Paralympics: Singaporean medal winners at the Games

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Laurentia Tan of Singapore during the dressage individual test at the 2012 London Paralympics.
Laurentia Tan of Singapore during the dressage individual test at the 2012 London Paralympics. (PHOTO: Scott Heavey/Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — In 1988, Singapore sent its first batch of eight para-athletes to the Seoul Paralympics, but it took the Republic another 20 years to earn its first medals from the Games.

Since the maiden medals at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, Singapore's athletes have won medals in every subsequent edition. In total, three of them amassed nine Paralympic medals - three golds, two silvers and four bronzes.

Here are the athletes that earned the honours at the Paralympics:

Laurentia Tan (equestrian, one silver and three bronzes)

She was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and profound deafness weeks after her birth, yet Laurentia Tan plays a sport that requires exquisite coordination with an animal, as well as a good sense of rhythm in leading her horse to music in the dressage competition. 

Even if she had not won any Paralympic medal, the 42-year-old para-equestrienne would have been applauded for overcoming the difficulties posed by her conditions. But through sheer persistence, she managed to scale the heights of her sport.

"I learnt through my 'feelings' of the horse's steps and rhythm, so I can work out if we will be ahead or behind the music," she once said. "You don't know how far you can go unless you challenge yourself."

After being invited to take part in the World Para Dressage Championships in 2007, Tan made the qualifying mark for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. The competition was held away from the China capital at the Hong Kong Olympic Equestrian Centre, where she was paired with a chestnut gelding appropriately named Nothing To Lose.

On 9 September 2008, Tan scored 68.800 points to claim the bronze medal in the individual test (class 1a) event, behind Britains's Anne Dunham (gold) and Sophie Christiansen (silver). She thus became the first Singaporean to win a Paralympic medal, as well as the first Asian to win a Paralympic equestrian medal. 

Two days later, she earned another bronze medal in the individual freestyle test event. While she returned to Singapore together with Yip Pin Xiu amid much plaudits, the duo also sparked off discussion on the recognition given to Paralympians in Singapore, and the disparity between their monetary rewards and that of Olympic medal winners.

Those two Paralympic bronzes only served to motivate Tan to greater heights as she geared up for the 2012 London Games. Again, she was the first Singaporean to earn a medal in London, earning her third bronze medal in the individual test. Two days later, she finally made her breakthrough - scoring 79.000 points in the individual freestyle test to clinch a silver medal.

The four Paralympic medals earned Tan much admiration among the Singapore sports community, as well as two public service medals: the Meritorious Service Medal in 2008 and the Public Service Star in 2012. 

And she is not done yet. Injuries derailed her medal bid at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, but she is set to take part in her fourth Games at the upcoming Tokyo Paralympics.

Yip Pin Xiu with her gold medal in the women's 100m backstroke at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics.
Yip Pin Xiu with her gold medal in the women's 100m backstroke at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics. (PHOTO: Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)

Yip Pin Xiu (swimming, three golds and one silver)

Singapore's first Paralympic gold-medal winner. The only multiple Olympic/Paralympic gold-winning Singaporean athlete. A world-record holder in her swimming events. Yip Pin Xiu's place among the pantheon of greatest Singaporean athletes is secure. 

What is less known about her stellar sporting achievements was how the 29-year-old has had to overcome her degenerating limb muscles caused by her muscular dystrophy condition, adapt to a new disability classification, and still continue to excel in her sport.

A closer scrutiny at her achievements tells the story of how Yip's swimming classification has changed over the years, from S5 to S3 and now S2. For para-swimming, the lower the classification number, the less functional ability the athlete has.

It mirrored her own life, as her muscular dystrophy symptoms appeared only when she was two, when she could not extend or rotate her ankles. Slowly, as she endured more muscle degeneration, she lost the ability to walk at age 11 and had to use a wheelchair. And when she took up competitive swimming at age 12, she was again forced to switch from front crawl to backstroke after losing her ability to kick.

