Striking a good balance in life can be difficult for some people, especially for hormonal teenagers who are just starting to find themselves.
For national swimmer Carmen Lim, however, knowing her priorities is key to getting that balance and ultimately achieving her goals.
Carmen, 17, is an athlete in the 9th Asean Para Games, which began on Sept 17 in Kuala Lumpur. She is also sitting for her O-Levels this year, and her school – Sri Kuala Lumpur in Subang Jaya, Selangor – is currently holding trial exams for students.
“It is more tiring than stressful, really. I don’t get enough sleep. But as long as I keep my focus, I think I should do all right in the exam and in the Games,” she said during a weekend training session at the National Aquatic Centre, Bukit Jalil National Sports Complex in KL.
Carmen does not usually train with the national swimming team. Instead, she trains with her coach, Loke Chee Heng, and her school team the Sri KL Sharkies, every day.
“It’s a little far for her to come all the way to Bukit Jalil every day, so she is allowed to train at her school,” said Carmen’s father Lim Chee Kiong, who was at the aquatic centre that day.
According to Lim, he and his late wife decided to send their daughter for swimming lessons at age five because of her condition; Carmen was born without a left arm.
“As much as possible, we wanted to prepare her for all the things that could happen to her in the future. And it was important for us that she learnt how to swim – a survival thing.
“We have also drilled into her since she was young that just because she is a little different from everyone else, it does not mean that she is incapable of doing a lot of things,” Lim explained.
Education comes first
When Carmen was in primary school, a family friend had suggested to Lim that she join swimming competitions. However, as she was studying in a Chinese school at the time, Lim was worried about the workload.
“I thought it would be tough for her to tackle both school work and competitions, so we let that suggestion pass,” Lim said.
As she got older, Carmen’s passion for swimming grew and when she was in Year 2 of secondary school, she took part in her first competitive event.
“I didn’t discourage her, and neither did I encourage her because I didn’t want to seem like I was pushing her to do something she might not really want to do. But she was so determined! And she has a strong passion for it, too, so I supported her in all the ways I could,” Lim continued.
From then on, Carmen was unstoppable. Apart from competing in Malaysia, she has also gone for International Paralympic Council-sanctioned swimming meets in Croatia, Holland and Portugal. During her first Asean Para Games in Singapore in 2015, Carmen was not only the youngest athlete in her category (S8 Sport Class), she also broke the record in the 50m freestyle event.
One year later, she broke that record while swimming in the 18th Malaysia Para Games in Kuching, Sarawak. At the same event, Carmen was crowned Best Female Athlete after winning five medals and breaking four national records.
Alongside her at the time was her teammate, national swimmer Yoong Chung Wei, who was named Best Male Athlete for his four gold-medal haul. This year, Yoong, 22, will be competing in the Asean Para Games for the third time.
During his last participation in the Games, he took home six silver medals.
“I like winning and breaking records. When I don’t win, I will tell myself to try again and do better next time. Train harder, be stronger,” said Yoong, who swims in the S14 Sport Class.
Yoong hails from Penang and has been swimming since he was 12 years old. He took his time to answer questions, and was a little nervous during the interview. Perhaps he was not comfortable speaking to a stranger.
Seeing this, Carmen helped him out by telling him to speak to her in Mandarin instead, and then she translated his quotes into English.
“He will be competing in two relay events as well as individual ones. The national team trains for four hours a day in two sessions – two hours each time. It’s hard work and can get very tiring but he likes that he gets to compete for his country and make everyone proud,” Carmen noted.
As for her, she feels that while studying and training may seem different, they pose the same challenges.
“I think they are both equally challenging but it is all in how you approach them. You also need to stay focused and work on one thing at a time. For me, my education has always been my top priority – swimming comes second,” she revealed, adding that she will be heading to Wales next year to do her A-Levels.
Her father is confident that she can handle anything that comes her way and that she knows how to manage her time, and, to an extent, stress.
“I believe we have given her a good foundation in the first few years of her life. In terms of education, she is a pretty strong student. She is good at balancing her work and time, so I am not too worried about her in that respect,” said Lim.
Also confident of her and Yoong’s performance in the Games is Li Xin Xin, who coaches the national swimming team. This is Li’s first Asean Para Games, but she has been coaching the team for about one and a half years now.
Over the past few months, in preparation for the Games, Li has seen a lot of improvement in the athletes. She noted that the country’s strongest opponents in swimming come from Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.
“The swimmers compete in several different Sport Classes, so I don’t have a single set of rule or style of coaching for everyone. However, we usually put more focus on strength training because for swimmers, you need to maintain the same amount of power throughout the distance and that’s difficult to do for some,” explained Li, who hails from Beijing, China.
Support from teammates
As the day’s first training session ended, Li reminded the swimmers to pick up after themselves and to not leave anything behind. The athletes don’t get special treatment because of their disabilities as they don’t really need it (Carmen did get Loke to help put her swimming cap on, though). They were able to get in and out of the pool by themselves, even the athletes who were wheelchair-bound.
Some of them decided to hang around the aquatic centre to watch the photographer take pictures of their teammates and coach.
“Wow! Psst, psst!” said a swimmer, teasing Carmen when she was asked to pose by the pool. They may not train together all the time, but the national swimmers always support each other as they all share the same goals.
“I hope all the athletes achieve what they have worked so hard for. Whether it is to win or just to beat their own records and climb in the rankings, I know they can do it,” said Li.
Yoong, with his past Asean Para Games experiences, shared some advice. “Just do your very best, don’t think about expectations – yours or anyone else’s. You will never know how strong your opponents are, or how strong you yourself can be during competition. Just don’t think about anything else but what you need to do when you are in the water,” he said.
As for Carmen, she noted that the Asean Para Games is the beginning of a professional swimmer’s career. “It’s important that you do well so you really need to concentrate on that, to work on your timing. It is the pathway to bigger competitions, like the Paralympics!”
Malaysia plays host to the 9th Asean Para Games, which runs from Sept 17 to 23. As many as 16 sporting events will be contested, including Para Powerlifting, Wheelchair Basketball and even, Chess. These events will be held in 11 venues in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Putrajaya and Negri Sembilan. Visit KL2017 website.
Para athletes’ competition categories
All sporting events in the 9th Asean Para Games follow a system which ensures that winning is determined by athletes’ skill, fitness, power, endurance, tactical ability and mental focus. These same factors are also used in sporting events involving able-bodied athletes.
The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) notes that the purpose of this classification is to “minimise the impact of impairment on the activity (sport discipline)”. Having an impairment is not sufficient as the impact of the impairment on the sport must be proven.
Classification is also sport-specific as an athlete’s impairment affects the ability to perform in different events to a different degree. In swimming, athletes are divided into several sport classes. World Para Swimming caters for three impairment groups – physical, visual and intellectual. The Asean Para Games follows this classification.
You can read more about the Sport Classes in the official IPC website.