Today
October 4, 2008

By NICHOLAS FANG

NO GRUNTS, ONLY GIGGLES

Getting to know this young athlete – away from the swimming pool


SWIMMING is different to a lot of sports, in that most of the action takes place out of sight.

The hundreds of training hours and thousands of monotonous kilometres logged following the black line at the bottom of a pool take place far away from the bright lights and big cheers of the Olympic arena.

When the time comes for competition, most of the churning of water and powering of limbs takes place beneath the surface, leaving spectators to watch in awe as lean, sinewy human sharks slice through the water with speed and grace.

Perhaps as a result of this, most of the swimmers I’ve met over the years, first as a swimmer myself, and then during a stint as a sports journalist, seem to embody this stealthy nature in their characters.

Laconic, reticent, or just plain exhausted after yet another mind-numbing and muscle-wrenching workout, they seem loathe to spend energy on idle chit-chat, preferring to save it for the next training session.

Conversations and interviews are at times torturous affairs, with grunts and nods passing for replies.

But Tao Li is different.

She has been described by friends and journalists as bubbly, funny, cherubic, lively, effervescent, plucky, just plain fun to be around, even on first meetings.

When I met her for the first time some four years ago, that was exactly how she struck me.

I was translating for a colleague of mine at the time who was doing a feature on her after her first successful South-east Asia Games campaign.

He did not speak Chinese and her English was barely passable.

Tao Li was just 15 at the time, but yet was neither shy nor timid when meeting two strangers for the first time.

After a quick introduction, she sat down and started answering questions with sincerity and honesty which my colleague and I both found refreshing for an athlete so young.

She chatted over her favourite iced coffee drink during the hour-longinterview at Holland Village, telling us about her wish to meet Singapore singer Stefanie Sun before gamely posing for photos in the stairway of a walk-up shop house as passers-by gawked and stared.

She would preface every answer with a broad smile or a giggle as if she found the whole process of new-found fame amusing.

I dismissed it as most rookie celebrities experience during their first brush with fame.

But, four years on, with more SEA Games and Asian Games golds under her belt, and Singapore’s first-ever Olympic finals berth to her name, that cherubic charm still shines through.

Her best friend, room-mate and fellow Sports School swimmer Amanda Lim, describes her as “sociable, lively, chubby and cute”.

When asked what she likes most about her buddy, she says it is the fact that it’s hard to be sad or down around her. “She’s always happy, so when we are with her, we’re cheered up, too.”

In the time I’ve known Tao Li, it’s impossible to recall a time when she appeared depressed or sullen.

She has always been accommodating to a fault, refusing to decide on a place to eat or chill out at, insisting that I pick instead.

But the easy-going exterior belies much more beneath the surface.

A CHALLENGING EARLY START

Most people will guess that she is a fierce competitor, willing to endure hours of painful training and focused preparations before unleashing that fire in battle against the best swimmers in the world.

And they would be right. But there’s more.

Tao Li’s competitive edge was honed when she took up swimming at the age of five.

But the monotony of early morning swims and the discipline and focus needed to pursue sports excellence is similar to what many Singaporeans and indeed young athletes around the world have experienced.

What did make her early years more challenging than most was the strict requirements of China’s sporting system, which deemed her too short to qualify for the national squad, despite her once finishing as high as fourth in the China national championships.

After working her way up the provincial sporting totem pole in her native Hubei, she was confronted with the harsh reality that her diminutive frame would never gain her entry into the hallowed ranks of China’s swimming team.

Even now, at age 18 and drawing herself to her full 1.6m, she cuts a petite figure on the pool deck of the world’s biggest swimming meets. America’s eight-gold Olympic wonder Michael Phelps for example, towers over her with his 1.93m frame.

“I heard that even Phelps made some remark about me being short when I was in Beijing, although I never actually heard exactly what he said. That guy, ah,” she frowns uncharacteristically when we met up following her triumphant Olympic outing.

It’s clear that the topic is still a sore spot and I hope she doesn’t remember that I gave her an autobiography of Phelps for her birthday in January.

