Doesn't miss competitive swimming, didn't like the limelight: On the Record with Joscelin Yeo

Doesn't miss competitive swimming, didn't like the limelight: On the Record with Joscelin Yeo

Former national swimmer Joscelin Yeo is also Vice-President (Swimming) at the Singapore Swimming Association. (Photo: Facebook / Joscelin Yeo-Purcell)
SINGAPORE: Joscelin Yeo never won an Olympic gold medal but, for many years, she was the larger-than-life national swimmer whose triumphs in the pool made a nation proud long before Joseph Schooling came on to the scene.Her broad-shouldered swimmer’s body pushing against the water was a sight to behold especially during the years when no one else of her calibre was representing Singapore internationally.Ms Yeo won 40 gold medals at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in her 17-year competitive swimming career. She is the only athlete on record to have won that many SEA Games gold medals. She also represented Singapore in the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and four Olympic Games.Her international swimming career began at the tender age of 11, at the 1990 Asian Games.Just a year later, she got a rude shock.At her SEA Games debut in 1991 in Manila, she won two silver and three bronze medals.
“I WAS NOT LIVING UP TO PUBLIC EXPECTATIONS”You would think this would be enough of an achievement for a 12-year-old. But others didn’t think so.“I got a bad report in the media saying that I didn’t come home with any golds," she says."I was 12 and I was swimming at my first SEA Games. But because I was representing the national team, the expectation was that you come home with gold medals. So I knew I was not living up to public expectations.”It feels as if a dark cloud is progressively descending on the room as we further discuss the ugly side of competitive sport.“It was tough because I think at that point, there wasn’t a group of swimmers who were performing well that you could spread the news across. It was just me.”She actually quit swimming for a few months after the negative media coverage.“I remember very distinctly telling my mum that I just wanted to swim but if swimming came with all these bad reports and stuff that I had to deal with, with the media, I just don’t want to do it.”But an Australian coach, who was then a head coach in Hong Kong, brought her back from the brink of permanent retirement.His advice was simple.“He said, ‘Look, you have the chance to do something really great here. You have a talent that not a lot of people have and you just focus on that.’ For that to have come from a very reputable coach and someone I respected … I just took a leap of faith and said ‘Okay, I’ll try it'.”Many would agree that it’s a good thing she did. Today, in spite of having never won an Olympic medal, she is seen as one of the pioneering legends in Singapore swimming.Her life today is markedly different.She works as a counsellor at a church. It’s a job she describes as a calling.Her driving force is to “hopefully give people hope and light for the situation they are facing”.Her four children also keep her busy, but she continues to contribute to the sport as Vice-President (Swimming) at the Singapore Swimming Association.HER LOWEST POINTHowever, her memories of her own sporting career are bittersweet.The 39-year-old recalls the bitter memories with startling clarity.Her lowest point was at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.“I had been swimming really well. In fact, just a few months before the Olympics, I broke a world record with my team. I got to the Olympics and I was told that I had a press conference scheduled. I was on my way to the press conference when I was told, ‘You need to make a detour and your brother needs to speak to you.’ and I’m thinking, ‘Why does my brother need to speak to me?'”He had bad news about her younger brother, who was involved in an accident in Singapore. The taxi he was travelling in was hit head on by another vehicle. The taxi driver was killed instantly. Her brother, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, suffered serious injuries.“He was all beat up, his joints were broken and dislocated and he was in a coma. My older brother and my mum, who were at the Olympics to support me had tried to keep it from me, at least till after my events but the media wouldn’t have that. They were going to ask me about that at the press conference.”Her family had kept it from her for a few days.“I couldn’t focus. I’ve always grown up protecting my younger brother and I felt that his accident was on me in some weird way. I felt that I should’ve been there to protect him and I wasn’t. The only reason I wasn’t there was because I had chosen to go to some faraway country to swim.”All her feelings had to be swiftly put aside though.“I didn’t know if I wanted to swim anymore and yet the Olympics was before me. The weight of the country was on me and everybody was expecting me to perform. But I had a struggle going through my head and my heart and I just didn't know what I wanted to do.”But she soldiered on.“I went to the press conference. They asked me and I just said, ‘Look, I don’t know. I just want to know how he’s doing.’ Also, there was no justification for me to pull out of my events, so I swam.”Her head wasn’t in it.“When it comes to race day, 90 per cent of it is mental.”Her brother recovered well, but she was disappointed in her performance at the Games.

