“Women’s history month to me is an opportunity to further highlight the achievements of women of all types and every kind, and the importance of women’s rights in the world. And it should be of course be carried on throughout our lifetime.” –Power woman Theresa Goh
Theresa Goh has amazed and continues to amaze many people. Singaporeans now celebrate her as a national treasure. She’s a much-bemedaled international athlete. But more than this, she is an inspiration to those who may have felt they don’t belong anywhere in the world.
How could someone born with physical limitations turn out to be one of Singapore’s most renowned swimmers?
Theresa Goh was born at a mere 7 months, and like most premature babies, she initially suffered from various health issues. Her parents were worried about her survival. To make matters more complicated, doctors also told her parents that Theresa was born with spina bifida. This congenital medical condition caused her to be paralysed from the waist down.
But fortunately, Theresa’s parents looked past her physical disability. They had medical experts and therapists make sure she received the best treatments for her condition. Theresa underwent countless surgeries by the time she was 10. She’s been blessed to have such supportive parents.
Growing up, Theresa was bound to notice that she was different from others. People would stare at her in public, making her feel upset. However, she learned early in life that the world does not adjust for her ease. She realized she needed to face difficulty head-on. Her parents made sure she was not spoiled or disciplined differently from her siblings just because she was physically different.
Perhaps Theresa got her defining tenacity from her parents.
Learning to swim
Since she could not use her legs, Theresa had to learn how to develop her upper body strength. Her father was the one who first taught her how to swim before she was enrolled in formal swimming classes. One could say she as a natural in the water as if she was born to conquer it.
In the water, Theresa was unbound.
She started entering and winning swimming competitions at the tender age of twelve. Theresa bagged gold and silver medals at the ASEAN Para Games and represented Singapore in the 2004 Athens Paralympics. All while Theresa was setting and breaking records left and right. She has participated in and won more competitions as a young athlete than we ever could, at a time when she wasn’t even old enough to vote yet.
The 2008 Beijing Summer Paralympics
Coached by another Singaporean swimming legend, Ang Peng Siong, Theresa quit school at 17 in order to focus on her training for the 2008 Beijing Summer Paralympics. Even though she disliked how people would always emphasize the value of medals and trophies, her time in Beijing felt different. Stakes were high and the pressure to take home medals for Singapore was almost too much to bear for Theresa.
On the day of the finals for the 100m breaststroke, her pet event, Theresa was nervous and nearly overcome with dread. Her mind was flooded with thoughts of failing the people who believed in her. She dived in but missed her chance at bronze by a fraction of a second.
Lessons from defeat-how to power through
Theresa was devastated by her defeat. Everyone was still so supportive and tried to console her, but Theresa’s first actual encounter with failure hit her hard. She wanted to avoid swimming, like a once beloved song that now stirs up feelings of regret. She quit the sport for 9 months and tried to reset herself through other activities such as powerlifting.
What happens when you fall short of becoming what people have defined you to be? Strangely enough, she had to learn how to fail before she understood what it meant to actually win.
It was a tempestuous road to recovery for Theresa, but she made it through. Armed with the power of newfound confidence, she was no longer held back by the fear of failure but now embraced life more fully, coming to understand that there is more to life than swimming.
Want more stories of women who overcame the odds? Look no further than Four Successful Women Who Overcame Rejection.
Competitions in 2012 and 2016
Theresa once again represented Singapore for the 2012 London Paralympics but fell short of making it to the finals. It was only in the 2016 Rio Paralympics did she finally have a taste of that sweet victory upon clinching a bronze medal at the 100m breaststroke event. But she did not see her win in Rio as an endgame nor did she feel the need to be complacent now that she has joined the ranks of Singapore’s celebrated athletes.
Theresa used her victory to push herself further and advocate for others like her. Even without the validation of competitions and medals, she is already an inspiration to other persons with disabilities, and her athletic prowess could put the able-bodied to shame.
Using her power as an advocate
What is most admirable about Theresa is her purposeful determination to continuously improve herself. Despite having an already illustrious athletic career at the age of 30, Theresa is still grounded and never forgets her humble beginnings.
She has also learned to confront another part of herself that she locked away or was forced to hide when she was younger. While everyone sees her as a Paralympic young athlete, Theresa also identifies as a queer woman. She came out and chose to advocate for local LGBT rights group Pink Dot. In doing so, she has declared that her queerness is an important part of her identity as a person and tells the public that they cannot just cherry pick what they want to see in people they admire.
Theresa recognized her power and used it to speak for others who are not as fortunate. While others may view a physical disability as a misfortune, Theresa Goh embraced it as a welcome opportunity to prove her worth not to anyone but to herself.
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