“Almost Famous” is a new feature interview series on Mothership.sg. Here, we bring you in-depth stories of people who could be more famous, with a new interview released every fortnight.
Three-time Paralympic gold medallist Yip Pin Xiu sits on a wheelchair today, just as she has for the past 11 years, about half her 24-year-old life.
It wasn’t always like this, though. She was born just like any able-bodied baby — perfectly fit and healthy.
And she was perfectly healthy and able-bodied, until things changed for her as a three-year-old toddler.
“It started when my aunt realised I had a foot drop when I was walking. So you know, like able-bodied people, they walk with their foot controlled but mine was just like, flopping on the ground,” Yip explains quite matter-of-factly in a recent sit-down with Mothership.sg.
Her mother then brought her to a doctor. And another, and another, and so many others that she lost count.
By the time she turned four, Yip needed to wear leg braces, although she was still able to “fit in with all the other kids”. A year later, her hands started getting a bit “clawed”, and she couldn’t straighten her fingers.
And finally, five-year-old Yip was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT), a disease that is usually genetically-inherited but in rare cases caused by a spontaneous genetic mutation.
It involves the gradual deterioration of a person’s muscles, chiefly affecting his or her limbs and hands.
“A lot of doctors couldn’t diagnose the condition because I think muscular dystrophy is pretty rare to happen to someone at such a young age, and it’s also quite rare in girls,” she added.
Yip, the fish
It was also at that age that she started swimming, simply because she wanted to try, when she saw her two older brothers, Alvin and Augustus, in the pool.
Thankfully for her, her first swimming instructor had experience working with people with disabilities, and took her on.
Yip took to the pool like a fish to water. Swimming turned out to be instrumental in strengthening her muscles, and keeping them working for as long as possible — it wasn’t long before she realised she was really, really good at it.
She started swimming competitively at age 12, under the coaching of none other than Singapore’s legendary flying fish Ang Peng Siong. She swept all the gold medals on offer in nearly every event she took part in — and when she turned 13, she could no longer balance standing on her legs and started using a wheelchair.
She wasn’t at all depressed about the change, though. In relating her journey with CMT to us, she says with a laugh, “I was happy sitting on a wheelchair because it was really tiring having to walk around already!”
She’s got 99 problems and muscle atrophy ain’t one
Truth be told, her optimism and accepting, almost nonchalant attitude toward her condition is intriguing and would otherwise seem difficult to believe, if not for her sheer genuineness in how she behaved around us.
Take, for instance, the fact that she has trouble remembering milestones of physical ability in tracking her condition — we’d go as far as to say she doesn’t bother about how things have changed for her over the years, or that they have, for that matter.
“I don’t notice it unless I look back four years ago to see what I could or could not do, then I will think about it. But when I do, it’s just a passing thought, wondering like, ‘oh I used to be able to do this last time why can’t I do it now?’ Something like that… but it’s ok, I’m still pretty strong, it’s not too bad.”
This, even though her doctors initially told her her dystrophy should stabilise by the time she turned 21 — unfortunately, three years later, it doesn’t seem to be showing signs of stopping despite her best efforts at slowing it down through all the weightlifting and training she continues to do.
“I don’t think that it’s terrible having to live with muscular dystrophy, it’s just I think a lot of things in life (are) about your mindset. And as long as… you don’t pity yourself, you don’t start crying, ‘why I can’t do this?’ — yeah, there are actually a lot of things that can be done.”
Her sincerity extends to all the other topics we touched on with her — from singing one of her favourite songs (Adele’s “Someone Like You”) to choosing a superpower, Yip readily reveals her personality to us through her indecisiveness, her thrill at sitting in first class on Singapore Airlines for the first time and more:
Q: What’s something you haven’t told other media before?
A: I sleep a lot. An embarrassing amount. When I’m training, I sleep 10 hours at night just so I’m able to feel recovered again the next day. Eight hours will do, but I just won’t feel 100 per cent when I go for training. And I think it applies to all athletes but a lot haven’t figured it out for themselves.
When I’m in training camps… morning training starts a bit later, so I’m able to sleep from 11pm all the way till the next morning. 9am? That’s around 10 hours. I sleep all the way through. My mom used to say I sleep too much, but after figuring out this helps my performance I was like ‘yay I’m still going to do it!’ Shhh don’t tell my mother hahahaha.
Q: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
A: Teleportation, because I like being punctual and I don’t know, travelling is a waste of time. Or maybe walking through walls. No no no. Being invisible, having Harry Potter’s magic cloak. I can go around and listen to people without them knowing.
Or maybe the ability to fly then I’ll feel very free. The ability to heal people is pretty cool.
Q: (so… which power?)
