Quah simi? What’s it like being a competitive swimmer?

Quah Zheng Wen

What’s life like swimming competitively? How difficult can it be? It looks so easy, no?

Of all the various CCAs and interest groups I’ve participated in during my schooling years, the activity I spent the most time on was swimming.

Since primary school all the way to pre-university, I’ve dedicated 10 years of my school life to donning a swimsuit, cap and goggles, and jumping into different swimming pools.

Let me take you on a walkthrough of the journey it takes to be a competitive swimmer, based on my own experiences and those of fellow swimmers who made it way farther than I ever did.

First, you start out slow. 

You’re somewhere in primary school, or even preschool if your parents started you off early in the pool.

Sometimes you even start off as late as junior college, and yes these late bloomers have even qualified to represent their schools in inter-school competitions.


You already know how to roughly float and drag yourself through the water.

Your immediate goal was to not look like a splashing idiot swimming like a dying fish, and reach the end of the pool together with your swimmates.

The highlight of the year is the annual school competition, and you are just happy not to be the last few.

Training becomes your life.

If you haven’t dropped out of swimming due to the sheer boredom of swimming up and down the same pool every week, you decide swimming is a worthwhile sport to pursue.

There are 2 broad types of competitive swimmers. 

The first type (national swimmer) represents Singapore in Olympics, SEA Games etc.

National swimmers
National swimmers

The second type (inter-school swimmer) will never make it to the regional and global competitions, but will gain lots of CCA points, represent his/her school in annual swim meets and get to do fun activities (more on this in another blogpost).

What is a usual schedule like?

National swimmers have almost no life.

swimming in the morning

You wake up at 5am in the morning, get to the pool at 530am, stretch for 10 mins, jump into the icy cold water, swim 60 laps, bathe, and go to school to join your classmates for school assembly.

School starts from 730am and ends around at 2pm.

You go back to the pool (which can be in a different location from your school), stretch, sometimes use rubber cords to do resistance exercises, or go to the gym for weight training, and swim about 70-80 laps.

Rubber cords
Rubber cords

Sometimes you end training late. No time to bathe. You just throw on your clothes and sit on a towel on the bus or your parent’s car, commuting through peak hour traffic to get home.

You have your dinner. It is 8pm.

You still need to complete your homework and projects.

You are so tired after dinner, you just skip all of that and go to sleep in your swimsuit/trunk because you’re already dry.

sleeping swimmers

Anyway you’ll need to swim again the next morning, so why bother taking it off and putting it back on again in a few hours time?

What is training like?

If you train in a team, everyone does the stretches together, led by the team captain or vice-captain.

After that, you strip off your clothes, put on your cap and goggles, shower and start the daily grind.

We girls sometimes wear 2 suits to increase drag. Boys may wear a shirt tucked into their trunks for the same reason.

Warm up can be any combination of 8x100m freestyle, 4x200m IM (individual medley), and very very rarely breaststroke.

Then you train your muscles. It can be 5x200m with hand paddles, followed by 10x100m without paddles but with a float between your legs.

Hand paddles swimming

There may be a quick break of 8x50m kicking with floats, or just stretching your arms out in front of you and kicking away.

Then you may compete with your teammates, 8 of you at a go, for 8x50m in whatever style you’re specialising in.

You may even just practise 4x25m sprints, followed by turns, and 10m finishes.

swimming Starting block

Then you warm down 200m and keep the lane ropes. The best part is getting your swimmates to pull in the ropes while you enjoy a free ride from one end to the other.

Closer to competition date, everything gets a bit crazier

As you near D-date, your training will get more intensive, your coach fiercer, and your stress level higher.

He will nitpick on everything, from your stroke, to your fingers, to how deep you dive when you jump off the block, to where you first surface, to how many strokes you need for each lap, to your quickness in turning, to your breathing, to your finishing, and you live and breathe by the milliseconds on his stopwatch telling you if you dawdled just a little bit extra on that damn turn.

swimming coach

When you train, your mind blanks out, you sing a ditty over and over in your head to get into the rhythm till you’re sick of it (mine was “Run To You”), you feel like you’re in a dream, struggling like a robot in water trying not to drown, when your breaths have to be quick and every stroke must be fast, powerful and effective.