“You have goals to want to win a medal, but at the end of the day, it’s not the only thing that matters and you walk away. I gave it everything I had," says Joscelin Yeo. (Photo: Facebook / Joscelin Yeo-Purcell)
NO OLYMPIC MEDAL She participated in three other Olympics – the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 2004 Athens Olympics - making her the only Singaporean to have represented Singapore four times at the Olympic Games.What does she think prevented her from winning a medal?“When I went to my first Olympics, I was 13 and I think at that time, I was sent because I was the fastest in Singapore. They sent me for exposure. At the subsequent Olympics, I was four years older, but I was not quite at the level to win a medal. I was on the cusp of making the B finals and so there was progression.“The Sydney Olympics in 2000 would probably have been my best chance of making the finals but because of what happened to my brother, everything just fell apart.”Her final Olympics in 2004 also didn’t see her succeed, in spite of the fact she gave it everything she had.“You have goals to want to win a medal, but at the end of the day, it’s not the only thing that matters and you walk away. I gave it everything I had. For the last four years I had poured my heart and soul into training, into preparing myself for this event and it just didn’t go my way.”She intended to leave competitive swimming after the 2005 SEA Games. But she did well at the Games, so she decided to continue till the 2008 Beijing Olympics. However, after the 2006 Commonwealth Games and the 2006 Asian Games, she decided it was time to stop. She did not have the motivation to carry on.“It’s ten times a week, three hours a session. It’s a big commitment. Do I have the drive to keep doing this? At the end of 2006, I asked myself that question and I didn’t feel that I had that drive that was necessary.”When asked what caused the drive to dissipate, she struggles to explain. “I don't know. There had been seasons in the past where I felt like I don’t want to do it and I throw my hands in the air but it always passed. This was different. This wasn’t out of frustration. There was this “settled-ness” on the inside of me and I just knew that this is it.”Her goal previously was to at least make it to the top five at the Olympics.“I MADE THE BEST OF WHAT I HAD”Why does she think she never made the made the mark in spite of giving it her all?“It’s really hard to say. When I left Singapore to go overseas, I went because there was nobody here that could coach me to a higher level and so I didn’t have the kind of resources that the athletes have now with sports science, with sports medicine, with coaching of a decent level within Singapore. I had to go search for it at a time when things in general weren't as developed as they are now. That can be tough.”Her search took her to Australia in 1995, and to the US from 1999. In 2001, she followed her coach when he transferred to the University of Texas at Austin."There's so much involved in moving countries. You’ve got to adapt to a different way of life, to different types of food, find a way to look after yourself. I started doing that when I was 14. Not many people have to live on their own, cook their own food, do their own laundry at 14 and try to be successful in their sports and their studies. I found it tough.
“Given where sports was in Singapore at that time, I think I made the best of what I had. Could it be different given the resources that they have now where they can start from an even younger age? Perhaps.”