A: Depends on what I’m needed for. Actually now in this world, maybe to heal people. With Zika going on and everything, sounds a bit scary.
Q: And if you could heal anyone, who would you heal first?
If I could heal anyone then anybody, even the first person I’d see. I don’t know man.
Q: (how about… yourself?)
A: Oh yeah! Okay, I guess I would… maybe. I’m quite happy now, but if everybody is healed and nobody has a disability, then okay, sure! I’ll heal myself too; but for now I’m quite happy being who I am.
Q: What brand would you pick to sponsor you?
(We had to narrow this down to food, after she mentioned that Speedo sponsors her as a sports brand. After some mmming and ahhhing…)
A: Yoshinoya; so I can still eat it when I start training!
Q: What’s your idea of an inclusive society?
A: I guess the dream would be an inclusive society where any minority — regardless of disability, race, religion — everybody’s accepted, and there’s no discrimination; we can all live in harmony and everybody gets the opportunities that are given to everybody.
Q: What would you do with a million dollars?
A: Wah… Um… I don’t know! I would give some to my parents, and charity. And then, save an amount to buy treats (okay that sounds like dogs, hahahaha) for all my friends for everybody who has supported me all along.
I don’t know what to do with the rest man. Pay for my education, if I still want to study more. I don’t know!
Q: (Which charity would you donate to?)
I feel like I would pick a charity that is animal-related. Cat welfare, dog welfare, anything. Even like wildlife reserve kind, you know? I know my friends went to Thailand for a month and were helping elephants and everything in Thailand, but I know they don’t have the money or funding so they have to bring staff from Singapore. That (donating to places like acres) would be quite meaningful.
Q: Who is someone you look up to?
A: I think when I first started out, uncle (Ang) Peng Siong, who was my then-coach, was somebody I really looked up to. Then along the way also Michelle Kwan (American figure skater)… Theresa (Goh), of course — if I don’t say that she will kill me; kidding, hahahaha.
But I think especially Theresa when I first started out. When I first started out, everybody was saying I would be her successor and everything, and nobody expected us to fight alongside, not against each other, but for Singapore.
So she’s five years older than me and has been through one (more) Paralympic cycle, so she knows how it feels being there; she knows what, the amount of discipline needed. And I’m really grateful I have her in my life, because that was also how it kind of instilled the kind of discipline (I needed) for training.
Q: Tom or Nila?
A: How can you make me choose?! Tom is really cute and it’s special because Tom has golden, silver and bronze hair. But Nila is the cutest!
Nila la. Ugh dunno. Tom. But Nila really very cute. how can anybody not? I like Tom because Tom has meaning but it’s not like Nila doesn’t have meaning you know… Nila’s like APG (ASEAN Para Games) and everything, and it’s so cute, so huggable.
Tom… okay, at first when I went there I didn’t really like him… he’s like a tree of all the Brazilian plants added together. After seeing him a couple of days, though, he began to get cuter and cuter.
Q: (And you have two Toms now, right?)
A: Yeah I gave one to my nephew, my three-month-old nephew, so I have one left.
Q: (… does he know what it means?)
A: He will know. I put it in his face every day. “This is Tom! Gugu gave you this Tom!”
For now… uhhh Nila’s so cute! Okay Tom. No, Nila.
Okay Nila is love at first sight. Tom is after awhile then you love.
Q: What’s your greatest non-sporting achievement?
A: If it’s non-sporting and something really silly, right, I can fit my fist in my mouth. I’m not gonna show you, hahahahaha.
Q: If you were not a swimmer, what would you be instead?
A: I feel that I would be an athlete of another kind. Before I started sports, I wasn’t really motivated to excel in my studies or anything. And I feel like I’m really driven when it comes to sports, and only after Beijing (2008, when she won her historic first Paralympic gold medal) then I decided, ‘okay, maybe I’ll use this amount of motivation that I had to study.’
So I think I just love sports, and if I were not a swimmer I think I would still be something in sports. Or maybe a food connoisseur, food taster, yeah.
Q: (which cuisine?)
A: Japanese. For now.
We also got Yip to tell us what’s on her phone:
As well as play a game of 20 questions:
After our hour together, she took photos with us as well as a poster on the sports hall of fame outside the room we did the interview in, and wheeled all the way outside and waited with us until our transport back to the office arrived.
That’s the girl Yip is: the unabashedly indecisive, good-natured, super-hardworking and humble athlete who takes the time to shake hands with passers-by who stop to congratulate her, and who sees no issue with anyone who continues to parrot the negative narrative that her achievement is in any way lesser than her Olympic counterpart Joseph Schooling.
We already met Yip that day as fans, but we came away from our meeting with her as friends.
Read more Almost Famous interviews:
Top photo by Goh Wei Choon