Beyond the Blue: Who is the real Yip Pin Xiu?

by Cheryl Lai-Lim  /   March 1, 2023

She’s a world record- breaking swimmer, five-time Paralympic gold champion, and a strong advocate for people with disabilities. Out of the water, who is the real Yip Pin Xiu?

Yip Pin Xiu is a glass-half-full kind of person.

It’s not just because of her easy smile or her warm, upbeat personality. Nor is it that despite being diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) (a disorder that causes nerve damage and weakens the muscles), she has pushed past her physical limitations to win five Paralympic gold medals and one silver.

Rather, it’s her uncanny ability to accept situations that are beyond her control, like her disability. “To be honest, I can’t imagine life without CMT. I would probably be a very different person,” she shares, noting that she might not even be a swimmer. (“I would be an accountant, maybe?” Is she good with numbers? “No, not really.”)

The 31-year-old had a joyful childhood, but she also recalls spending her formative years with her parents trying to treat her condition. Eventually, she knew that it had to stop. “I was probably around nine or 10 years old, but my mum recalls me telling her: ‘Let’s not waste any more money doing [the treatments] as the doctors have already said that it cannot be healed.’ I knew that we’d tried everything we could, and that there was really nothing else that could be done. At a certain point, I accepted it, and just wanted to live my life.”

By the time she turned 13, her leg muscles had severely weakened, and she had to increasingly rely on a wheelchair. Rather than viewing the wheelchair as a handicap, she saw it as increased mobility. “It was already so difficult to walk when I was 12 years old, so much so that being on a wheelchair actually felt like relief for me,” she shares. “It was more of a mindset shift. A lot of people might view it negatively, but for me, I was excited that I now had wheels, for it gave me so much more independence.”

It’s not in her nature to dwell on things that she can’t change. After all, as a competitive swimmer, time is so precious – a millisecond can make all the difference between a gold and silver medal. And so, rather than wasting time looking back, she chooses to focus forward. And one major focus right now is swimming.

Even before she had built her career around swimming, she was already drawn to the water. “When I was younger, there were not a lot of activities that I could do where I could be the same as everybody else. But when it came to the water, there was no such disparity,” she says. “To me, the water is a place where I’m able to be myself and be independent, without having to depend on anybody else,” she says.

“To me, the water is a place where I’m able to be myself and be independent, without having to depend on anybody else.”

The swimmer distinctly recalls her first competitive training. “I still remember the date – April 24, 2004 – when I first visited the CCAB Swimming Complex at Evans Road,” she recounts. That moment was pivotal for her as she saw so many people of various disabilities who were “living very wholesome and fulfilling lives”. Seeing them spurred her to take control of her own life.

At that point in time, she explains, her friends and family were worried that her disability would hold her back in life. “I remember my parents telling me to study really hard so that I could be in a profession where I don’t really have to use my physical body,” she shares. When she made the decision to pursue an athletic career, her parents were supportive, though some people around her, such as her primary school classmates, were doubtful. “I’m glad that their projections didn’t stop me from doing what I wanted to do. I still became an athlete, and I’m just really glad that I had the opportunity to be one.”

Taking the plunge

Printed cotton top, denim jeans, faux pearl earrings, Kate Spade New York

When she was 16, the backstroke specialist won Singapore’s first Paralympic gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. She subsequently won two more golds at Rio 2016, and also clinched two gold medals at the recent Tokyo Games, bringing her tally to five. She is the first Singaporean to win multiple gold medals in one Games. The swimmer also currently holds two world records: one for the 50m backstroke, and another for the 100m backstroke.

Pin Xiu is now preparing for the 2024 Paris Games, which will be her fifth Paralympics. Will this be her swansong? She carefully reveals that she has given it some thought, though she remains unsure if the Paris Games will be her final. “It will only be clearer to me after Paris, when I can take a break. To be honest, it’s a lot more tiring now as recovery takes longer,” she shares. “When the time comes, I’ll have to see if this is something I still love doing. And if it is, I might do it for another four years.”

Competing in such a high-performance sport comes with a lot of psychological pressure. She recalls an incident in 2018, when a change in coaches led to her results dropping drastically, and she found herself unable to sleep properly due to the anxiety.

“At that point in time, I still tied my self-worth to my performance,” she shares. Her performance improved after she switched coaches again. The clarity that came afterwards allowed her to see that tying her emotions to the sport was unhealthy.

“That incident was a lesson for me. It was a red flag when I realised how my emotions were so affected by my performance in the pool. And because I didn’t ever want to feel like that again, I eventually learnt to detach my emotions from the pool.” It took a lot of inner work, she says, plus plenty of self-affirmation.

It was a red flag when I realised how my emotions were so affected by my performance in the pool.

In 2021, about a month before the Tokyo 2020 Games, she hit a rough patch again. Loneliness, amplified by the pandemic, as well as uncertainty over whether the Games could be held, left her feeling helpless. She remembers sitting in the toilet, watching one of her previous races. Out of nowhere, she just started crying. “I think it was just the entire journey of feeling really alone. I felt like nobody understood what I was going through, and no one understood the hardships of the journey,” she says.

In typical Pin Xiu fashion, she chooses to see the silver lining. Those breakdowns, she says, offered her new perspectives: “To me, strength means taking control of whatever you can take control of, and letting go of the things you cannot. The incidents also highlighted to me that while swimming is a huge part of my life, it’s not everything. Life on its own… There are so many other things that make it special.”

Diving in the deep end

Printed cotton dress, denim jeans, leather strappy sandals, Kate Spade New York

For Pin Xiu, life outside the pool includes advocacy work, an interest that she discovered after the Beijing 2008 Paralympics. “After winning, you’re given a platform and a voice by the media. I realised that I could use that platform for something useful. I felt like I had a responsibility to speak for the people who didn’t have a voice. Along the way, a lot of people came up to me to tell me that they were grateful that I was doing that, and so it kind of spurred me on to continue doing it,” she reveals.

