Singapore swimmer Quah Ting Wen loves making lists. Scribbled down on scraps of paper, she jots down to-do lists, compiles her favourite movies and also notes the targets she wants to hit. She says it helps to organise her thoughts and gets things done.
And perched on top of the list titled "regrets" is a date - Nov 24, 2011. That was when she first picked up a surfboard in the United States, which turned out to be the turning point of her career.
That morning, the freestyle specialist went surfing when a huge wave hit her, pushing the board so hard against her left forearm it shattered two bones.
The fracture kept her out of the pool for six weeks and she did not have full use of her arms in training for another three months.
To help her heal, two metal plates fastened by 15 screws were embedded into her arm. Surgery also left two scars.
Said Quah: "If I ever had a regret in the last 22 years, it would be going out to surf that morning.
"There are moments when I look back and wonder what would have happened if I didn't go out to that ocean that morning.
"If only I had just trained until the Olympic trials and gone to London. I know I shouldn't think about it, but I do, and it can be quite torturing at times.
"Not making the Olympics was hard for me. It was definitely the lowest point of my life."
But the swimmer, once described by ex-Singapore Swimming Association coaching director John Dempsey as "the most talented 11-year-old" he has ever seen, is bent on reaching the top again.
Since graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles in June with a Bachelor of Arts, Quah has been training full time at Swimfast Aquatic Club.
Without having to worry about studies or work, the communications major is confident of hitting the heights that once made her the darling of Singapore swimming. On another list, she has pencilled in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics as her ultimate target.
She said: "Training is what makes me happy now. I enjoy racing, being part of a team, I'm comfortable, and I want to do this for at least two more years."
But the road to Rio will not be smooth.
Determined to find a way back from her accident, Quah returned to the pool within two months but the magic was gone.
She may have been named the Most Valuable Female Player at the 2009 Asian Youth Games with four golds and one bronze - and also bagged five gold medals at the 2009 SEA Games - but the mojo disappeared. Just like that.
"Before that, swimming was easy for me," said Quah, who made her Olympic debut in Beijing in 2008.
"Everything just fell into place. I was having fun, training hard, swimming fast.
"Everything I did came off. After the injury, it just was not as natural as before.
Indeed, she has since been unable to reproduce the form that enabled her to hit the heights of 2009. Her three individual national records (100m and 200m freestyle and 400m individual medley), all set that year, albeit with the help of the now banned rubber suit, remain untouched.
At last year's SEA Games in Myanmar, she finished with five silvers, which she believes was "horrible".
Her current times are 0.5-1 seconds off her national marks of 55.57sec in the 100m freestyle, and 1:59.21 in the 200m free.
Younger swimmers like Tan Jing-E and Nur Marina Chan are also gaining ground.
But the 2009 Straits Times Athlete of the Year is confident of hitting top form again.
She said: "I've grown a lot after all that's happened. Mentally I feel like I can deal with the pressure better, and physically I've also been doing heavier weights, about 15kg more for squats, to gain more power.
"I do want to have that feeling again. That satisfaction after you've had the perfect race, when everything you've been practising for 20 hours a week comes off, when for a brief moment I feel happy, and nothing else matters."
Looking forward, her list is simple: Continue her comeback at this month's Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. Qualify for next year's SEA Games on home soil. Compete against the world's best at the World Championships in Russia next year.
And No. 1 on her list is to qualify for her second Olympics, Rio 2016, and erase the disappointment of missing out in 2012.
It is a lofty aim. But for the swimmer who loves to write down lists, it is something worth aiming for.
This article was published on Sept 1 in The Straits Times.
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