Yip Pin Xiu: Into The River Of Champions
Singapore's three-time Paralympic gold medallist takes us underwater to reveal her most powerful and defining form.
BY Lestari Hairul | Dec 14, 2016 | Women We Love
Her voluminous skirt swirls around her as she waits for the signal at the edge of the pool. Floating in the middle are the photographer and the stylist, geared up and ready. Another team of divers swims metres below with a fresh supply of oxygen. She kicks free of the cloth entwining her legs and plunges in, swimming to the sweet spot. The photographer descends, a three-second lag-time for her. Then one, big gulp and down she goes. The overhanging light flashes in rapid succession, the only sign of activity.
Yip Pin Xiu is a truly affable woman. Her laughter is infectious; midway between a chortle and a guffaw, it drags the coldest person out to bask in her cheery light. And I am a very cold person indeed, in the freezing Burger King at Kallang Wave Mall. The few in the restaurant, up early enough for a fast-food breakfast, keep to their own, but titter a little when she is wheeled in by Stefanie Pitchian, the press liaison for the Singapore Disability Sports Council (SDSC).
“Normally, people who are late annoy me. But I was late today! So I can’t say that,” she says with a grin. The chat has meandered its way into a topic about pet peeves. Yip’s cheeriness seems immune to moody blights, but surely, she can’t possibly be this bubbly all the time? “When I was younger, I cried because I was frustrated. But now I cry when I’m happy. I’m such a ‘sobby’ person now,” she claims. “Theresa and I were on the BBC for the post-Rio coverage, and there was a picture of us being very emotional after Theresa’s win. Our friends were like, ‘Oh, you’re on the BBC!’ and Theresa said, ‘Yeah, big babies crying!’”
That would be Theresa Goh, another Paralympic swimmer who’s won many accolades for the nation. Joseph Schooling bested his role model at the Rio Olympics; Yip became best friends with hers.
“Everybody said I would be her successor. Who knew we would be fighting side-by-side, alongside each other for the same thing?” she remarks. Para-athletes compete in strict categories. Depending on the severity and the type of disability, swimmers, for instance, are classified by numbers: 1 to 10 refers to a physical disability, with 1 being the most severe. 11 to 13 refers to blindness: a swimmer with number 11 is completely blind, while one classified as 13 can still be partially sighted, while being legally blind. 14 is the category for intellectual and physical disabilities.
Goh, who has congenital spina bifida, competes at S5 for the freestyle, SB4 for the breaststroke and SM5 for the individual medley. Yip, who has muscular dystrophy, specialises in the backstroke, and currently competes at S2 for both that and the freestyle. The letter prefixes describe the type of stroke, whereas the numbers tend to fluctuate during an athlete’s career.
“I’m not fighting against her; I’m fighting with her,” Yip stresses. “For the same thing. We want more awareness in Singapore. We want equality in Singapore. And I think that’s awesome. If I were to do this alone, from the very start, I probably wouldn’t be so confident about it. Now, we can bounce ideas off each other.”
The worst parts of her life, she claims, are the dry hands and the 5am starts. Dragging her “sorry ass” to the pool on a daily basis at an ungodly hour requires the mental discipline that every serious athlete forges into his or her bones. This is where the close bond with Goh helps tremendously. When intrinsic motivation flags, having someone to rely on, who will force you to get moving and get training, helps to ensure that the Paralympic dream never falls by the wayside. I think about my complaining earlier that day, about having to wake up early to get to Kallang, and I am chastened.
Photographer: Can we do two to three more rounds of the shot?
Yip Pin Xiu: Can! Five rounds also can! Photographer: I don’t think I can do five!
This is probably the most challenging shoot that Esquire has ever pulled off and it originated from a small idea. By the time it came to fruition, the manpower involved had multiplied. The photographer is deftly keeping a handle on his expertise, with an unwieldy underwater rig that’s new to him. The lighting equipment and its staff, scuba gear and rescue divers on standby have all been contributed pro bono in support of Yip’s story and, by extension, the efforts of the SDSC. Everybody here is keen to make it work.
The star of the show is a trooper. Again and again, she dives, posing this way and that, uncomplaining. Her body’s conditioned to not breathe underwater, to not sink down and, here, she is going against all of that. The crew is buoyed by her enthusiasm and determination, and everybody knuckles down, despite the relentless rain, the merciless sun, and the delicious terror of a shoot where everybody is learning as we go.
Ready, Pin Xiu?
It started at the age of five, at the Geylang Bahru Swimming Complex and lasted till she was 12. With her brothers learning to swim, Yip got tired of wading in the baby pool on her own and asked to join them. Serendipity charted her stars, the swim coach had experience with physically disabled students, and she joined a class. Then, the Complex closed for renovations and they shifted to Jalan Besar. Once again, serendipity ruled and she was spotted by a volunteer from the SDSC.
“The volunteer told me about a competition. I was quite excited. I overheard them speaking about it, but my coach didn’t mention it to me until the end of the class,” she recalls. “During the whole class, all I could think of was, ‘Ask me! Ask me if I want to go to that competition!’ I was very eager to compete.”
And that was when she fell in love with competing. Winning six gold medals got her transferred to the elite team, training at the CCAB with a more intensive training schedule.
“I loved water from the start because it offered so much freedom. But competition was a whole different thing because it gave me such an adrenaline rush. And it’s over so quickly,” Yip enthuses. “The results show: as long as you work hard, they will. My timing was improving so much in my first few years, so that also motivated me. I just wanted to keep going. I didn’t yet know my potential, how fast I could go.”