She recently spoke up on the disparity in cash payouts between successful para-athletes and able-bodied athletes. In Singapore, Olympic athletes currently receive one million dollars for winning a gold medal, but Paralympic athletes only receive $400,000 for each gold medal.

“I think this debate has been ongoing since 2008. When I won my first gold, the cash reward was 10 per cent of the Olympic prize money. But the fact is, I train just as hard as anyone else,” she points out. “And it’s the same kind of glory and representation for the nation. At the end of the day, it’s how people value the Paralympics, and whether they see it as lesser than the Olympics.”

The conversations sparked by the conspicuous disparity is a heart-warming sign of progression. “Prize money aside, it shows how much society has grown. And I think the more inclusive we are, the more we, as a society, will be willing to value diversity. That is a society that I’m excited to witness,” she says.

Making an impact

Silk top, silk skirt, Kate Spade New York

From 2018 to 2020, Pin Xiu also served as a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP). Just 26 when she was first appointed, she was the youngest NMP to serve in the chambers. “I think it was especially during my NMP role when I realised that I had opportunities to speak to so many people, and hear what they had to say,” she says, of her brief political journey. This gave her the motivation to dive deeper into advocacy work, for she realised that “there are so many people out there who are seeking help”.

While she has since ended her term as a NMP after the dissolution of the 13th Parliament in 2020, she’s been keeping busy. In January 2022, she co-founded a swim school with a few other Olympic coaches, including Singapore national coach Marcus Cheah, and former swimming head coach for the National Youth Sports Institute Leonard Tan. A big focus of the school is hiring the right coaches, which Pin Xiu admits can be difficult. “Just based on my own journey growing up, coaches can play such an important role. It’s really important as we don’t want to hire just anyone who can teach. It has to be somebody who is a good role model for the kids,” she notes.

Ultimately, the students don’t always have to end up competing, she says. “It’s about giving them a basic foundation of swimming and the values – such as punctuality, respect, and discipline – it offers.”

For the past few years, Pin Xiu has also devoted her time to help chair the organising committee of The Purple Parade, an annual festival that celebrates people with disabilities in Singapore. Now, she’s also helping to guide the initiative in a new direction.

She says: “The parade has always been about supporting inclusion and celebrating disabilities. But now, we want to do even more when it comes to planning programmes and building leaders who can speak up for the disability community. We really want to study and identify the gaps in the local disability landscape while keeping one question in mind: How else can we help?”

Exploring other joys in life

Embroidered knit cardigans, silk skirt, enamel and metal earrings, Kate Spade New York

Pin Xiu’s personal interests include a love for fashion. Earlier this year, she collaborated with home-grown fashion label Werable, which aims to make fashion accessible, dignified and easy-to-wear.

The collaboration came about after an honest conversation with Werable’s founder and fashion designer Claudia Poh, whom Pin Xiu is close friends with. “I was sharing with her one day that even though I have always had an interest in fashion, there were very limited things that I could wear as I have issues with the zips and buttons at the back of the clothing,” she reveals. “If I were to go out on a date or stay at an event till late, I want to wear stylish pieces that allow me to come home at whatever time I desire, and be able to help myself out of the clothes without having to wake anyone up for a zip or a button.”

The result of the collaboration is a dress with seamless tailoring and an easy-grip buckle that makes getting dressed and undressed easy. In the future, if given the opportunity, Pin Xiu is definitely open to more collaborations focused on adaptive fashion.

When it comes to dating, it’s no surprise there that she also interprets things with a positive mindset. “My previous relationship ended at the end of 2021, and I think I’ve just been spending some time being comfortable on my own for a bit,” she reveals. One of the most important relationships is the one we have with ourselves, she says, and being single has offered a valuable opportunity for her to embrace her authentic self.

And while she is now ready to explore new options, she has no intention to rush into a relationship. “I need to have the energy and the emotional availability,” she shares, aware that it might be unfair for the other party if she leaves them in a state of limbo. “Also, I feel like when you’re comfortable with being by yourself, your standards are generally higher. I guess I’m looking for someone who will add value to my life.”

This year, Pin Xiu is also moving out of her parent’s home. Like many who are in their 30s, she’s looking forward to having a place that she can call her own. It will also mean being more independent than ever. “It feels exciting to have my own place, but also because it hasn’t happened… (I wonder) is it going to be scary? Is it going to be a fun new experience? I don’t know, but I’m definitely looking forward to it.”

Beneath the surface

Printed cotton top, enamel and metal earrings, Kate Spade New York

So, who is Yip Pin Xiu, beyond being a record-breaking swimmer and advocate for persons with disabilities? Over the course of our conversation, she has answered my questions in a confident and fast-paced manner – each sentence chasing the last. But now, her speech slows to a crawl as she hesitates with her answer. “This is a very hard question,” she says with a laugh. She has, after all, always let her actions and performance speak louder than her words.

But when probed, she attempts: “I’m… a very passionate person.” She pauses before continuing: “When I want to do something, I really try to do it well by putting a lot of effort into it. I’m also a very driven person and very goal-oriented, and I think this is also shaped by the experiences I’ve had.”

And if she had to describe herself? “I am confident, authentic, and genuine. I’m somebody who loves really hard. And most importantly, I care fiercely: for myself, the people surrounding me, and the communities around me. But who says that about themselves, right?”

PHOTOGRAPHY Joel Low, assisted by Eddie Teo
HAIR & MAKEUP Grego, using Bobbie Brown and KeuneSG