. However, my friend at the time bought two pedigree cats at once. Unfortunately, the two cats didn’t get along, and she offered one of them to me and my family. So i guess we were the lucky ones who managed to get a pedigree cat for free. The second cat of the three was adopted from the Cat Welfare Society. Finally the last of the three was adopted from our friends who were cat fosterers."
"The first cat, Sebastian, is sort of my Dad’s cat; he’ll bring Sebastian out for walks every morning. My Dad will just open the door, and Sebastian will just follow him down the stairs, just like a dog. A cat-dog if you must, Sebastian is so gentle, he doesn’t even scratch. The second cat, Patches, is my Mum’s cat. Patches will follow my Mum everywhere; even in and out of the kitchen, living room, etc. If my Mum exits the room, you’ll see Patches right behind her. So I’m just sitting in the living room thinking, “Patches, what are you doing? Aren’t you tired?” Lastly, the third cat, Lobster, is my cat. I got Lobster cause I was slightly jealous that my parents had their own cats, and I wanted one too. [laughs] Lobster sleeps in my room all the time. All three of our cats are honestly really well behaved; they never scratch or bite, and they’re very loyal.”
Describe your relationship with Lobster.
T: “Well, he’s my master. [laughs] If I see Lobster sleeping on my bed, I’ll go sleep outside instead. I don’t understand why he enjoys sleeping right in the middle of my bed. I’ll try to wake him, and there’ll be no response. I even think to take cute pictures of him first, before I try to wake him! All the cats, essentially rule our house. Same goes for my Mum; if Patches sleeps on her pillow, she’ll just share one pillow with my Dad instead. It’s terrible! I think we have a very good relationship with our cats though; they know that they are well taken care of and ultimately, they are super well-behaved and show us tons of affection.”
Tell us more about your siblings.
T: “I have one brother and one sister. My sister has already moved out of the house as she’s married. We’ve been sharing a room for many years, and when she got married, she finally moved out! I’m so happy I finally I have my own room. [laughs] We are all really close. I think it’s cause we all bother to put in the effort to stay connected with each other. We’re not the perfect family of course, like we do fight sometimes, but we all know that at the end of the day, family is our first priority. I’m also really close to my brother, even though we are four years apart in age. We’ll share each other's’ clothing, and a lot of the times, I’ll come into his room screaming, “Where’s my shirt, stop taking my shirts!’, and he’ll respond with, “You can take my shirts in return.” Unfortunately, his fashion sense is terrible, which is why I don’t bother taking his stuff anyway. I feel like we got really lucky to have such a close-knit family. I know a lot of other families aren’t as close as we are, and it’s really heartening to see how we still make the effort to go out for dinners as a whole family, especially since my sister has moved out as well. Even then, we still see her every other weekend, as our brother-in-law makes the effort to drive down with her to visit.”
We talk about Theresa’s idea of a perfect first date as well.
T: “I’ve thought about this before. Although, I don’t think I can ever live up to this expectation. My date would have to be someone that is really easy to talk to. Preferably, we’d go to somewhere air-conditioned, and where I wouldn’t have to worry about it’s accessibility. I’m honestly not that difficult to please. I just want to go somewhere that I can easily access, with someone easy to get along with. I like going to museums, and hopefully I’d be going with someone who will share a similar interest in visiting the exhibits with me. Afterwards, maybe we could also go watch a movie, since I’m a huge movie buff. I’ve watched Wonder Woman twice already. The first time was with my friend, Pin Xiu. The second was so I could watch it at Cathay Cineleisure, after the whole Pink Dot advertisement incident. I wanted to support Cathay after it drew flak from the public, and also to take a photo of my face on the poster. [laughs] However, it was only after i booked tickets and went up to the cinema that I remembered why I don’t visit the Cathay anymore. Going into the cinema, there are these four steps that make it very inconvenient for me. Thankfully, I could climb the steps, but usually we’d call the cinema staff to let us in by the front so I wouldn’t have to climb.”
On a scale of 1-10, how accessible is Singapore in comparison to other countries.
