Her Time to Shine
Hoping to make third Olympic appearance, Bruin Nicolette Teo prepares for Southeast Asian Games.
The following is excerpted from the article originally published in The Daily Bruin on Dec. 6, 2007.
[Updated 12/12/07: Representing her native Singapore, UCLA student swimmer Nicolette Teo won three races at the Southeast Asian Games and has qualified for the Olympics in two breaststroke events.]
By Matt Stevens, Daily Bruin
[Nicolette] Teo will begin competition in the 200 breaststroke at her fifth Southeast Asian Games in Thailand as a part of the Singapore national team. If Teo surpasses the FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation, or International Swimming Federation) Olympic “B-time” at these games, she will qualify to compete in her third Olympics this summer in Beijing.
After nearly eight years swimming for her home country, Teo is not only a veteran on the team, she is its most experienced member by far. With this experience under her belt, Teo feels at ease heading into this year’s competition with a quiet confidence and a newly acquired sense of specific goals.
“I’m just at a good place right now,” Teo said. “I feel like, physically, mentally and emotionally, I’m ready. It’s just little things, but I feel like a different person.”
But getting to this “good place” wasn’t easy.
Teo grew up in Singapore with a pool in her backyard. She exemplified a water-baby, always running toward the pool and jumping in, giving her parents a heart attack each time.
Teo’s mother signed her up for swim lessons and, after the instructor told her that Teo looked comfortable in the water, Teo began to swim competitively. When Teo was 7, the Southeast Asian Games were held in Singapore.
Teo watched in awe as Singapore swimming legend Joscelin Yeo racked up gold medal after gold medal.
“As a 7-year-old kid watching TV, you see this girl on the podium with fame and fortune, and I’m like ‘I want to swim too!’” Teo said. “That is what got me started.”
When Teo entered her first Southeast Asian Games at the age of 13, she was the youngest member of the whole contingent. She was prepared to face off against her idol Yeo in the 200 breast, but at the last moment, Yeo withdrew due to shoulder problems. This slotted Teo in the No. 2 spot, but Teo didn’t know or care about the specifics. She simply got in the pool, swam her heart out, and won the race.
Teo’s win brought home the only gold of the day for Singapore and qualified her for her first Olympics.
“It was a really big deal for me to win that,” Teo said. “I think if anything, that was the moment where I was like ‘Hey, I’m kinda good.’”
But it was after this emotional high that things started to get difficult.
Immediately after the Southeast Asian Games, Teo was almost stripped of her gold medal because she tested positive for an inhaler. Upon proving that it was the fault of the new team manager for not officially declaring the use of the inhaler, Teo was cleared of the charge and allowed to keep her medal, yet the experience was still traumatizing.
“It was a really big ordeal for me because I didn’t want people to know and have people think I was trying to do drugs,” Teo said.
During the Olympic year that followed, Teo pulled her groin and her times suffered. The media increased the pressure, dubbing her “the next Joscelin Yeo.”
In another Olympic trial, Teo swam poorly due to her nagging groin [injury]. She had already reached the qualifying time for the Olympics at the Southeast Asian Games the year before, but the Singapore National Swimming Association refused to nominate her for the Olympics because she didn’t eclipse that time at her Olympic trial.
“I actually was really crushed,” Teo said. “I do remember crying and being really upset about it. My mom was telling me, ‘You’re still so young; you have so many years ahead of you.”
Teo responded by writing a letter to the Singapore Sports Council. In the letter, she argued that she swam under the FINA qualifying time and should be allowed to go to the Olympics, even if she had not gotten the time desired.
The president of the council ultimately used his influence to make the Singapore National Swimming Association nominate Teo. The 14-year-old Teo would go to Sydney after all.
“I was definitely overwhelmed when I got to Sydney,” Teo said. “I had had a really hard year in terms of swimming, coming out of that whole drug ordeal, not knowing if I was going to get to go. It was a lot to deal with at that age. I was very excited but very innocent.”
Even then, Teo wasn’t out of the rough. She didn’t swim her best times in Sydney, and more pressure from the press made things difficult four years later in Athens.
Teo wasn’t even sure if she wanted to swim in the 2004 games. She wasn’t having fun, and she was focusing too much on the results rather than the process. When she told a reporter she was going to try to focus on having fun while she swam, the reporter took it in a way Teo had not intended.
The reporter wrote that Teo was just going to the games to “have fun” and was not training hard or taking them seriously. This angered Singapore citizens who felt entitled to medals because their tax dollars were paying to send athletes to the games. The bad press didn’t help Teo’s times in Athens, which turned out to be subpar.
Yet as Teo now prepares to qualify for her third, and perhaps final, summer games, she refuses to let the results and distractions of the past disrupt her focus.
“It’s hard because (Sydney and Athens) were both obviously big meets, but at the same time, it’s not a hiccup for me,” Teo said. “It’s not like if I go to the Olympics I’m going to swim bad again. They were just two separate occasions.”
Now a senior in college, all the pressure, bad press, cheating accusations, untimely injuries and disappointing times have only helped Teo.
As a freshman, Teo got physically sick more than any other member of the team. She constantly felt twinges of homesickness, saying she had trouble dealing with change.
But four years later, Teo has yet to miss a practice this season for health reasons. She will be staying at UCLA to practice over break rather than going home, and she finds that taking a final after returning from a swim meet on the other side of the world is simply routine.
“It’s so different,” Teo said. “I’ve matured not just as a swimmer but as a person. ... Mentally, I’ve learned what it is to have competitive greatness: to perform on demand.
“I’ve just learned a lot about myself.”
Perhaps equally as important, the ever-humble Teo has learned to set specific goals to maximize her potential. All throughout her childhood, Teo’s family, swim coaches and culture taught her to set small goals, to focus on the process rather than the result, and to be humble and thankful through it all. Her mother would ask “What was your goal for practice today?” Gold medals and specific times never came into the picture.
Even when Teo broke the NCAA automatic qualifying time a few weeks ago, she had no idea she had done so until she was told. She had no idea because she never keeps track of times to eclipse.
Which is why setting a very specific goal for her performance in the Olympics is a frightening task for Teo. Now, at the age of 21, seven years after her first run at the summer games, Teo finally has something specific in mind for Beijing.
“I’d like to be able to make a final, a second swim at the Olympics,” Teo said. “It’s scary, but at the same time I know I can do it.”
Published: Tuesday, December 11, 2007