SINGAPORE: The day before the women’s 4x100m medley relay finals at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, Singapore swimmer Quah Ting Wen was not feeling entirely well – she was coming down with a bug.
She decided to forgo the individual 50m butterfly event she had made the finals for, so she could focus on giving it her all to the team race.
“I feel like I only have one good swim left in me,” she told her coaches. “I want to not swim my individual event, so I have everything in me … and I want to give it all to the relay.”
The coaches were on board with the plan. But she could feel her body breaking down.
“I was really caffeinated. My whole body was buzzing. We were 20 minutes late for the event and I was getting really nervous. And we’re behind the blocks and it’s loud,” she said, recalling the events leading up to her mistake on Sep 29.
MAKING THE MISTAKE
When she saw her sister Jing Wen swimming towards her, and it was time to take over as the last member of the relay for the freestyle leg, she instinctively knew what she was supposed to do. They had practised it with each other over 20 times.
But as she dived into the water, she knew something was wrong.
“I actually knew the moment when I was doing the relay exchange for my sister that I might have made a mistake,” she told CNA in a special podcast on the mental health struggles of elite athletes.
For the first half of her race, she was running on adrenaline and “could barely feel my body”, she said.
“The whole time, in my mind, I was thinking ‘Did I do something wrong? I might have messed up’”, she added.
She managed to put it out of her mind and finish the race, but she did not look at the scoreboard and watched the reactions of her team instead.
The other two members of the relay team – sisters Levenia and Letitia Sim – were screaming in joy, as it appeared that they had clinched a bronze. Her sister, too, told her they had made podium.
However, their joy was short-lived and her fear came true. When the disqualification and the reason – jumping a fraction of a second too early – were announced, she had tunnel vision.
“In that moment, all I could see was just me, my sister, and my two other teammates and watching their reaction and feeling my reaction and there was no one else and nothing else going around me except just this wave of shock, despair, disappointment,” she said.
“Hearing the girls be happy and watching their reactions and then right away having all of it taken away – I think that was the hardest part. So there was a lot of guilt after and regret.”
Speaking to CNA about a week after the incident, she said she worries there would be no lessons to take from the mistake.
“A part of me is worried that this happened for no reason … There’s no grand scheme or there’s no big plan. It’s just a mistake. And that’s what it is. And there’s a part of me that’s worried that I can’t come out of this better, even though I really, really want to,” she said.
COPING THROUGH WORDS, GRIEVING
Quah, who took to Instagram to apologise for her error, said she felt the need to do it.
“People might say ‘it’s okay, it’s okay, you can just move on, we’re not upset’. But the pressure I put on myself, it’s not because other people are putting pressure on me,” she said.
“I feel like it is this desire to do right by all these people who have supported us this whole time. And also to prove to myself that swimming was the right decision for me.”
It was also a way to get “all these words and images out of my mind so that I could try and sleep that night”, she said.
“Writing helps take everything out of my mind, put it on a piece of paper. It’s kind of a way for me to try and compartmentalise,” she said.
She also writes a list of “very, very simple” things that she can control when she is in a bad place, she said. They include checking if she has eaten, had enough water, showered, and is sleeping enough.
Quah said she has tried to find a different way of dealing with negative feelings, after previously dealing with them in a “destructive” way.
She used to think, “It’s so bad. Why try to make it any better? Let’s just make it as bad as it can be’”, she said.
“I’ve tried to try to find a balance now. I understand that there’s a grieving period for me and I allow myself to feel all these negative feelings, to replay certain images in my mind as time goes on, and I allow myself to do other things and experience other things and other emotions,” she said.
“It helps to layer over the pain and it helps to layer over all those feelings of regret and the blame that I keep putting on myself.”
It is about finding a way to survive, she said.
“I can’t live in that moment on that Friday (at the Asian Games) forever. If not, then I’m going to be left behind, I’m going to be alone. At some point, people will move on, and I do not want to be that person who wallows in that moment forever,” she said.
A friend told her that she will experience other heartbreaks in her life and this is just one of many, which she agrees with.
“I just need to have that space to process that and move on and know that there will be other things that come my way that might not be like what I want. And I will be strong enough to handle those things.”
'Your story matters': MMA fighter Angela Lee opens up on new initiative, suicide attempt and sister Victoria’s death
'Successful' Asian Games for Singapore, but room for improvement for likes of table tennis, badminton: Top sports official
HANDLING MENTAL HEALTH
Quah has sought help for her mental health before.
In 2017, a sports psychologist suggested that she should get herself diagnosed. Quah was found to have clinical depression and was prescribed pills for chemical imbalances.
“There was a lot of shame when I was first told I will have to be taking this, to be relying on this tiny pill every night just to be okay the next day,” she said, adding that this stemmed from the mindset she had on how athletes should be.
“I used to be that person who will look at athletes and (think) we have to be physically strong and even stronger mentally to be able to do the sport that we do. And to push our bodies this way, we have to be tough. There’s no space for weakness. There’s no space for being reliant on anything. It’s all about pushing through the pain yourself,” she said.
“Anything less than that, you’re not worth the sport, that you’re not worth being up there with the rest of the greats.”
Even though she was resistant to taking the pills, she later realised it is not wrong to get help.
She has learned that if she does not, once in a while, take stock of how she is physically, mentally and emotionally, and keeps pushing herself, she “might dig a hole of fatigue and exhaustion so deep”.
“It’s really learning to take stock of where you are and really just understand yourself as an individual. Tell yourself, if you can push harder to just push through the pain. Or if you really, really need to, take a step back and take some time for yourself,” she said.
On her advice for younger athletes, Quah said that self-awareness and finding a good support system are very important. Having the courage to say they are not okay is also key, she said.
“It’s not just about the mind. If you’re not getting enough sleep, or you’re not eating the right foods to nourish yourself, then your mind can only do so much for you. You have to be good to your body,” she said.