T: “I think Singapore ranks pretty well. All the buses have wheelchair ramps, and the MRTs are also easily accessible. I’m also able to take cabs, since I know how to transfer myself in and out of my chair. I’ll do this move where I swing myself into my chair from the pool. It’s quite dangerous though, as I have this bad habit of not locking my chair. Aside from that, I know friends who are on motorized chairs who can’t lift themselves out or pull themselves back on. So in comparison to me, i believe they have much higher accessibility requirements than I do. I’m really happy with the infrastructure in Singapore, aside from shophouses which have huge long rows of steps. I think I’d give Singapore a 7/10 for accessibility. I count everything from barrier-free entrances to accessible toilets and transportation. Australia has really accessible infrastructure, except for transportation since they don’t have a train system.”
When you’re away from home, what is the one local dish you miss the most?
T: “Wanton Mee. No question, I know this for sure. Pin Xiu and I, we have this thing where we will remember each other’s answers to certain questions in the scenario that we go on a gameshow! For example, I know for sure that her favourite food is Chicken Rice, and her favourite colour is green. I think my favourite stall for Wanton Mee is actually near the Swimming Complex, at Pek Kio Food Center. I love their noodles, and I’ve introduced it to a couple of my friends who really like it too. However, my parents aren’t fans of the stall; I think their standards are too high.”
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not swimming?
T: “Sleeping. I’m serious. Later I’m meeting my friend at 1pm, so I’m going to SportsHub first to sleep. They have an athletes’ lounge with massage chairs and beanbags for athletes to rest. There’s free wifi, it’s dark & cozy, and air-conditioned. It’s the perfect place to nap!”
What time do you have to go to bed at night to be able to get up at the time that you do for your trainings?
T: “Usually training starts at 5.30am, so by right, I have to sleep by 9pm. However, I sleep at 1am. [laughs] I just tell myself that I can sleep later, after I end training.”
Theresa also describes her relationship to the water.
T: “I love the feeling of being in the water because it’s so freeing. When you’re surrounded by something that lifts you, you feel free and weightless. I can go anywhere I want in the water, which is not what happens on land. On land, I feel like if I encounter a step that’s a little bit too high, I’m obstructed. Anything too physically challenging on land has the ability to stop me, but in the water, nothing can. It’s as if I’ve stepped into a completely different world in the water; it’s the one place that allows me to be free.”
What was it like when you first started swimming?
T: “My Dad first taught me when I was five years old. He was technically my first coach. Every Sunday, we’d go play in the water as a whole family. Only when I was 12, then I started training seriously.”
You previously mentioned that you weren’t a competitive person, how is that considering that you’ve managed to accomplish so much in your life?
T: “I had to learn how to be competitive. When I began, I wasn’t competitive at all. I would go, “It’s okay if someone else wins, I’m fine with being in 2nd place.” Later on, I realized that to get better, I had to be competitive, if not I wouldn’t push myself to progress. In other aspects, aside from swimming, I don’t have to be competitive as it’s just not in my nature. So whenever I go into the water, I’ll switch on my competitive side. Other than that, I’ll just turn it off.”
So where does the drive that propels you to excel at swimming come from?
T: “My coach taught us that the basis of training is to be better than yourself. Perhaps that’s also why I’m not very competitive. I just want to beat my own timing. I don’t care too much about my competitors; I’m only focusing on bettering my own timing. Only much later, then did I learn to harness my competitiveness with other competitors; just to give me that extra push to do even better.”
Do you have a routine to psych yourself into that competitive mood?
T: “It’s not a conscious switch. It’s not like a sound effect with dramatic music comes on when I put on my goggles, like some action movie. I think the feeling really kicks in once I reach the country I'm competing in. It’s the idea that, “I’m here to win,” that really kicks it off for me.”
If you weren’t out here swimming, what do you think you would be doing?
T: “Honestly, I have no clue. I feel like everything that I have done has revolved around, and spurted my interest and career in swimming. I feel like I’m evolving, like a Pokemon [laughs], where everything I do has just been helping me grow as a person and as a swimmer. I don’t know how different my life would be if I didn’t have a disability, or if I came out as a straight person. Everything would be different. I feel like if I was an able-bodied person, I probably wouldn’t even be involved in sports. If I were straight, I don’t know if I would’ve become as self-aware as I am now. It’s all these small things that add up, that really make me who I am today.”
