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Theresa Goh: From Grit to Glory

Theresa Goh is an award-winning Paralympic swimmer from Singapore. Though Paralympic glory slipped through her fingers in 2008, her grit and love of swimming brought her to the champions’ podium in 2016, when she won her first Paralympic medal.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Deborah Goldstein with sound design and mixing by Reel Audiobooks. It was written by Alexis Stratton and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Vera Tan. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

The Olympic Aquatics Stadium was bright and full, the crowds cheering. But under the water, all Theresa Goh could hear was her heart thrumming. She focused on pulling her arms through the water cleanly, as she repeated in her head:

“No Matter What, No Regrets, Give Your Best.”

She had trained for this moment her entire life. But would that be enough?

I’m Vera Tan. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us. 

On this episode, Theresa Goh: Paralympic athlete and outspoken advocate for social justice and LGBTQIA+ rights.

WGrowing up in Singapore, Theresa Goh loved the water. Maybe because there were pools on practically every corner where she lived. Or maybe because in the water, she felt fierce and free. 

On land, things were much more difficult for Theresa. She was born with spina bifida, which means her backbone was not fully formed and the doctors said she would probably never walk on her own. She had many surgeries as a little girl. Each time, her parents tried to cheer her up, drawing fantastic pictures on her casts, or getting her new crutches. But the best gift was when they first took her to a swimming pool.

It was heaven. Theresa felt so buoyant and strong. She could float, glide, and propel herself across the pool for hours and hours.

One day, when Theresa was 12 years old, someone from the Singapore Disability Sports Council saw her swimming and told Theresa’s father she had a lot of potential. He said Theresa should think about joining a swim team.

Theresa wasn’t really the competitive sort, but she loved everything about the water. So, she signed up!

Soon after Theresa joined a swim team, she started competing in regional and national competitions — and winning medals! Each day, she pushed herself to go further and faster. She was determined to get to the biggest competition for disabled people — the Paralympics.

In 2004, Theresa became the first female swimmer from Singapore to be part of the Paralympic Games. She competed in five different events and made it to the final rounds. Though she didn’t take home any medals, she felt like a champion. She promised herself that at the next Paralympic Games, she would win.

For the next four years, Theresa trained nonstop. She barely spent any time with her friends and family. She postponed going to college so she could focus solely on her swimming career.

Theresa flew to Beijing, China for the 2008 Paralympics and got to hold the Singapore flag in the opening ceremonies. But as her races got closer, she felt her confidence eroding. She tried to channel her breath and repeat empowering phrases to herself:

“No Matter What, No Regrets, Give Your Best.”

The crowd was cheering so loudly as she pushed through the final leg of her 100-meter breaststroke race. She was doing it! She finished the last stretch, reached for the wall, popped up out of the water and saw that…

She was fourth.

The bronze medalist had beaten her by 0.7 seconds! Theresa was devastated. She’d come so close. She’d given up so much of her life for this moment. And now, she felt like she’d let everyone down—from her coaches to her parents to the people of Singapore.

Theresa just wanted to be done with swimming. She went home and tore down the notes of encouragement and inspiration she had hanging by her bed. For nine months, she refused to go near a pool. She tried to pick up other sports, or busy herself with activities. 

Still, somewhere deep inside her, Theresa heard a voice growing louder:

I’m not done yet.

She needed to go back to the water. She knew the story of her life as a swimmer was incomplete. 

So, she put on her swimsuit and headed back to the pool.  The water lifted her up and made her feel invincible again. And that’s when she realized the answer: She had to rediscover her love of swimming. 

Not to win. Not to prove anything. Just to have fun.

Theresa went back to training. This time, she made sure her schedule was lighter, building in time to rest and enjoy her family and friends. She started competing again, but with a new mindset. She wanted to rediscover swimming and celebrate all that her body could do. She didn’t need to be the best. She just needed to appreciate where and who she was. 

In 2016, Theresa made it back to the Paralympic Games — this time in Rio, Brazil.

On the day of her big race—the 100m breaststroke—she was getting ready in the changing rooms. Nearby was another Paralympian who had swam faster than Theresa back in Beijing.

Theresa’s rival leaned in and said, “This is your time.” Theresa was surprised, and flattered. And ready to prove her right.

Moments later, Theresa was at the side of the pool, waiting for the signal to start. In the stands were her parents, friends, coaches and trainers, cheering her on.

Take your markBEEP.

Theresa launched herself off the wall. She couldn’t think about her opponents. She couldn’t think about her time. She just had to become one with the water, carving out her path with every stroke. Her muscles burned as she zoomed forward, her breath fast but steady. Finally, she stretched out her fingers and touched the wall.

She pulled off her goggles and looked up at the scoreboard, her eyes filling with tears.

She did it! After 17 years of competitive swimming, Theresa won a bronze medal at the Paralympic Games. 

Since her win in Rio in 2016, Theresa has continued to push through many uncharted waters. 

In 2017, she publicly came out as queer in Singapore’s major newspapers — she was Singapore’s first nationally known athlete to ever do so. She’s also become a major advocate for disabled people and for the LGBTQIA+ community. She’s committed to making this world a more inclusive and supportive place.

And even though she retired from competing in 2019, Theresa still has inspiring quotes and phrases that she loves to repeat for motivation.

She encourages everyone to embrace these words too. They are: “Be Kind, Be Brave, and Be Yourself.”

CREDITS:

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.

This episode was narrated by ME, Vera Tan. It was produced and directed by Deborah Goldstein with sound design and mixing by Reel Audiobooks. It was written by Alexis Stratton and edited by Abby Sher. Fact checking by Joe Rhatigan. Our executive producers are Jes Wolfe and Joy Smith.

Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi.

A special thanks to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible!

Until next time, staaaay rebel!