"Fair enough, they have to get their story in but so do I. I have to swim. If I don’t swim well there’s no story," says Joscelin Yeo about her relationship with the media. (Photo: Facebook / Joscelin Yeo-Purcell)
A FEAR AND DISLIKE OF THE MEDIAAs she was growing up, she also developed a reputation for being stand-offish with the media.She admits to being naturally shy and introverted, which made dealing with the media even harder.“It got the worst at the 1993 SEA Games. I was swimming ten events over five days and the time between events were very short. After each event, I would have to warm down and get ready for the next event. But the reporters wanted their story and they wanted it immediately. Unfortunately at that time, our team manager was not equipped as to how to handle the media and how to handle a swarm of media and so I was left to fend for myself.”Reporters chased her down at the warm-down pool.“I just told them that I have to get ready and I can’t do this now but they wouldn’t take no for an answer. Fair enough, they have to get their story in, but so do I. I have to swim. If I don’t swim well there’s no story.”She grew to have a fear and dislike of the media.“I got a negative report saying that I refused to talk to the media without the proper context of what had happened. I did not like talking to the media because I wasn’t sure they were going to write anything nice again.”I remark that much of the coverage was positive.“They wrote about the results, but a lot of times, they didn’t have anything good to say about my personality. I was a teenager. I was growing up. To have all that splashed in the newspaper was very tough. You’re going through that awkward stage in life. There was no buffer. There was nobody to help me. I had to deal with the media all by myself.”Her mother was sometimes able to act as a buffer but at major competitions, she was not allowed into certain spaces and could not help.However, she grew to improve her ability to face the spotlight, seeing it as a social responsibility.“Eventually, I came to accept the fact that it’s part of who I have to be and it’s part of who I am as a national athlete. As I matured, I learnt how to handle that as well.”This also explains why she doesn’t shy away from the media today. In fact, in spite of not naturally gravitating towards the limelight, she wrote her autobiography, On the Move: My Career, My Story, in 2004.“IF I HAD A CHOICE, I WOULD RUN AWAY”But what she says next implies that in spite of maturing enough to deal with the limelight, her preference is still to shy away from it.“Having time away from Singapore also allowed me to grow up without being under a constant spotlight and that helped me a lot.”I remark she must have enjoyed the limelight at times, especially the thousands of adoring fans.“Not really. It’s not really my thing. While I really appreciate the support from the fans, it doesn’t determine my self-worth and so I think while it’s nice, it’s not going to change who I am.  I just accepted it as part of my social responsibility. But if I had a choice, I would run away.”

Joscelin Yeo with fellow national swimmers. (Photo: Facebook / Joscelin Yeo-Purcell)
“I DON’T THINK I MISS ANYTHING”We’ve established she doesn’t miss the limelight, but what she tells me next is even more surprising.She doesn’t miss anything about competitive swimming.Just to be sure, I ask her the question again.“I really don't think I miss anything. I don’t miss waking up at 4:30 in the morning.  Never been a morning person. I don’t miss that rigour.If she doesn’t miss competitive swimming, nor the limelight that came with it, why then did she push herself so hard back then?“Because I loved the sport. I enjoyed competition, I enjoyed the challenge. I wanted to be the best that I could be. I wanted to see how far I could go, but I don’t really miss anything about it. The adrenaline was fun but I have other opportunities now to get my adrenaline going.”She’s referring to CrossFit training and her four kids, who she takes swimming from time-to-time.It makes me wonder if she would have done something else with her life if given a choice.“No, I chose swimming.  My parents exposed me to a lot of things – piano, violin lessons and a lot of sports, but I chose swimming. I just loved the feel of the water. I made the choices to want to go overseas to get better. I made the choice to leave my family and to pursue my sporting career.“Looking back, I would have chosen it again. There are many things that came out of my time in sports, such as learning how to deal with failure. It sounds simple but there are a lot of people in life who don’t know how to deal with failure. There are a lot of people who don’t know how to persevere through something. Sports has taught me that.”A FATHER IN TROUBLE WITH THE LAW AND LOSING HER MOTHERPublic scrutiny followed her even after she retired from swimming.In 2011, it was reported that her father was sentenced to jail and fined for running a loan shark racket.“He made his mistakes and he served his time. My father is an adult. I don’t feel that I need to speak for his actions, so that’s all I have to say about that.”She and her father are very much in touch, she says.But her mother who supported her throughout her career, died as a result of a brain tumour in 2009.“She went for an operation but they couldn’t remove the entire tumour. So she went for chemo. But she lived a lot longer than the doctor said she would. They told us she’s got two months left. But she went on for another two and a half years. So we were really grateful for that.”Watching her health deteriorate was painful.  “It was tough seeing my mum, who’s an amazing and strong lady who would run interference for me and do all that, be in a place where she was so immobile.”Her mother was a powerful influence.“She was a very strong independent lady. I think she’s somebody who always believed if you want to do something, then go all out. She also showed me the strength of a mother’s love and you can love your child through even their worst moments.”When Ms Yeo retired she didn’t have a plan but when someone at her church approached her about a counselor job, “it clicked on the inside.”“One of my other passions was being able to impact young people and this job allowed that.”

