When Yip Pin Xiu was seven, she gave up at the 600m mark during her first attempt at getting her 1,500m Distance Swimming Award. “Everyone was swimming past me, and I just couldn’t keep up,” she recalls. It was the first time she was competing with able-bodied kids, and she was forced to confront her physical disabilities. Now 17, Pin Xiu was diagnosed with hereditary sensory motor neuropathy, which causes nerve functions and muscles to progressively deteriorate. The incident made Pin Xiu focus on doing her personal best instead of competing with others. A year later, she completed the swim without a hitch.
The lesson has since put Pin Xiu in good stead. She made history when she won the Republic’s first Olympic-level gold medal in the women’s 50m backstroke at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008. With a time of 58.75s, she beat her nearest opponent by more than seven seconds and seven metres. She also won a silver in the 50m freestyle and set two world records at the heats of both events.
A CUT ABOVE THE REST
Pin Xiu is distracted by the SMSes she receives on her phone when you talk to her, and loves going shopping. But that’s where her similarities with other teenagers end. She has been wheelchair-bound since age 11, the vision in her left eye is blurring, and she is losing control of motor skills in her wrist and grip. It’s no wonder then that she finds reprieve in the water. Once she slips from her wheelchair and into the water, she is in her element.
Pin Xiu joined her brothers for swimming lessons when she was five and started swimming competitively when she was 12, after a volunteer at the Singapore Disability Sports Council noticed how she could keep up in the water with the able-bodied kids. Her coach of five years, ex-Olympian Ang Peng Siong, says: “Pin Xiu genuinely loves the water and picks up techniques quickly. During a competition, she gives her all and focuses on what needs to be done.”
When Pin Xiu wakes up every morning, she punches her mattress to gauge her strength. “If I can’t hit properly, then I know that my muscles have deteriorated further,” she says matter-of-factly. “But I don’t dwell on it. There’s nothing to feel bad about because it’s all part of who I am. After going through so much, like losing the ability to walk, I know what to expect.”
This never-say-die attitude was inculcated in Pin Xiu by her parents, engineering firm partner Yip Chee Khiong and Singapore Airlines senior officer Margaret Chong, both 54. They never made her feel any different from her two elder brothers Alvin, 24, and Augustus, 22, who are undergraduates. “We never gave Pin Xiu any special care. If she fell down, she had to learn how to pick herself up,” says Margaret. On yearly holidays with her family, Pin Xiu goes wherever her brothers go – even if it’s on the scariest rollercoaster rides. Some rides have room for wheelchairs, and for the rest, her brothers help carry her onto the seat.
A PERSONAL BEST
Life has changed for Pin Xiu after her wins in Beijing. Strangers now come up to her for an autograph or a snapshot. And she has to get used to seeing pictures of herself plastered in public. Peng Siong has also seen a difference in Pin Xiu after the Paralympics. “She has more confidence, sees more purpose in what she’s doing, and better understands her role in helping and inspiring the disabled community,” he notes.
Her medals from Beijing are proud additions to her collection of 38 golds, from competitions like the 4th Asean Para Games 2008 and the 22nd International German Swimming Championships displayed prominently all over her home. Away from the water, she recently completed her O levels, but hasn’t figured out what she wants to do in the future. But one thing she knows for sure: “I don’t want to ever stop training. I know that I can achieve what I want as long as I put my mind to it.”