<Facebook post by Quah Ting Wen>
Thank you from the other side of the world to all my loved ones and friends. To all who have asked if I’m feeling my age, I think that would come after having to fill in forms and applications that require too much personal information. I’m sitting in Best Bagel and Coffee with my brother, and am so excited to be watching our first Broadway musical together later on. As I was going through my phone I came across something that I had written in Rio and decided to share.
I’m writing this without really knowing my true intentions. I do not know if this is merely a way for me to vent my frustrations in a private way, or if this is a piece of me that I would like to share with the world. I will decide when this is done.
Four days after I have finished my race, I am finally ready to read about what has been said about my swim. I have been getting an influx of messages and texts from family and loved ones about staying strong, although I am embarrassed to say that I have not had the courage to reply to many of them. I feel like I have let my people down. More importantly, I feel like I have let my coaches and myself down. I pinch myself to make sure I got my thick skin on (has to be bak kwa level), and open the browser.
There is not much about me online, because I have not spoken to the media since I’ve sum. I know I should, and I know I should have done so earlier. I shoul have been more professional about it; I do write down “athlete” in the occupation section of forms after all. I will do so, if they want to talk to me.
I breathe a sigh of relief, not finding much about myself (I’m not looking too hard), and then go onto Facebook for fun (I’ve been avoiding all social media). Not much fun there. A torrent of comments on some shared articles catch my eye, as does photos of my brother. I realise how, like many times before, my brother has found a way to shield me. This time he protected me from the negative backlash with his impressive swims, unfortunately coupled with some very petty reporting. I read the articles, which berate my brother for being immature and unprofessional, because he did not stop to talk to the press after his swim. I follow this up with some online forums, which make the articles look weak in comparison, with comments and opinions bordering on personal and almost offensive. My bak kwa skin does not protect me from getting upset on his behalf.
Here is what an athlete goes through right after a race. The media zone is strategically placed right beside the pool, and swimmers are forced to walk a snaking line past close to a hundred reporters and camera crew. It does not matter what kind of race you’ve swum; no one is excused. This is as close as you get to witnessing an athlete in his rawest state. Of joy, exhaustion, bitter disappointment, frustration, triumph, anger, elation etc. Whatever we feel is felt in its purest form, laid bare for all to see. The reporters and journalists, being the privileged first few privy to these emotions, are thus burdened with the responsibility of portraying all this to the public. They are there to inform, educate and empower. Right?
I have to admit, my brother is not one for false pretenses and social masks. What you see is what you get, which can sometimes out you at a disadvantage when you are required to be in the public eye, on the world stage, competing at the highest level. But that does not mean that he would turn away an interview. Knowing him, he needed time alone, to reflect, to grieve, to come to terms at how years of work leading up to that moment did not pan out exactly the way he wanted it to. Exhausted and in pain, not just physically, but emotionally too, should he have stopped and given a panting dissection of his swim, as well as how he truly felt? If all the reporter was waiting for was “I’m really happy” or, pardon my language, “that was really shitty”, then is that really journalism at its finest? If a swimmer were to put to words how he or she truly felt after a swim at a meet as monumental as the Olympics, he or she could be standing there for hours. Because five minutes would never be enough time to explain the crushing disappointment of not being able to apply in one to two minutes what we’ve been putting our bodies and minds through for the last few years.
I understand that what my brother did, (or did not do, in this case) might come off as rude and offensive. It is understandable that others are trying to do their jobs, and quotes from him would make their lives much easier. I also understand that they stand in line for hours waiting for that little bit of time to be able to understand his thought process and his feelings towards the results. My brother is young, a teenager still, and can be quite abrasive when having a bad day. I know this; it runs in the DNA. However, it is frustrating to see such things being said about him. I can say firsthand that the media is not the first group of people I want to see after a race, no matter the result. Not even if an Olympic gold medal was won with a time that obliterated the previous world record. Whatever the outcome, the reporters are never the first people I seek after a swim. The race, no matter how beautiful, mediocre, or just plain ugly, belongs to me and a select few who accompanied me on the journey leading up to that moment. Is it not then normal to want to see those individuals first? Of course, in moments of triumph, we are more willing to bask in the glory, and both words and emotions come gushing forth more comfortably towards anyone and everyone. My brother never denied the reporters of an interview. There were just more important things to be taken care of first. Lactic testing, recovery nutrition, warm down swim, reflection with the coach. He had another event coming up. That took priority over all else, including the “obligation” of speaking to the media. He never said never, he just meant not now. He will learn in time, how to handle himself. Time and experience will bring forth growth.
On a more personal note, for all naysayers and the keyboard warriors on those acidic anonymous forums, for a brief moment I wish I just what their names are and what they look like, and perhaps a dissection of every accomplishment they have ever achieved. I would like them to come forth and tell me to my face that Singapore has been wasting her time and money on sending us to the Olympics. That my “poor upbringing” has led me to be rude and aloof, not because I just didn’t know what to tell the media after feeling like a damn failure. I can go on and on, but then I sit back and I ask myself why. These people have no names, no faces; they are no one to me. They can say what they like, and I hope it gives them the tiny bit of satisfaction they are so desperately seeking, because at the end of the day I am the one fortunate enough to have been able to find something in this fleeting span of time on Earth that I am truly passionate about. I am the Olympian. I am the one they are trying to tear down, not vice versa. And I can brush that dirt off knowing who I am and being proud of that. I am lucky and grateful to be surrounded by a close-knit group of family, friends and loved ones, who have all sacrificed so much so that I can be where I am today. I am at peace with who I am and what I have done, and that is all that matters.