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After smashing SEA Games records, swimmer Teong Tzen Wei wants to 'stay the path'

After smashing SEA Games records, swimmer Teong Tzen Wei wants to 'stay the path'

Teong Tzen Wei reacts during the men's 50m freestyle victory ceremony at the 31st SEA Games. (Photo: SportSG/Andy Chua)

HANOI: Teong Tzen Wei swims like a force of nature but speaks with the wisdom of a philosopher.

Throughout our 25-minute conversation, Teong discusses mental barriers, stressors and the psychology of sport.

He's 24.

This is an athlete cognisant of the fact that as much as his battle is won in the pool, it is one that has been also fought outside it.

On Thursday, Teong became the first Southeast Asian swimmer to go under 22 seconds for the first time when he smashed the SEA Games 50m freestyle record

Based on swimming governing body FINA's rankings, Teong's time of 21.93 is the second fastest recorded by an Asian swimmer this year.

But ask him a day later on whether the achievement has sunk in and Teong’s answer is simple.

He’s moved on.

“I’ve kind of moved on already. We are going to a training camp now and then off to the World Championships. So can't really think too much about the past,” he told CNA before flying with some members of the Singapore swim team to a training camp in Croatia.

“Bad races, good races. Honestly, you just learn from it and then you try to get better.”

Based on previously published qualifying standards for the 2024 Olympic Games, Teong’s timing is under the mark needed to qualify for Paris 2024.

However, FINA later clarified that these standards were not confirmed and will be updated in due course. The Olympic qualification window is slated to open next year.

“It’s a good showing of the training (I've been doing). So I need to just stay the path,” added Teong.

A PSYCHOLOGICAL BATTLE

As a child, Teong would dream of making it to the Olympics. But somewhere along the way, that dream dimmed.

“As you grow older, with ... school and Singapore culture, the dream gets a bit harder and further away. So it left my mind for a very long time. It just became too far out of reach,” he explained.

While serving National Service, Teong had the opportunity to continue with training where possible.

But things changed when he won his first SEA Games gold in 2017. In his debut Games, Teong would clock a time of 22.55 in the 50m freestyle.

Teong Tzen Wei celebrates winning the men's 50m butterfly. (Photo: SportSG/Andy Chua)

“It just reminded me that … I had some ability to just give it a shot,” he explained. “Many people try, not many people succeed, so why not give it a shot and see where this road takes me?”

But while he was the underdog at the 2017 Games, the win meant that that was no longer the case. “I started to make goals for myself, trying to take things to the next level,” Teong said.

But in so doing he was compounding the pressure on himself.

At the following year's Asian Games, Teong recalls how he would set alarm at the same time every morning. This small action was aimed at reminding him of his goal to win gold.

But eventually, just before his race, Teong would cramp up from the stress of it all.

“When I raced my finals in the 50m freestyle in the Asian Games, I was so nervous my legs were cramping even before I jumped into the pool,” he said. “That was purely psychological.”

Teong would finish fifth in the event.

It took him about three to four years of struggle - reading books, speaking to close friends, honing his mental skills - to learn how to master nerves and swim composed races.

“When a stressor keeps coming at you. You have two options - you can either try to cut it out, most people try to cut it out by distracting themselves. Which is not actually solving the actual problem,” he said.

“You have to learn how to handle it instead of distracting yourself.”

Teong realized that routine he used to keep, which included habits such as staying out late, eating unhealthy food were “distractors” as he coped with stress of swimming, competitions and expectations.

And if he were to break away from this routine, he would have to kick these bad habits.

“If you continue the same routine, you get the same results. It's simple as that. If you want everyone like different results. You have to change your routine,” he said.

And this change has reaped results. At this edition of the Games, Teong set two meet records and won two golds

And while these hog the headlines, people don’t know how much work goes on behind the scenes to get there, said Teong.

“I really think if people understood how much work and effort and planning and everything that goes into 21 seconds, they would be like: ‘This guy is insane, this guy is crazy!'” he said.

“I prefer it if people were to see the work behind it. But that’s just not how it is. All they see is … the result.”

THE HARD WORK AND THE RESULTS

Doing well brings with it pressure. But now, Teong has grown better at handling it.

“Honestly, last time I think it would have put a lot expectations on me,” he noted.

“Now (I feel) I'm just another dude. In 100 years, nobody's gonna give a shit you know? I’m just passing through time, I'm just doing my own thing."

While Teong’s goal was at first to get to the Olympics, his new philosophy now mirrors the one which one of his coaches, Gustavo Schirru, has. Not just be satisfied with qualifying for the Olympics but to compete with the best there.

Teong's goal in each race has always been to execute the swim the way he wants to, and that has not changed.

“My goals are always just to swim the race how I want to do so - in terms of maintaining my composure before races, just executing what has been discussed with my coaches,” he said.

“There is always ups and downs … It’s easier to just focus on the processes instead. If the times comes, it comes. If it doesn’t come, then it is just another learning lesson for you to move on.”

And just because one gets the processes right, that in itself does not guarantee results, he added.

“Sometimes you can get the processes all right and the results still don’t come. That just teaches you that life isn't fair," he said. "But when things just align … (it is) a bit of magic.”

And if Teong stays the course as he intends to, we could see more magic in the years to come.

Source: CNA/mt(rw)

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