Joscelin Yeo (third from right) with the rest of the executive committee of the Singapore Swimming Association. (Photo: Facebook / Joscelin Yeo-Purcell)
MONEY FOR SPORTSHer job as Vice-President (Swimming) at the Singapore Swimming Association also keeps her very in touch with young people in competitive swimming and the challenges associated with it today.She says that during her career, she felt blessed to have the support of the Singapore Sports Council, now knows as SportSG“When I chose to go overseas, they supported my training expenses. Not 100 per cent, but they covered quite a bit of it. I was one of the first few whom they poured so much support into. I’m thankful that my parents were able to supplement that. It was just survival. I wasn’t making money or building up savings, but it was enough.”She had an apparel sponsor back then, but that was short-lived. She claims that today, more corporates are willing to invest in athletes, but this still requires some convincing.“These days we are able to use data to track where an athlete is going, how he’s doing. We can use many data points over a period of time, even if they haven’t won medals to make a case for athletes.”In fact, the spexScholarship is also given on the basis of such data points. "They don’t just step in later but they currently they look at people who have the potential."
However, she thinks sources of funds need to be varied.“If you’re only relying on the government, that’s only one source. How much do you expect it to grow? We need to find other sources. There is something about being invested to succeed and not just having everything handed to you.”The Singapore Swimming Association has a team in place to raise additional funds. Inevitably, Joseph Schooling comes up.“Sometimes when people make comments, they don’t have the whole picture. It’s not that we have not been supporting Joseph. If you look back at the records, the Government has been supporting him. But not 100 per cent. Joseph went overseas and of course, expenses overseas are also higher. It’s a chicken and egg thing. You put your money in those who show the most potential and more after they reach a certain level. Yet athletes need that support to be able to get better. Until he was winning at that level, the government, I think, supported him appropriately. His parents might disagree.”“The corporates have even higher expectations. Companies want to see results before they invest in somebody.”Ms Yeo was also a Nominated Member of Parliament from 2009 to 2011 and one of the issues she spoke against was the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme. She stands by her views. “I think that it’s good to bring in foreigners for purposes of sparring. But at the end of the day, they should help to raise the standards here. The purpose has to be clear. I think it’s important that that knowledge is transferred to the local people.”The foreigners who work at the Swimming Association’s secretariat and the foreign coaches, she claims, are doing just that.During her two and a half years as NMP, she made only seven speeches. This was highlighted by some media organisations at the time.“It was not an easy time. A lot goes into preparation. I was just starting out working and I found it challenging to juggle both. But I have to say I had many backroom conversations with MPs that were not necessarily recorded. These helped me bring forth the views on sports too.”“GIVE BACK TO THE COMMUNITY WHAT SPORTS HAS GIVEN YOU”We end on an uplifting note. Her vision for Singapore sports is very much tied to what she herself would like to be remembered for.“Just like how my mum had impacted many people, I want to be remembered as somebody who was able to give back and impact the swimming scene while I could.”She would like to see generations of sportspeople who are “not self-centered” but those who “understand that they can make an impact on society”.“If you’ve learnt how to really persevere through something, talk to kids who are down and out and share with them how you push through when you don’t see success, how you find a way to succeed. Give back to the community what sports has given you.” 
Source: CNA
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