One can only imagine how bad it must have felt for a pre-teen athlete with dreams of sporting glory to be told that genetics have ruled her out of even a shot at her dream.

When Tao Li first came to Singapore as a 13-year-old in 2002, she had given up on swimming and was just looking to get a decent education and be near her mother, Li Yan, who is working here as a swim coach.

She left behind her father Tao Ran and any dreams of making it big in the swimming world and focused on her studies at Queenstown Primary.

Her father remained in China to continue his career as a swimming coach in Wuhan.

But after testing the local waters, she soon realised that she had the ability to make it big here and perhaps in the region.

As her results garnered her attention and a place in the Singapore Sports School, her success also generated a fair share of naysayers, critics and jealousy.

Of all the rumours, which include talk of doping that have never held any water, the allegations that she is a money-grabbing mercenary in the vein of many of China’s sporting exports seem to irk her the most.

“Look, if I was really here for the money, do you think I would have bothered with studying? I would have just saved myself the trouble and focused on training, which is really hard without having to worry about school work,” she says with a flash of anger and more than a hint of exasperation.

Although she claims to struggle with all her six subjects, especially English, a little-known fact is that the Secondary Three student topped her class in history earlier this year.

When asked what she prefers to do, however, there is no hesitation: “Play.”

Despite having been in Singapore for only five years, she has adopted the recreational habits of typical Singaporeans, watching weekly movies and going to the amusement arcade.

She gets a kick out of horror movies, regardless of language, and while she does not get to the arcade as often as she likes, she still manages to make me look like a fool on her favourite car racing games.

ALREADY HALF-SINGAPOREAN

When I ask if she has fallen for any of her tanned, taut-muscled male team-mates, Tao Li gives out a girlish giggle before sighing.

“My mum won’t let me have a boyfriend. Like any mother, she’s afraid I will have my heart broken, that I will lose focus and become distracted.”

But it’s clear that she has given boys some thought.

“My ideal boyfriend has to like sports so we can share common interests, he has to be funny and smart, but most importantly, he must be good to me,” she declares.

I tell her that this is what most Singaporean girls want, 5 Cs notwithstanding, and she says she already feels half-Singaporean.

“It’s been five years so I definitely feel at home here, my friends are great and the people are nice.”

One thing that still bugs her is the heat, so much so that she had requested for an air-conditioner to be installed in her Sports School room which she shares with Amanda and two bowlers.

This had raised consternation with the school authorities who were concerned about creating jealousy and envy among the other students who were not allowed such a privilege.

“But I find it hard to sleep properly without air-conditioning because I wake up in the middle of the night sweating and need to have a shower. It really helps me recover from training and improves my performance.”

She got her way and I think few would argue that the investment has paid off in spades.

Going by the plaudits, praise and congratulatory messages that flowed in following her fifth placing in Beijing, Singaporeans have definitely taken a shine to our latest swimming star.

And three years on from receiving her citizenship, Tao Li has also embraced life here.

Friends have remarked to me that during interviews where she stands out as one of the few foreign-born Team Singapore athletes to reply in English, albeit haltingly, she sounds quintessentially Singaporean.

I called her up after she made it to the Olympic finals for the 100m butterfly to congratulate her, not just on her groundbreaking feat but also on being able to handle all her interviews in English.

“OK lah,” she said. “I try lah.”

And she is already planning a long-term future here.

“I can see myself staying here and I want to open up a swimming school or something when I am done competing, even if my mother goes back to China.”

Indeed, she says she would prefer studying here instead of at universities abroad in the United States orAustralia.

“I get really good support here, and there’s no guarantee that the conditions will be any better overseas. Besides, everyone prefers to be close to home.”

In a typically Singaporean move, she used some of the over $300,000 she received from the Singapore National Olympic Council as reward for her Asian Games success in 2006 to buy a three-room HDB flat in Toa Payoh.

On weekends when she’s not living at the Sports School, she stays there with her mother and cousin, who is also in Singapore to study.

Bubbly, charming, focused, fast, amazing. To the list of adjectives, I would add “Singaporean” to describe Tao Li.

With her best swimming years ahead of her, and an infectious zest for life that can brighten a room, I think we can all be thankful for that.