GRIT BEFORE GLORY
National swimmer Quah Zheng Wen aims to make a splash at the Rio Olympics. But in order to compete with the world’s best, he has to train like one.
Often, behind every victorious athlete lies stories of hard work, dedication and grit. To be a master of something, you have to endure repetition, the endless training sessions that drill home the intricacies of a specific skill. The late Muhammad Ali hated training, but he understood its importance and goes flat out at every gym session. David Beckham – way before he was noted for his dead-ball ability – practised thousands of freekicks at his local park even when day turned to night.
And then there’s national swimmer Quah Zheng Wen. The 19-year-old has come under deeper scrutiny after becoming the most bemedalled athlete at last year’s Sea Games. He has since met the “A” Olympic qualifying time for the 100m backstroke, 100m as well as 200m butterfly events, and will be on the plane to Brazil.
But such feats are not down to chance. Like Ali and Beckham, he adheres to a process.
“I wake up at about 4.45am, since my training starts at 5.30,” he says. “Afternoon practices begin about 2.30pm or 4.15pm, and depending on the schedule, there will be gym sessions before we head to the pool. I swim until about 7pm. Overall, I train 10 times a week, spread across Mondays to Saturdays.”
But, wait, wouldn’t gym work weigh a swimmer down? “I’ve never really done heavy weightlifting before, since I swim more in middle to longdistance events, and the power requirement isn’t so great,” he explains. “But I have qualified for the shorter distances and [national swim] coach Sergio [Lopez] is trying to make me stronger without my gaining too much weight, to get the power I need to compete against some of these guys, who are huge.”
Zheng Wen’s routine may seem restrictive to an outsider, but it all boils down to hunger and discipline. One needs to stay motivated and remain fixed on the prize ahead, but what is startling is that he has been following this lifestyle for the past five years.
“Since I was 14,” he smiles. “Adjusting to this schedule requires a lot of perseverance. Swimming isn’t something that you can stop for a couple of days and then get back to it. Water isn’t our natural place where we’re supposed to be, and I think there’s a ‘feel’ in the pool that you get when you train consistently.
“When you stop for a couple of days, you’ll feel weird. It’s not like: ‘Oh, there’s a huge competition in a month’s time and I have to start training properly now.’ No, it doesn’t work that way.”
Of course, with such a watertight schedule, sacrifices have to be made. Zheng Wen admits that it is pretty much eat, sleep and swim.
“You have to forgo plenty of social activities, with friends and stuff like that. You just don’t have the time. And even if you do, you’ll be so tired you simply want to rest. People don’t see the grit and sacrifices – it’s not all glamour. Training consistently is key. You have to keep doing it until you’re good at it.”
Indeed, until you’re good at it. Four years ago, Zheng Wen took part in the London Olympics and only finished 33rd overall in the 400m individual medley heats.
His improvement since then has been astounding – breaking three national records last year apart from his Sea Games heroics, and most recently in June, he beat American competitors at the Indianapolis Arena Pro Swim to win the 200m butterfly.
No one knows for sure what will happen when the lanky swimmer takes to the pool in Rio, but the nervous boy four years ago is now brimming with confidence. “I feel I’ve earned my spot. It’s been a wild ride, but if I set myself up well, who knows?”