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Dealing with disappointment, handling expectations: Quah siblings reflect on Tokyo Olympics campaign

Dealing with disappointment, handling expectations: Quah siblings reflect on Tokyo Olympics campaign

Quah Zheng Wen and Quah Ting Wen at the Tokyo Olympics. (File photos: AFP/Oli Scarff; Facebook/Team Singapore)

TOKYO: Looking back at their Tokyo Olympics campaign, the sense of disappointment from Singapore swimmers Quah Ting Wen and her younger brother Zheng Wen was palpable.

“I don't think I have expressed any other sentiment in the mixed zone after any of my races - I said it then and I’ll say it again - it was disappointing and not up to standard,” Zheng Wen told CNA on Sunday (Aug 1). 

“I'm not happy ... not satisfied. Not nearly the level that I know that I can be at.”

Ting Wen, 28, echoes her brother’s sentiments. She said that she gave her all preparing for the competition, but it just did not come together in the pool.

Quah Ting Wen at the Tokyo Olympics. (Photo: Kong Chong Yew/SNOC)

“You always want to see progress. And you want to see what you put in all those hours leading up to that come to fruition,” she said in a Zoom interview.

“So it is disappointing when it doesn't. So, no, I'm not happy. But at the same time, I think just trying to move forward with a growth mindset, knowing that this is not the end.”

By the siblings’ standards, it has been a tough Olympic Games.

Competing in three events - the 100m butterfly, the 200m butterfly and the 100m backstroke - Zheng Wen failed to clock personal best times. He did not make the semi-finals of any of the three events.

As for Ting Wen, she finished 40th overall in the 50m freestyle and 36th in the 100m freestyle.


But this conversation was more than just the disappointment. The siblings are driven by the global competition, spurred on by the nation’s expectations and are keen to continue with the sport they love.

The Quahs have had their share of success.

Zheng Wen was named the most valuable male athlete at the 2019 SEA Games, where he won six gold and two silver. He has a pair of freestyle relay bronze medals at the 2018 Asian Games, and made an Olympic semi-final (200m butterfly) in 2016.

Ting Wen has more than 20 SEA Games gold medals to her name and owns four individual national records.

Quah Ting Wen at the 29th SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur. (Photo: SNOC/Shaun Ho)

But when it comes to the world’s biggest stage, athletes always need to be on top of their game, Zheng Wen pointed out.

“The one thing I've also learned from being away in school, in college, training with Olympic gold medalists, world record holders, NCAA champions … You can be so good, you can be really good. But if you weren't on your game 100 per cent, there were other guys really to step up and beat you and beat you bad(ly),” he said.

“And that in itself is a little spot of excellence, that I have been so lucky and blessed to be able to experience and train with. But when you add the Olympics, that is everything it is multiplied tenfold.”

Singapore's Quah Zheng Wen during the men's 100m Butterfly heats at the Tokyo Olympics on Jul 29, 2021. (Photo: Team Singapore)

A win is guaranteed for nobody, added Zheng Wen.

“You have other athletes who had the swim of their lives. You can't really control that. And all you can do is control yourself. And yeah, it's just something that will happen along the journey … It’s an up and down ride. But like I said before, the highs are extremely high and the lows can be painful,” he noted.

READ: Some 'very encouraging' Team SG performances at Olympics; those who turn in disappointing performances need space: Edwin Tong

He rebuffed the idea that perhaps Singapore’s swimmers were a victim of their own success previously.

“I did not feel victimised at all over this success of our past. And if anything, I am proud, I am proud that people will look at me, and expect those things of me. Because that just means to me that people believe that I can do something,” he said.

“And that means more to me than any form of pressure or expectation. I think people need to realise too, that every kind of expectation that they have of us, we have that same expectation of ourselves multiplied by more than you could imagine.”

Quah Zheng Wen misses out on qualifying for a spot in the men's 100m backstroke semi-finals at Tokyo Olympics on Jul 25, 2021. (Photo: Kong Chong Yew/SNOC)

The 24-year-old added that it feels “good” when there were expectations on his shoulders.

“We're proud to be here ... to know that we're here to compete, we're here to actually compete with the best and here to do something. And it feels good when people expect you to do something, because they know that you have the capability,” he explained.

“I feel honestly encouraged and empowered that people believe in me, and thus have that expectation to hold myself to that standard, that higher standard that I also hold myself to and believe that I can be and we can be as a team and as a nation.”

READ: 'They are doing their best': President Halimah calls for support for athletes after Schooling Olympic exit

Recalling the words of a former coach, Ting Wen noted how he had said that getting to the top was difficult, but it was staying there that would be even harder.

“And I didn't get it at that time. Because I was just like: ‘What do you mean? I think winning is already hard enough!’ But then after competing for so long and watching others compete also, I understand,” she said.

And success is not linear, Zheng Wen was keen to point out.

“Success and improvement is not a linear process. The faster you get, the better you get, the more of the smaller things you have to pay attention to (in order to) improve. And those improvements get ever smaller each time you get better,” he said.

Quah Zheng Wen and Quah Ting Wen at the Tokyo Olympics. (Photo: Facebook/Quah Ting Wen)


Looking ahead, it’s clear the siblings thrive in the pool and they want to push on.

“I come to competitions and yes, some of them don't go as well as expected but I'm in the arena and the smell of the chlorine, the music, the lights, you watch other athletes, you watch how they swim, how they train ... We are all these crazy people who do really crazy things to our bodies and minds. And we're all sort of the same,” said Ting Wen, who will be competing in the International Swimming League for US-based team DC Trident.

“And it is this amazing feeling of … we all come from different countries, but we are all doing the same thing. And we all understand each other, even though we might not be speaking the same language.”

She added: “I love being in the water. And I like how I feel when I'm in the water and how I feel about myself.

“On top of that, it's also because I want to get better. And I want to push myself physically and mentally.”

As for Zheng Wen, he said he is at a “crossroads” after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley.

“I just know that I can be better, and I enjoy pushing myself. I love racing, nothing's more exciting to me. (I) just want to be better and want to be able to do it while I still can,” he said.

“I definitely want to go again. But … it's prefaced by ‘If I can’. I do want to, but it's also subject to a lot of outside things.”

For one, Zheng Wen will be returning home after spending five years studying in the US.

And there could be the question of National Service, as the 24-year-old was previously granted an extension of his deferment to allow him to train and compete in the Tokyo Olympics.

“That change in itself is already massive,” said Zheng Wen, referring to his return to Singapore.

“Kind of similar to that, I’m at a crossroads of some big life decisions. And yes, I definitely want to keep swimming, I love swimming. And I feel like I have a lot more to give to the sport ... It's a choice that I will have to make.”

Regardless of what happens next, the siblings rest in the assurance of a strong support system of family and friends which keeps them going.

“(There are) a lot of changes coming up … Both at home, personal life, and also by the pool, but I'll take it in my stride,” said Ting Wen.

“I still love the sport a lot. And I still enjoy being around my teammates and my siblings in doing this.”

Added Zheng Wen: “When the going gets tough, I feel I have to do it, they give me that sense of comfort even when they're not there ... I almost owe it to them. If they believe I can do it, truly I can have that belief too. And I can be better.”

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Source: CNA/gs


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