Out of the SEA Games due to back surgery, Malaysian swimmer back in a different role for her first home Games
Look who’s here at the SEA Games: They were the sporting heroines of their time: Lim Heem Wei, the gymnast who somersaulted onto the Olympic stage; Khoo Cai Lin, the swimmer who held off spine surgery to compete for her country; and Marina Chin, the graceful hurdler who lit up the National Stadium in 1977 with her double-gold feat. Once the poster girls for their sports, the trio are now behind the scenes at this 29th SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, lending a whiff of stardust to the over 9,000-strong pool of volunteers and officials working round the clock to make the Games a success.
KUALA LUMPUR — In the underbelly of Bukit Jalil’s National Aquatic Centre, where South-east Asia’s best and brightest are battling for glory, Khoo Cai Lin is clearly the boss.
One of Malaysia’s most well-known swimmers, Khoo, however, is not ruling the roost in the pool this time.
Amid the hustle and bustle of the pool deck, the swimmer turned Games media manager (aquatics) is deep in discussion with the local volunteers and officials, firing off orders while keeping media reporters, television crew and photographers in check as the action kicks off in the pool.
A veteran of seven SEA Games, Khoo had to forgo the chance to compete in her first Games on home soil after undergoing surgery for her spine in May. The middle and long distance swimmer has suffered from scoliosis – a medical condition where the spine is abnormally twisted or curved – since she was eight, but she had put off surgery for 12 years in order to swim competitively.
Unable to train for five months post-surgery, Khoo, however, was not about to miss out on being a part of the biggest sporting event in her country. Khoo told TODAY that she had just graduated from Taylor’s University and was looking for work in public relations and marketing when the media manager opportunity for aquatics (diving, waterpolo, synchronised swimming, swimming) at the Games came up.
“It’s not every day that Malaysia hosts a SEA Games so this was a great opportunity for me,” she said.
“I always loved the SEA Games and the competition because it’s every two years. It’s so exciting and I get to see all my friends from South-east Asia. Having been a part of the SEA Games for so long, I’m happy to be able to give back in one way or another.”
Like many athletes from the region, the SEA Games holds a special place in Khoo’s heart. But strangely, Khoo’s debut at her first Games in Kuala Lumpur 16 years ago was not in swimming. At the 2001 Games, the 13-year-old performed a synchronised swimming routine in front of a curious crowd as part of a demonstration of the discipline.
The Selangor-born Khoo laughed as she recalled: “I didn’t even know what the SEA Games was at that time! The sport was relatively new at that time so I did the demo then.”
After her first home outing in 2001, Khoo finally made her swimming debut at the 2003 SEA Games in Hanoi, where the 15-year-old found herself in the awe-inspiring company of some of the region’s top swimmers, including Singapore’s golden girl Joscelin Yeo.
“I didn’t know what to expect, I only read about her in the newspapers, but meeting her in person was very different,” said Khoo of her encounter with Yeo, who was 24 by then and a multiple SEA Games gold medallist.
“She was very straightforward and very confident – she had an air about her, that she knows she’s good, and everyone knows she’s good. Being so young then, it was a good experience being able to see some of these swimmers, to see what they did pre and post-race and to learn from them.”
The young swimmer went on to carve out her own career in the sport, winning five gold medals (400m and 800m freestyle), seven silver and five bronze medals at the SEA Games from 2007 to 2015. She also competed at the Olympic Games in 2008 and 2012, and was awarded the Malaysian Olympian of the Year in 2007.
While one would expect Khoo to feel a twinge of regret or longing after watching her regional peers Quah Ting Wen and Thailand’s Natthanan Junkrajang in the pool in Bukit Jalil, She admitted she has been too busy for such thoughts.
She added: “I thought I would feel that (longing), but surprisingly not. Maybe because the past few nights have been crazy. I’ve just been too busy to think about it, and maybe now, I prefer to watch it from the other side.”
While Khoo has not ruled out a return to competitive swimming, she admitted that her days as a national athlete may be over.
Surgery to correct her spine condition – where metal rods were inserted into her back – has affected her flexibility, leaving her with a tough recovery journey. She said: “I know that my flexibility will be cut down a lot, I just don’t know by how much until I try swimming again.
“Swimmers can float on their tummies and do freestyle kicks on the board, but now I have no feel and no balance in the water. It’s like learning to swim again.”
And as the swimmer bids adieu to a career that made her one of her country’s most celebrated swimmers, Khoo said she has no regrets. This despite putting off surgery for her scoliosis, which caused her serious issues with her shoulders, and hampered training as she was unable to lift heavy weights. Her condition – which also meant she could not walk for more than 30min without feeling pain – also saw her enduring insensitive comments from people who ridiculed her curved spine.
She added: “I held off surgery because there were no guarantees that I could come back to swim. But it was worth it (holding off surgery for 12 years), because if I had done the operation earlier and it hadn’t worked out, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.
“I’ve already achieved what I wanted to in swimming. For me, it’s almost as good as done…I’m ready to move on.”