Swimming: A SEA Games End

Swimming: A SEA Games End
Tao Li reacts after her 100 meters backstroke race at the Singapore National Age Group Swimming Championships 2015 at OCBC Aquatic Centre on March 20, 2015.

She achieved Singapore's best result in swimming when she became the first from the country to qualify for an Olympic final at the 2008 Beijing Games, finishing fifth in the women's 100m butterfly.

Seven years on, Tao Li says she will likely call time on her career before the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Which means this year's South-east Asia (SEA) Games, which will be held here in June, will take on even greater significance for the 25-year-old.

Speaking to The New Paper before she left for her training camp in China on Monday, Tao Li said: "I'm currently pursuing a degree in business management at Singapore Institute of Management.

"Because of the last SEA Games (2013) and the 2014 Asian Games, I have already deferred my studies for two years, which is the maximum the school allows.

"After completing half-a-year of the two-year course, I'm not willing to give that up and start over again."

After faring poorly at the 2012 Olympics, she had insisted with typical defiance that she would bounce back in Rio, but she added: "I look at other swimmers like Mylene (Ong) and (Quah) Ting Wen, people who are younger than me but have already completed their studies, and I'm still some way off towards achieving that.

"I'm still considering my options but as of now I'm leaning towards completing my studies over competing at the next Olympics.

"To swim at some of the World Cup stops is still possible, and after my studies, I may still come back and attempt the 2018 Asian Games.

"But I don't think I would be able to do well at another Olympics if I also have to juggle my studies.

"So the SEA Games could be my last major meet, and it would be a full circle, considering my first SEA Games was exactly 10 years ago, and this time the event is at home."

Tao Li aims to remain in the sport and has already made plans to start her own swim club.

"I want to contribute to Singapore swimming in other ways. I have been to so many places and achieved so much. I don't think Singapore currently has a swimming coach who has reached such a high standard as a swimmer," she said.

"It would be great if I can groom Singaporean swimmers to top my achievements in the future."

One of the Republic's greatest swimmers, Tao Li remains Singapore's best female swimmer at the Asian Games with two golds, two silvers and two bronzes, all in the 50m and 100m butterfly events.

But, she is not getting any faster.

She owns five individual national records, but the most recent one came almost three years ago when she clocked 1:01.60 in the 100m backstroke at the 2012 Olympics.

She has stopped swimming in 200m events and candidly said: "It's true that I have reached a plateau as far as timings are concerned, after the 2008 Olympics when I finished fifth in the 100m butterfly final (57.99 sec) and was ranked fourth in the world that year. It would be very difficult to get back to that level."


What many people do not realise is that by pushing her 1.60-metre frame to the limit, it has resulted in many injuries, some serious, others not completely healed.

"I have a twisted ankle such that I can't feel the water, a knee that swells up after intense training and competition, and a shoulder that moves out of place and requires surgery," she revealed.

"I don't want to be like Yao Ming, who put his body through so much stress that he has problems even taking a walk with his daughter.

"Even though I'm just 25, I do feel old. I wish to retire while I'm on top, I want to start well and end well, finish on a high."

She remains focused on the upcoming assignment - delivering SEA Games gold for Singapore in June.

She is currently in Kunming, where she will train for three weeks before going to Hubei for another month. She plans to trim down to 56kg - she says she is now in the 60kg range - and work on her power.

"I'm unbeaten at the 50m fly and 100m back at the SEA Games, but it's not going to be easy. I have to focus and give Singaporeans something to cheer about. Four out of four (50 and 100 fly and 50 and 100 back) would be the perfect farewell."

If I want to go for another Olympics, I want to achieve another breakthrough. I've already made the final and finished fifth. The natural target is top three, to win a medal, but the 2016 Olympics is in little more than a year. If I have to train and study, it's going to be difficult.. - Tao Li



This article was first published on March 25, 2015.
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