Tue, Jun 23, 2009
The Straits Times
The 1 to watch

By Leonard Lim

Singapore's latest swimming darling just cannot sit still.

Quah Ting Wen is perched on an office chair in a room next to the Anglo-Chinese School (Barker Road) pool, and she almost makes you dizzy with all that 360-degree swivelling every few minutes or so.

She babbles on excitedly when we talk about topics like her favourite food places, which includes a famous braised duck rice stall near her two-storey home in Pasir Panjang.

But her replies are reluctant and short - and the chair swivelling resumes - whenever the conversation turns to things she would rather not talk about, like her recent surge to fame.

In March, the 16-year-old eclipsed two of former swim queen Joscelin Yeo's national records. The feats propelled her lanky frame and cheeky grin to the front pages of newspapers and into the public consciousness.

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The headlines and attention made Ting Wen a natural choice when the Singapore National Olympic Council had to choose the country's flag-bearer for the upcoming Asian Youth Games.

All eyes will be on the pretty 1.75m, 59kg athlete when she leads Singapore's contingent at the June 29 opening ceremony. But, if she had her way, she would rather stay out of the limelight.

In fact, at the AYG flag-presentation ceremony earlier this month, she was seen backing away slowly when the media scrum inched ever closer during an interview.

She recalled: 'I've never been comfortable with this sort of thing. I'm okay with newspaper and radio interviews, but television is very scary because of the lights. And what if I say something wrong? And they put microphones in your face.'

She apologises for how she is still getting used to dealing with the media, adding: 'It's stressful when you don't know how to answer reporters. The one question that's always very hard is 'Do you think you're going to get first?' But I feel so bad because my answers are always the same.'

She is clearly embarrassed too when the topic of Internet fan sites - there are at least two dedicated to her now - crops up, and nervously draws her long, slim legs close to her chest, as if in a protective gesture.

She has been inundated with requests from strangers wanting to be her friend on Facebook. The list of pending requests stands at over 300, having surged since her record-breaking swims in March.

'I don't reject them because, like, I'll feel so bad,' she said.

But Ting, as family and close friends call her, has accepted as a 'friend' anyone whose name or face sparks the faintest flicker of recognition.

The first-year student at Raffles Institution (Junior College) is dressed in a T-shirt and blue shorts for the interview - items that, along with jeans, apparently dominate her wardrobe.

The only skirts she has are the green ones she wears to school. Her single dress? A lavender tube one she bought last year for her prom night. Those who know her say it is not that she is a tomboy - she just does not feel comfortable in skirts and dresses.

Indeed, an attempt by The Sunday Times to get her to wear a dress for a photo shoot drew loud howls of refusal, and even her mother Anne was unable to persuade her.

Anne, a housewife and trained psychologist, cooks most of the family's meals and Ting Wen even packs lunch - usually meat sandwiches - to school.

She said: 'I don't eat at the school canteen, people think I'm crazy. But I'm used to being kept away from outside food anyway.'

Ting Wen's diet aside, Anne and her husband Tee Hwa, a general practitioner, are protective of their eldest of three children. Brother Zheng Wen, 12, and sister Jing Wen, eight, are also swimmers.

The parents take turns to shuttle Ting Wen between home, pool sessions at ACS (Barker) and school - days begin at 4.30am when she gets up for training.

Anne said: 'We're not seeing any signs of burnout, Ting's still very keen when it comes to training. Things are very positive.'

Indeed they are.

Among the athletes who could fly Singapore's flag high during the AYG, this Beijing Olympian, who will swim in the 50m, 100m, 200m and 4x100m freestyle, and 4x100m medley, tops the list.

She is aiming only for personal bests at the AYG, adding that a medal would be a bonus. Still, the AYG swimming co-captain (along with Rainer Ng) is in good form, having rewritten her trio of national freestyle sprint marks at the recent National Championships.

Her times of 25.65sec (50m), 55.65sec (100m) and 2min 00.14sec (200m) would have placed her second, third and second respectively at the 2006 Asian Games.

Yet, for several years, Ting Wen was in the shadow of fellow-Olympian Tao Li, who cannot compete in the AYG as she is over the 17-year age limit.

Breaking Junie Sng's 27-year-old national Under-14 800m freestyle record in 2004, and medals (one gold, four silvers and two bronzes) at the 2005 and 2007 South-east Asia Games, were early signs that Ting Wen could be a future star.

Five years ago, then-Singapore Swimming Association (SSA) coaching director John Dempsey, who had previously worked with Olympians Leisel Jones and Jessica Schipper, called Ting Wen 'the most talented 11-year-old' he had come across.

The situation, though, was never always bright.

Last March, Ting Wen, along with several others training at the SSA's Centre of Excellence (COE), were left without a coach when Dempsey suddenly left.

He was reportedly not part of the SSA's plan to close the COE in favour of a six-centre decentralised model. American Jack Simon was hired a few weeks later but he resigned in June, leaving Ting Wen coach-less again.

Coming just two months before the Beijing Olympics, she turned moody and would not talk much even to her family.

She cooped herself up in her room for days, looking sullenly at the 20-plus trophies and medals she had amassed and wondering if she would ever add to the tally.

Fortunately, national coach David Lim, a former backstroke specialist and Olympian, offered his services in mid-July.

The pair have since forged a good relationship, and her results are proof of the progress. In Beijing, she set a national record in the 400m individual medley.

Lim, 42, has since switched her focus from the 400m IM and long-distance events (400m, 800m, and 1,500m free) to the sprints.

He said: 'She's stronger in the freestyle sprints, because of her power and strength. Internationally, she has the potential to go further in this.

'John was the one who uncovered the diamond. He did the right stuff with her, giving her the base. I merely came at the right time and polished it. And she was at the right age to switch.'

He added that she is not strong enough to be a full-fledged sprinter on the world stage yet, and must work more on her overall strength.

Lim's disciplinarian style and her parents' firm attitude - she has missed only one training in the 11 months under Lim - has kept Ting Wen grounded despite the hype, though it also means plenty of sacrifices socially.

'Most of the time I've to turn down friends who ask me out. I'll feel bad but my schedule is so tight,' she said. In her free time, the teenager listens to fast music like Nickelback's 'If Today was Your Last Day'.

There are boys after her - fellow AYG swimmer Rainer Ng said the number of suitors can be counted on several hands. He added: 'They're mostly the sporty type as well.'

But Ting Wen remains single: 'It's not because I don't like them, I'm just too busy.'

Certainly, it feels as if her teenage years are flying by - with her life revolving around the sport, and having to deal with issues other teens do not need to worry about, such as coping with the weight of expectations when it comes to competitions like the AYG.

She said, ruefully: 'It feels like I'm growing up very fast, a lot of things are being thrust on me because of swimming.'

Then the optimist within takes over. 'But it's not necessarily a bad thing,' she added. 'Swimming has given me everything, I can't ask for anything more right now.'

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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