So if you didn’t get up in the morning to swim, what would propel you to wake up?
T: “I have no idea. I’d probably just wake up for what I’m needed for. If I had the opportunity to sleep through the whole day, I would. I think time passes very fast and all of a sudden, it’s the end of the week, and all your time has been taken up. I’d love to just get some rest in, and catch up with my TV shows. I watch so many shows; my favourites are probably Grey’s Anatomy, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, iZombie, Orphan Black, Stranger Things, etc. I even have a list to plan out all the shows I want to catch up on. I’m a total Netflixer!”
Swimming can be a lonely sport, does it feel like that to you?
T: “Yes, actually. Considering that I’m not in a relay team either, a lot of the times, it feels like it’s just you and the line. But it always helps to have teammates to make it less lonely. I enjoy the solitude of the water as well, especially so in this last week with all the stress from how the public is going to take my Straits Times interview, and all the Pink Dot flak. So whenever I got into the water, it’s always peace and quiet. It’s the place I go to calm down and just be with myself. Furthermore, I can hold my breath for 3.5 minutes, so when I really want to be alone, I’ll just dive down and lie at the bottom of the pool. Being able to hear nothing but the water is such a calming feeling.”
Theresa's Coach: Ang Peng Siong
What has been the most pleasantly surprising part of your journey?
T: “I think it’s the fact that I have not gone through that many hardships. Everything has actually been pretty smooth and easy. I’ve been lucky enough to receive many little opportunities which I will willingly take on, and all this has added up to get me to where I am now. A lot of hardships were actually borne by my parents instead, especially when I was younger. In the beginning, I had to go for a lot of surgery, the hospital was like my second home. I can’t feel beyond my knee, but it was painful for my parents. Furthermore, I don’t remember a lot of the surgeries I had when I was a baby. As far as I can remember, I’ve always been very happy. As a kid you don’t really notice differences like being able to run around, etc. It doesn’t really register as a difference, but rather as an observation, and thus, it never bothered me much. It’s not a problem until you actually start becoming aware of your disability becoming an issue. In Secondary School, even when there was no lift and I had to go upstairs, my friends would always help me up."
"In all honesty, I’ve never had too big of an issue with my disability, or have been in a position where I needed to ask for help. That’s why I think I’m very lucky. I’ve never been bullied in school either. Even some of my friends like Pin Xiu got bullied in school. I could never understand how others could bully someone else for being different, like walking slower. Thankfully, I’ve never had to experience that. When I hear these stories from my friends, I get even more shocked because I’ve never had to personally face it growing up.”
Your sense of gratitude is incredibly inspiring. On a final note, who would you consider as your mentor, and what have they said or done that has inspired you?
T: “I had a mentor, Judy, when I was starting out. She was my senior when I first came into the swim team. Being the youngest at that time, she helped to initiate and welcome me into the team, and gave me tips on how to cope. Of course, I don’t think she’s my only mentor. I feel like a lot of people around me have been my mentors in many ways. I remember when I went for my first overseas meet -- being young and stupid at the time, I left my swimming costume as a scrunched-up wad on the bench to dry! My coach at the time went, “Is that how you’re going to leave it? All rolled-up to dry??” I was so confused; I didn’t know I had to roll it out to dry! I really hate being scolded, I’m adverse to scolding, if you will. So just being lectured once was enough for me, and I made it the habit to roll and hang up my swimming costume. You would think these little things are common sense, but apparently they weren't to me. I feel like Judy was my mentor in the same way I am to Pin Xiu now. I was in the team before she joined, and so like Judy, I gave her my tips and advice on how to prepare for races and competitions. It’s the things that a newbie swimmer needs to hear from a senior. Our mentor-mentee relationship developed very naturally to me. We were the only two female swimmers with similar physical disabilities, and hence the closest in functionality. All in all, I’m thankful that my overall journey has been great.”