Quah Zheng Wen was in the middle vehicle of an eight-car pileup on his way to this shoot, a front-to-bumper collision. He is unscathed. But if he is rattled, you’d never know. He arrives, apologetic, folding his near-1.8m frame into the stylist’s chair. It’s easy to picture him in a flow state under more intense pressures, like say, at the Olympic Games.
Now, as he turns 27, Quah is treading another, existential “middle”: a sea of choices about life after the extreme regimen of a competitive swimmer. After all, in his world, champions are labelled past prime as they hit it, and retirement is, like Thanos, inevitable.
By 16, he’d debuted at the 2012 London Olympics. After completing his IB Diploma at Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), he was army bound, then on to the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore.
But the 2015 Sea Games in Singapore changed that trajectory. He was granted his first National Service deferment to compete. Qualifying for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro got him a second, and he became Singapore’s first male swimmer to qualify for an Olympic semi-final, placing 15th and 10th in the 100m and 200m butterfly races.
By 2017, he’d earned his longest deferment to train in the United States, enabling him to compete in its collegiate system: “I’m glad I did well enough to convince them to put their faith in me, and see what I could do in four years if I held off NS.” He became Singapore’s most-medalled male swimmer. He also left the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in Molecular Cell Biology (Neurobiology Subcategory).
Passport to Paris
Three years ago, Quah anticipated excelling at his final NCAA season — including the 100/200 yard butterfly and 200 yard individual medley — until the pandemic turned it into the season that got away. “That’s always bugged me… because I’ve got to win,” said the serial over-achiever, who’d been aiming to win a team and individual title. “I spent that past year being really disciplined; my protein shake became what I found sweet, because I just wasn’t eating anything unhealthy. I’d been going to bed at 8.45pm. It was very difficult, mentally.” When the 2020 Tokyo Olympics got pushed to 2021, he turned into a mortal—“I spent more time with my friends. I knew my time there was ending, and I was very sad.” It’s 2023, and Quah is completing his NS — a combat-ready medic. The goal is Paris, 2024. Like a gambler trying not to jinx a streak, Quah doesn’t count medals. But since his regional debut in 2011, he’s won 32 golds at seven SEA Games, including five golds, a silver and a bronze at the most recent in Cambodia. Beyond the stats, Quah’s more interesting features are his depth, maturity, and views on finding “the right person.”
Let’s talk about inconsequential stuff, like, male identity—as you’re putting on your makeup.
Haha! Oh, wow. I can barely hear you above the hairdryer…
You’re still in NS; how come you have so much hair?
Haha, I’m going to ORD in September!
Speaking of the military, how does NS impact Singapore’s sporting culture?
The military is so necessary, but I feel like it also stunts the growth of our sporting youth. Being caught up in the rat race is also a big factor why people don’t defer. I think that as time goes on, and more people get used to these things, it will bode well for future generations of sportsmen.
What separates the champion’s mindset from everyone else’s?
Sacrifice. Be it social or leisure — all that goes out the window if you want to commit to being great. You have to find that grit that’ll push you further than anyone else, and hold onto it.
When you’re a national champion, you’re a commodity. How important is it for people to appreciate an athlete’s mental state?
I think it’s huge. As a public figure, all people see is what’s in the news. My girlfriend told me that before she met me in real life she thought I was boring — ‘every interview you’ve ever done is about swimming, you’re so politically correct’ — haha. It’s very important for people to realise there’s a village supporting the athlete, so he can be the best he can be, every single day.
How tough is it for you to handle relationships and training?
It is very difficult with the rigours I keep. I’m busy the entire week, and by the weekend, I’m super tired. You need to find that person who knows the demands of the sport. The right person doesn’t make your life harder, but easier, and so much more fun!
Still want to be a doctor?
I was planning to come back to med school. But every person who has done that and sports says it’s impossible to do both — and I’d want to give my 100 per cent. I wanted to be a doctor because my dad’s a doctor, and to provide for my family like how my dad provided for us. But if I went down that route and didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t be happy with who I was.
When is your ‘finally done’?
I definitely see the end approaching. My entire life, I’ve always thought I was gonna do med. I never bothered exploring things I potentially could like. So I’m excited but also a little daunted.
It hardly seems fair that 26 means ‘too old.’
I definitely don’t think I’m too old per se… I just don’t want to be caught out there, dry at 34, still having no idea what to do. I care about taking care of my parents, getting married, setting up a family.
Do you think your post-swimming career will also be competitive?
Yes… I want to find something I can excel at — I don’t want to say ‘feel needed’ because that sounds a bit weird — I want to be dependable. It’d give me purpose. I’ve experienced what it’s like under the highest pressures, and anything else would feel mundane.
Photographed by Wee Khim
Creative direction by Windy Aulia
Styled by Gracia Phang
Hair and makeup: Karol Soh using Tom Ford Beauty and Keune Haircosmetics
Producer: Cindy Ow
Photographer’s assistant: Ivan Teo
Stylist’s assistant: Zoe Tauro