Swimmer Yip Pin Xiu beats the odds again

The cheers, already thunderous from the moment she wheeled herself out onto the pool deck, grew even louder as her curled fingertips touched the wall.

Her best friend and team-mate, who swam in the lane beside her, glided over to embrace and congratulate her.

But unbeknown to the thousands at the OCBC Aquatic Centre last month, and the tens of thousands more watching the race live on their screens, Yip Pin Xiu had no clue she had won the Asean Para Games (APG) S2-5 women's 50m backstroke event - much less that she did so in an S2 world record timing.

By her own admission, her eyesight is "terrible". Partly because of myopia, she jokes, from too much reading in the dark. But what cannot be corrected by glasses is her left eye, where optic nerves have been affected by muscular dystrophy.

So it was not until fellow swimmer Theresa Goh told her that she had won - in 1min 1.61sec - that she realised what the commotion around her was about.

Some athletes go into competition playing down their chances. Others choose to focus on the process, not the results. Yip, joking and relaxed in the call room before the race that night, simply chose not to expect anything.

"I honestly didn't expect much, going into the APG," she said. "I used to be able to do 1:01 timings. But my disability is one that deteriorates over time, so I didn't expect the timing nor the medal at all."

Trailing in third place for the majority of the lap, it was not until the last five metres of the race that Yip began to close the gap.

So when her name was the first to show up on the scoreboard, even coach Mick Massey did a double take, convinced that there had been some sort of error.

Said the Briton, who put more time and emphasis on practising finishes before that: "I got back to the Games Village that night and watched the race over several times. I've never seen anything like it. It just shows that practice may not make perfect, but it will make permanent."

In winning gold - just ahead of Vietnam's Nguyen Thi Den (1:01.63) with Goh in third (1:01.73) - in an S2 world mark while competing three classes above, Yip was awarded The Straits Times Star of the Month award for December.

The prize is an extension of ST's Athlete of the Year accolade, launched in 2008. Both are backed by F&N's 100Plus.

Said Marc Lim, ST's sports editor: "December was a month where Singapore saw just how inspiring and able our disabled sportsmen and sportswomen are, and there was certainly no shortage of outstanding athletes for us to take our pick from.

"But Pin Xiu, her feat and her spirit embodied all that the APG taught us about tenacity and determination and there is no more fitting athlete to receive an award that honours more than just athletic accomplishments."

Yesterday, as the 2008 Paralympic champion hit the pool for the first time since the APG ended last month, Yip again felt the freedom and joy that the water offers her, but was also aware that it is where many will expect her to perform at the Rio Paralympics later this year.

She said: "I guess (the world record) has changed the way my competitors will look at me. But it makes me a lot more motivated to continue training harder to get even better."

So even if it will be a different venue, against stronger competition and in front of a less partisan crowd in the stands, one thing remains come September: It will be that same fighter in the pool, with every stroke, pushing herself towards the finish line.

This article was first published on Jan 9, 2016.
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