Two-time gold medallist at the 2018 Asian Para Games for the S7 50m Freestyle and the S7 100M Freestyle events Toh Wei Soong decided to hedge his bets on the Commonwealth Games this year to reach his passion for gold.
“Maintaining high level conditioning at the Commonwealth Games significantly factored into my decision because … there is less competition within the Southeast Asian region. You don’t have the major swimming nations such as South Africa, Britain or Australia,” the 24-year-old national para swimmer tells TheHomeGround Asia.
It was a decision well made after he clinched silver in the men’s 50m freestyle S7 final at the Sandwell Aquatics Centre in Birmingham on 1 Aug after clocking 29.10. He claimed the bronze in the same event at the last edition of the Games in 2018.
His silver this time was the second for Singapore after national swimmer Teong Tzen Wei’s silver in the men’s 50m butterfly.
“It was a pleasure to swim at the Commonwealth Games again and to go up against competitors I’ve known for the past five to six years,” he adds.
Now that the competition season is over, it is time to review his performance with coach and former Singapore Olympic swimmer Ang Peng Siong. “Everything is oriented around Paris 2024 and we work on that basis, a four year basis. So everything that is achieved is relative to that goal,” Toh says.
A Philosophy, Political Science and Economics undergraduate at the National University of Singapore (NUS), he admits that “in this case, there are still many, many things to refine”. “We did not meet the target at the onset. The question now and the only question that matters now is why, and to figure out how to ensure that (errors) don’t occur again”.
“I have a goal and that is the Paris 2024 Paralympics and since that goal is still meaningful to me, the only questions then are how can I get stronger? How can I get past the mental obstacles? How can I get off the block and become more efficient in the water?,” Toh says.
“And so, in this reflective period after the Birmingham games, my chief concern is to evaluate, to reassess and specify what needs to be done going forward. We are looking at how we can improve the system before the games, during the games, after the games. How can we plan better for contingencies and ensure that there is nothing I will regret when I swim in the next race, no matter the circumstances,” he adds.
Making a splash for greatness
At the age of two, Toh was diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis, a condition which is caused by the inflammation of the spinal cord and has affected his lower nervous system.
“While I couldn’t walk after it happened, I could still swim and swimming was something I enjoyed doing and something I eventually realised I was good at. It was something that I knew that I could find joy in, passion, and be rewarded for that passion and to continue doing at a high level,” he says.
In a 2018 interview with Toyota Times of Japan, Toh said, “I enjoy the freedom I get when I am underwater,” he says. “Being able to move about without (any) obstacles is why I love swimming.”
Toh was 13 when he started swimming competitively.
“I swam in the national para swimming championships in 2011. I think what inspired me to continue on was being able to represent my school ACSI (Anglo Chinese School Independent) in the 2012 inter-school swimming championships, held at the Singapore Sports School. It was where I represented my school for the first time and swimming for your school, I think, is what every student athlete wants to do. It was a lot of fun and from then on it just made me love swimming. The idea of representing something bigger than myself, contributing as best I can to that effort, and of course, challenging myself to see how far I can go,” he says.
A year later, Toh met his current coach Ang when he joined Aquatic Performance Swim Club under the Singapore National Para-Swimming Team; and now training under the watchful eyes of his hero and role model, Toh improved in leaps and bounds.
He went on to compete in international competitions, his first being the 2013 Asian Youth Para Games, one year after the inter school competition. There he took the Silver in the Men’s 100 metre freestyle S8 event, his first medal at an international meet.
“I went to Berlin for the IDM Berlin Open, which was part of the world para swimming circuit in 2015 and I recall being impressed by how much dedication and confidence all these world champions have. … For the longest time, it was simply just me and myself negotiating my condition and so on. Even at the local meets. There was none of this, only people roughly my age still figuring out who they are,” he says.
To Toh, it was a big difference overseas, seeing how professional athletes who have been in the sport for decades, conduct themselves.
“There is no shred of insecurity, there is no doubt as to why they are athletes just like everybody else, for the world stage. There was no anxiety towards their strength, towards how far they have achieved. I have only admiration because I realised that there was a pathway for me to grow in this sport and that this is a pathway that blazes many people’s performance. So in my sports career, that has been the chief concern of mine: How do I blaze my own path, not just for myself, but especially for those who come after me,” he says.
So it was no wonder he fought jet lag and fatigue upon returning from Germany to represent his school at the National Schools Swimming Championships.
Toh went on to compete in the ASEAN Para Games in Kuala Lumpur in 2017, at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia in 2018, he became the second person to win a swimming medal for Singapore at the Commonwealth Games. The first was Joseph Schooling who took the silver at the 2014 Games in Glasgow.
That same year, he won Singapore’s first medal, a gold, at the Asian Para Games in Jakarta in the men’s 50m freestyle S7 on the first day of the competition and went on to take another gold for the 100m S7 event and a bronze in the men’s 100m backstroke S7. His three medals made him the most decorated Singapore athlete at the Games.
A year later, he was named Sports Boy of the Year at Singapore Disability Sports Award. The ceremony was organised by SDSC and Haw Par Corporation.
Celebrating athletes, both able-bodied and para, equally
“I realised how important it is to have heroes, to have predecessors, to have proof that there is more to life,” Toh says.
“You can have people whom you admire, but you don’t know their names and there were many, many of such heroes for me. The two closest to home are Yip Pin Xiu and Theresa Goh. They were the ones who had to fight for success at a very difficult time, where possibly the sport did not have as much opportunity or support as it has today. And it was only through and after their success that they proved to everyone how much value and how much potential para sports actually have, not that it didn’t have before. They just brought that to the public eye,” he adds.
While he feels that it is still unfair that there is a wide discrepancy between the rewards reaped by able-bodied athletes and those by para athletes, Toh feels “it does not diminish the achievements made by the latter.
“It does not diminish your status just because you don’t see the same amount of money. Essentially, you do the sport for yourself. You don’t do it for all of that. It’s not so much that we don’t care, rather, that this is the concern for the politicians, the people who are in seats of power,” he says.
“We live in this country. We support this country and we represent the country. To ourselves, we have dedicated decades of our lives to the sport. If we don’t get the same reward, then perhaps that is the problem of sponsorship, the problem of political will, of public opinion. It does not determine how we should act for ourselves. We should live for ourselves, and do what we want … because we believe in our own mission and not because we’re going to get so much money from that. I don’t think we should compromise our principles just because we don’t get the same level of self sufficiency,” he adds.
With his own parents behind him all the way, he says that when it comes to children with disabilities trying to reach their dreams, Toh reaches out to the parents first, “because they are the true drivers of their kids’ dreams, whatever they may be”.
“You have to believe in the dreams alongside the kids, just as much as the kids want to have that dream and see how far they want to go to reach them. There is a pathway. There is support. There is good at the end of the line. And if your kids choose to pursue this dream, there’s a tremendous amount of good that will come out of it — in terms of their confidence, their perspectives on life. Trust in their ability to know their own body and to take care of themselves to have pride in who they are. They will be okay.”
As for his own parents, this was what he said, “When I had an interest, they tried it; when I had an ambition, they fed it; and when I had a dream, they stayed with me all the way.”