Yet, those physical setbacks have never affected her exuberant demeanour, nor her determination to succeed even at the tender age of 16 when she made her Paralympic debut at the 2008 Beijing Games.

In her first event, Yip narrowly lost to Mexico's Patricia Valle in the women's 50m freestyle (S3), even as she broke the event's world record in the heats. Undeterred, she duly created history in her next event, winning the coveted gold medal in the 50m backstroke, and smashing the world record by nearly two seconds during the heats.

Then, more setbacks, as she could only finish in fourth place in both her S3 events at the 2012 London Paralympics. Sensing that her muscle condition was slowing her down, Yip and her coach decided to focus solely on backstroke, and to make the switch to the S2 classification as soon as she was eligible. 

It resulted in a wildly successful comeback for Yip at the 2016 Rio Games, as she stormed to two golds and two world records in the 50m and 100m backstroke (S2) events. A month prior, swimmer Joseph Schooling had created history in Rio by becoming Singapore's first Olympic gold medallist; Yip's double gold-medal haul was equally historic in making her the first Singapore athlete to win multiple Paralympic golds.

Yet, she has not stopped in trying to make a difference in Singapore. Appointed as a Nominated Member of Parliament in 2018, she championed inclusivity and support for local sports and para-sports during her two-year term. 

“I’m really proud of how I’ve been able to advocate and create more awareness in Singapore,” she told World Para Swimming in a recent interview. “I’m grateful to have had all these opportunities to share and fight for equality. I don’t take it lightly and it’s something I can and want to do while swimming. I don’t want to wait until I stop swimming to live my best life.”

Singapore's Theresa Goh winning a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics.
Singapore's Theresa Goh winning a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics. (PHOTO: Reuters/Jason O'Brien)

Theresa Goh (swimming, bronze)

On the surface, Theresa Goh's lone bronze medal at the Paralympics may be fewer than the multiple medals that Yip Pin Xiu or Laurentia Tan had won. 

However, that single medal does not tell the full story of the 34-year-old's importance to the local para-sports scene. For nearly two decades, Goh was a mainstay in Singapore para-sports – a consistent winner and a humble ambassador who has inspired Singaporeans to take up sports despite the local para-athletes' disabilities.

Goh was born with congenital spinal bifuda, which resulted in an incompletely-formed spinal cord and her inability to use her legs. The wheelchair-user picked up swimming at the age of five, and began to win regularly in local and regional meets when she entered competitive swimming at age 12.

When the inaugural ASEAN Para Games was held in Kuala Lumpur in 2001, Goh shot to prominence with a superb six-gold, two-silver outing, and even broke the world record in the women's 50m breaststroke (SB4) event. At just 14 years old, she was named Sportswoman of the Games, as well as the 2001 Sportsgirl Merit Award from the Singapore Disability Sports Council.

Far from being a one-event success, Goh clinched a staggering 33 medals – 30 of them golds – over nine ASEAN Para Games editions. She became Singapore's first para-swimming world champion, winning the 200m individual medley (SM5) at the 2006 International Paralympic Committee World Championships in Durban, South Africa. She held the world records for both the 50m and 200m breaststroke (SB4) events.

All that was left was success at the Paralympics, as she became the first female Singaporean swimmer to take part in the Games in Athens in 2004. Here was where she suffered her first major setback in her swimming career, as she came less than a second short of winning a medal in the 200m freestyle (S5) at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.

Admitting that she was devastated at missing out on a podium spot, Goh took an eight-month break before deciding to carry on swimming. However, a Paralympic medal continued to elude her at the 2012 London Games, and doubts arose as to whether she can ever do so in an increasingly-competitive field.

Yet she answered all her doubters with a superb outing at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, finally earning a bronze in the 100m breaststroke (SB4) final to fulfil her ambition. Goh eventually retired in 2019, having achieved all she had wanted to do in swimming.

On her outlook in life, she once told The Straits Times, "As long as it doesn't kill me, it's doable. It's always about being able to tahan (Malay for endure), being able to do it until you cannot. But before you say you cannot, try first."

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