Singapore has groomed hundreds of Olympics-worthy athletes, but only a handful are household names. Joscelin Yeo is one of them. Her eventful 17-year swimming career which started at a tender age of 11 led her to become the reigning national champion of 40 gold medals from the Southeast Asian Games (SEA).
Joscelin also swam for Singapore in the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games as well as four Summer Olympic Games.
Nine years after retiring from the pool, “Singapore’s Golden Girl” still has her hands full – with her three sons, Sean, four, David, three, and Michael, one, part-time counselling at her church and as vice-president at the Singapore Swimming Association where she helps give younger swimmers a chance to go for the gold.
“There isn’t a clear pathway of how young swimmers can move from recreational swimming to competitive swimming so that’s one of the things I’m hoping to change here,” says Joscelin.
Not many people know that I…
“Am an introvert. I feel quite uncomfortable being in the spotlight and talking to people I barely know.”
My kids’ favourite activity:
“Visiting the fire station’s open house. At the moment, they love everything to do with the fireman.”
Having my kids swim for Singapore someday…
“I will be their biggest cheerleader if they do make it to the nationals. However I don’t intend to push my kids to become national sportsmen unless they want to.”
How I plan to celebrate this National Day:
“I might take the kids to the Marina Barrage where they can run around, play Frisbee and watch the fly-past and fireworks.”
On motherhood being an adventure:
“Every child is different so I constantly have to keep figuring them out and find out what makes them tick. It’s no longer just my life – I’m responsible for nurturing lives now.”
At the 2012 London Olympics, Lim Heem Wei, then 23, became the first Singaporean in history to compete in the finals of the individual artistic gymnastics. It was a dream come true for the NUS Business School graduate, who had been competing against some of the world’s best gymnast for nearly half her life at five SEA Games and three Asian Games, and had won three golds, two silver and one bronze medals.
“Honestly, there’s no way I could have made it to the top 98 and qualify for the Olympics if not for the great deal of support from my coaches, parents and school — I definitely wasn’t the most talented gymnast on my team,” says Heem Wei.
Three years later, Heem Wei bowed out on a high score and considered a corporate job. Instead, she set up her own gymnastic school with a childhood friend, Dream Gymnastics, Sports and Recreation. “It turns out that running a business is actually harder than competing in the Olympic Games,” laughs Heem Wei, “It’s a different feeling than competing. I’m used to following a structured timetable and have things under control. But with business, there are many external factors like suppliers, customers and third parties. Luckily, all the stress coping methods I’d learned through my trainings came in handy.”
And this is just one of the many benefits that gymnastics has brought into her life. “I’ve met many parents who want their kids to do sports for practical reasons, like getting DSA (direct school admission) or be on the school team. But committing to a sport really does teach children lessons beyond the classroom and instill a strong set of discipline and mindset that will last a lifetime.”
My thoughts on London…
“The incredible atmosphere – there were famous athletes all around and the energy level was always high, positive and lively. One of my favourite parts of the experience was living at the Athletes’ Village. It’s here that I got to be amongst the world’s best and interact with them.”
My key to success:
“Back in those days, we went without distractions like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I had very limited time on the computer and whatever spare time I had outside of trainings and school was spent on homework. I had to forgo sleep, family and social time.”
My parenting advice:
“Even if your child doesn’t make it to the school team, let her continue to participate recreationally in swimming, basketball, or gymnastics – or anything that she likes and will make her stronger for life.”
I like Singapore…
Because it’s small and we’re all so close to each other, I don’t have to take a plane just to catch up with my cousins.”
Why Singaporean youths should take sports more seriously…
“Sports can open many more doors of opportunities if you work hard and excel in it.”
With 18 years of swimming under her Lycra and 22 gold medals from winning international games, Tao Li is probably our country’s most experienced women swimmer. Li was also the first Singaporean to reach the finals of the Beijing Olympic Games 2008, emerging fifth in the women’s 100 m butterfly, much to everyone’s surprise: “I was the dark horse lagging in the heats. But then I came out in the top five, and people were shocked,” she shares.
She called it a day after exiting the semi-finals of the women’s 100m butterfly in the London Olympics 2012 and set up her own swimming academy, Tao Li Swimming Club, where she and a team of “Tao Li-trained” coaches pass on their priceless knowledge of the sport to keen kids, youths and adults. “I’ve been trained by coaches from US, UK and Australia so I have a lot of knowledge – and all the latest – on how to excel in the pool,” says the cheerful swim queen.
“Singapore has the most number of swimming pools in the world, yet how many Joseph Schoolings have we produced? Not many,” she says. Problem? “The mindset of our swimmers and their parents,” she says, “For 10 years I studied and trained 12 times a week – I know how difficult it is. But if you really want your children to succeed in a sport, you have to push them beyond their limits, and not rescue them whenever they feel tired.”
My most Singaporean trait:
“I’m fickle when it comes to shopping and I love a good bargain.”
Why I love Toa Payoh:
“Nowhere is more convenient than Toa Payoh. My mum and I have lived in a five-room HDB flat in Toa Payoh for nearly 10 years. It’s a five-minute walk to the neighbourhood central and I’ve got the MRT right at my doorstep.”
What life would be like if I hadn’t moved to Singapore:
“I would be a less successful swimmer. I wouldn’t have had all those opportunities to compete in the Asian Games, SEA Games, Olympic Games. I might not even have gone to a good school and learn English.”
On the Beijing Olympics in 2008:
“I was surrounded by stars! There was Kobe Bryant, Michael Phelps and Li Xiaopeng striding right before my eyes!”
This story was originally published on Aug 1, 2016 on The Singapore Women's Weekly.
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