But the gruelling nature of elite sports eventually came crashing into the realities of teenage aspirations.
“I almost stopped swimming in 2009-2010. That was after Beijing. I took a break and I caught up with my teenage life. Returning to a disciplined life was so difficult,” she confesses. “To give up everything that was fun. My psychologist back then gave me the option to stop. If you aren’t committed to it, stop. Why waste your time? But straightaway, in my mind, I was like, ‘No, not stopping yet!’ And that was my wake-up call.”
She didn’t podium in London 2012, the fear of failure, the fear of disappointing Singaporeans, loomed in the background, but so did her realistic assessment of her abilities then. The wake-up call drove her to continue training immediately after London and, with that newfound determination, came the ability to balance fun and work.
“Swimming allowed me to excel in school, because only through swimming did I find the determination and the discipline to do well,” she admits. “It teaches you to prioritise something and sacrifice all others. Time management is difficult, and a lot of Singaporeans have trouble with that. It was also difficult for me initially, but, over the years, I’ve learnt that, in order to be good at something, you have to put in the time. It’s just the discipline of sticking to your goals and plans. That helped in my studies.”
Dress logistics: if you go up or down, when in water, too fast, the dress winds itself around your legs. Go down another way and it poofs up around you. The stylist and his assistant are swimming madly about trying to get the dresses under control. Meanwhile, I try to see how hard it is diving down and maintaining a pose.
Without the buoyancy control device (BCD), it’s hard to sink down fast, or at all. Weights look unwieldy in the floaty dresses that Yip is clad in and are soon abandoned. The few possible ways are to be dropped down by her arms from a height or be led down by a diver with a BCD. I hold my breath and plunge, mimicking Yip over and over again. Without the dresses, it’s still almost impossible to not look like a floating piece of crap.
It’s almost a dance. Drop, plunge, the careful maintenance of a beautiful pose and a facial expression that belies any straining. We started at 9am; we’re still here pushing 4pm.
Esquire: What do you want people to know, or understand, about being a disabled athlete?
Yip Pin Xiu: I want them to know that there isn’t much of a difference between an able-bodied athlete and a para-athlete. As long as you’re a good athlete, you will have the commitment, the discipline and the drive to get to where you want to be. I think sports really binds people together and, as long as you have the drive and the motivation, you’ll be a good athlete, no matter your situation.
Esquire: As an athlete what kind of support would you like to see more of?
Yip Pin Xiu: Funding can be difficult, especially for those just starting out. I think corporates can play a big role like they do in the US, but, in Singapore, people still don’t see the value of athletes, so they don’t invest as much time and interest in them. But the tide is changing. British Petroleum has been very strong supporters of SDSC and Theresa and I are also their brand ambassadors. They actually brought our parents over to Rio, which was magnificent.
Esquire: What do you think of the reception that you received when you won gold compared to when Schooling did?
Yip Pin Xiu: It’s nice that people are starting to recognise us. It’s nice that they want the same things for us. I’m thankful for it. But, at the same time, I wouldn’t expect equality to be given straightaway. Everybody had to fight for equality in every field, so I’m taking this as a slow battle. But, through the years, I’ve seen progress, and slow progress is better than no progress. So I’m quite happy with it.
Sports Singapore’s schemes are given to both able-bodied athletes and para-athletes. So, on the government level, that’s fair. In order for equality to be really shown, people need to change their mindset. Now, the next level is the corporates; they are the second movers. They have to show that they treat all athletes equally before the general public will be able to see that. It’s a slow, slow process but, hopefully, we’ll get there eventually. And I understand when people say that we are not as competitive. But there are many other sports that don’t have the same number of competitors as well.
People have said that maybe we should look at the values behind it, the values that athletes embody. We embody the same values of determination, discipline and training hard. There are a lot of ways to view it.
Esquire: Do you have a philosophy in life?
Yip Pin Xiu: I don’t have a philosophy that I live by. But when people ask me, “How do you still manage to do this?” then I tend to attribute it to being positive. There are only 24 hours in a day, and you can choose to be happy or not. Being happy is so much more fun! Also, why would you want to live life being sad? I choose not to worry about things that I cannot control. A lot of people ask me whether I worry about my condition. I can worry about it, and then every day would just be filled with worry about what’s going to happen next. Or I can focus on the things that I can control like my sports and studies.
By the end of the shoot, we’ve spent almost eight hours in the pool. It’s the longest time that she’s spent poolside in four years, according to Yip. The giddy excitement, with which she told me of her desire to be dolled up during our earlier interview, has been tempered by the actual physical reality of an underwater shoot. But she has been an absolute champ. With spirit unwavering and good cheer ever present, the day ends on a high note thanks largely to her.
A quick rest and a wash, and it’s time to get ready for her next media engagement. There’s more in the pipeline for Yip, even as she’s taking a short break before resuming training in January. As of now, she remains uncertain about the next Paralympics; completing her degree at Singapore Management University will have to be done next. But we know for sure that the ripples she’s made thus far will continue to reverberate. Rio was just the biggest for now; there’s much more to come. For her, and for the disabled community.
Hair and make-up by Rick Yang / FAC3INC using La Biosthétique and Make Up For Ever. Make-up artist assisted by Patricia. Photographer assisted by Zam, Zantz Han, and Steven Foo at Stills Network; Soh Qiuling, Galen Mendez and Louis Kwok. Underwater equipment by David at Scubacam. Stylist assisted by Tan Guan Lin.
First published in Esquire Singapore’s December 2016 issue.