Your heart strains to beat, a heaviness threatening to drag you under especially if you’ve been deprived of a priceless gasp of air by an idiot in the next lane splashing with his flippers.

swimming coach breahting

Your muscles cramp up but you must finish the set. I once had to lie down for 20 minutes because my rib cage muscles had cramped up and my lungs couldn’t expand upon inhalation. I’ve blacked out before while swimming only to wake up when my hand touched the pool wall.

Your coach may plan an overseas trip to the most horrible pools you’ve ever trained in.

One covered pool (it was in Shah Alam) we trained in, was the nightmare of all swimming pools.

Birds roosting in the roof rafters would shit in the pool. It was 3m deep and there was no 1m deep ledge to stand on at both ends. We hung on for dear life to the lane ropes.

Fallen decaying leaves from the dark ages floated at the bottom of the pool. The covered pool never received direct sunlight so it was ice cold and many of us got cramps immediately upon entering the pool.

Once, a pool staff walked past and spat into the pool in front of us (wtf right?!!) and yet we had to train till the end.

After training, you’re so tired you can’t even open a cap of a shampoo bottle properly.

You struggle to walk down staircases and lift your bags. Your forehead and eyes have tan marks and you look like a panda. It doesn’t matter, only the race does.

tan line

Competition date arrives

Today, you will eat lots of bananas, drink tons of milo/sports fluid and feel more agitated than going on a blind date.

Spectators throng the stands and you just want a quiet place to breathe, stretch, rest and envision your race.

You go up to the race area, nod to the spectators and strip almost naked in front of them. Every eye is on you.

You wonder if you missed any stray hairs you needed to shave in case a camera zooms in on an inconvenient location.

OH F***
OH F***

You go up to the starting block, take a deep breath, pray you don’t lose your balance and disqualify yourself by toppling into the water before the horn sounds, and time slows by as you anticipate the blare of the horn.

The race against time and water

In the race, it’s only you against the water. The water will comply the first lap, struggle against you in the second, and then it’s a battle of your willpower against your muscle strength and your glycogen-conversion abilities.

Butterfly is one of the hardest strokes to swim, because it is like letting a cheetah loose into the water and making it swim more than its sprinting ability.

Backstroke is a killer because you only have the bare sky, or ceiling, to guide you and you can’t look around to see where the hell you’re swimming because it’ll throw off your streamlined passage through water.

backstroke woes

You have no idea what time it is because every ounce of your effort is spent on focusing on your strokes and just staying alive.

You reach the end with a finish, and look up expectantly to see your time.

Sometimes it’s great! Sometimes you are pretty off the mark. You wonder what happened, you counted the strokes, you did quick turns, what went wrong?

You’re damn breathless, and you have to get out of the pool.

Some reporters shove their videos and microphones into your face asking you lots of questions.

It feels like being interviewed by the paparazzi after you’ve had a bad date with your girlfriend and she slapped you in the face, you don’t know why.

It’s too much, you need to get out of the glare, cool down and replay your race quickly before you forget where you went wrong.

You give the reporters a quick nod and go back to your business of professionally analysing your race. But reporters aren’t happy. They bitch about you.

Quah zheng wen

So Quah simi?

Life goes on, there’re things to work on, getting back to the pool, training, watching your race video and comparing with a clock to sort out your mistakes and train to eradicate them the next time round.

A swimmer is a professional. Mastering the art of swimming to cut down milliseconds is your obsession, and your dedication.

To all the swimmers (and athletes) out there doing your best for your country, I respect you for dedicating your life to perfecting your art, and you have the right to take the time to sort out your race analysis before giving anyone an interview.

Swim fast and strong, our Singaporean swimmers!

Featured image source: ST

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