Yeo shrugs off pain to compete

2015 ASEAN Para Games: Day 6

Three days ago, at the OCBC Aquatic Centre, Malaysian swimmer Yeo Yi Lin's moment to shine nearly became a disaster.

She had trained 12 times a week for the ASEAN Para Games, her family had driven from Malacca to watch her compete, but everything was falling apart as she stood on the pool deck.

The 21-year-old was dizzy, her back was stiff and she was seeing double. She collapsed and her coach signalled to officials that she would sit out the race.

But Yeo got back up and hopped on one leg to the starting blocks.

About eight minutes later, she finished last in the 400m freestyle S9 event but she had made a point.

Yesterday, Yeo told The Straits Times: "Even during the swim, I was seeing double. But I've trained so hard for this and I didn't want to let anyone down by giving up."

The incident, which drew applause from the stands and made waves on the Internet, encapsulates Yeo's limitless optimism.

Here is a woman who could legitimately call the operating theatre a second home and her oncologist a close friend.

Medical jargon rolls off her tongue but the classical music undergraduate grooves not to the buzz of the surgical saw but the sweet symphony of Niccolo Paganini's 24 Caprices.

In between giggles, Yeo said she remembers the terms because her life can be bookmarked by battles with illness - osteogenic sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, a failed vendex rotational procedure which led to the amputation of her left leg below the knee, a second tussle with cancer and an ulnar nerve entrapment, which came from playing too much violin.

It all started at age 10 when Yeo, then a taekwondo exponent, was diagnosed with stage four bone cancer. Doctors had to cut out chunks of bone from her left leg, rendering it immobile.

The eldest of three daughters survived but the cancer struck again two years later. This time, it had spread to her lungs and doctors said it was terminal.

But the bubbly woman said: "Maybe I was still young but I didn't think about dying. I just thought of it as an illness that would go away."

Doctors removed part of her right lung and she survived. "They told me I was a living miracle," she said.

A year later, the plates and screws holding her leg together fell apart.

This time, she was urging the doctor to cut off her leg. "My mother said I could still walk with a prosthetic so I just wanted to get it over with," said Yeo.

She picked up swimming soon after. "I swam to compensate for not being able to practise taekwondo. It's very relaxing."

The positivity, Yeo noted, stems from her parents who never let her struggles affect the family's mood .

"They were never down and never treated me differently.

"My friends also never gave me special treatment and that made me feel normal.

"In any case, I'd rather focus on my ability than my disabilities.

"That's how I choose to live."

Slowing down is furthest from Yeo's mind as she juggles schoolwork with swimming.

She might have finished last in three of her four events in Singapore so far but her dream is to win a medal on home soil in 2017.

Some will say it is a far-fetched one. But Yeo will laugh it off, the same way she has at every road block life has thrown at her.


This article was first published on December 8, 2015.
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