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Singapore swimmer Quah Zheng Wen misses out on 4th Olympics, rules out retirement

These days, Quah Zheng Wen no longer flies into a rage as he did as a precocious teenager, but every setback still rankles with the national swimmer.

The 27-year-old emerged from the OCBC Aquatic Centre pool on June 14 with a stoic expression, even though he had touched the wall first and broken the Singapore National Swimming Championships’ men’s 100m butterfly meet record.

His winning time of 52.10sec was not good enough for the Paris Olympics, as he needed to meet the qualifying mark of 51.67. With the event the last qualifier for the Games, the swimmer, who was gunning for a fourth outing after London 2012, Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020, had missed the boat.

But being the fierce competitor that he is, Quah – who won his first SEA Games gold at 15 – wants to end his career on his own terms and go out on a high.

He told The Straits Times: “I definitely did my best and I never stopped trying... Unfortunately, this year, it’s not enough. I shoulder 100 per cent of the responsibility for my performances and whatever the outcome is, it is on me.

“I’m very disappointed and I feel like I dropped the ball with not being able to swim at the Olympics with my sisters (Ting Wen and Jing Wen), who qualified on that historic 4x100m medley relay.

“I would have really loved to go to Paris and compete at the Olympics with them.”

Quah was 15 when he won the men’s 400m individual medley at the 2011 SEA Games in Palembang, Indonesia. Touted as Singapore swimming’s next big star, he went on to claim 32 golds, 13 silvers and five bronzes to become the nation’s most bemedalled male athlete at the biennial meet.

At Rio 2016, he became the Republic’s first male swimmer to qualify for an Olympic semi-final and eventually placed 15th and 10th in the 100m and 200m butterfly races respectively. However, he could not build on that in Tokyo five years later.

While he admitted in a previous interview that he “sees the end approaching”, reflecting on his career with his loved ones helped him realise that he is not done yet.

He recalled how his mother kept a certificate from the 2015 SEA Games, where he swam in a whopping 12 events and won medals in all. He added: “Coming off from that and I’m here now, I feel like this can’t be where I’m at right?”

Then, there was the reminder from his girlfriend that he still gets “enraged” when he does not swim well.

He said: “Listening to her say that made me realise I do still care and I do still chase excellence. I’m trying to set an example for the next generation of swimmers and if I’m not p*****... what are they going to think? That mediocracy is fine?

“I want kids to know that it’s okay to be disappointed, but it’s what you do with that disappointment and how you move on from that that makes you a better athlete.”

This is why he has decided to continue with an intense regimen that sees him clock up to six hours of wet and dryland training a day, nine sessions over six days weekly.

A pensive Quah, who gave up a place in the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore to study and train at the University of California, Berkeley in 2017, shared that he had found it hard to uproot from the strong support system he had in the United States during the pandemic.

He graduated in 2021 and enlisted for national service in October that year, after a six-year deferment for him to train for the Olympics.

He said: “The last few years since 2020 have been a blur. Taking away my friends and people who shared the same goals as me and supported me, and not being sure whether I can be an athlete performing to the best of my ability... these things combined made it extra difficult and did a number on my mental state.

“There was a lot to digest and go through, and I feel like I could have done certain things better, and that’s on me.”

There were silver linings, and he has clocked personal bests in the 50m butterfly and 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle over the last two years.

While he did not commit to competing in the World Aquatics Championships or the SEA Games in 2025, Quah said: “I do want to continue swimming. I feel like I have more to give in the sport and it would feel slightly lacklustre to me if I were to just finish off now. I want to go out with a bang.”


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