She is a two-time Malaysian Olympian but not many people have heard about what Khoo Cai Lin has gone through in her illustrious swimming career. This is her story.
Since 2003, Cai Lin has been devoting almost all her time and energy to swimming.
There's no denying that relentless dedication is one of the most crucial things to win any modern professional sport nowadays.
Cai Lin knows this herself and has demonstrated her commitment as a national swimmer that is second to none. It's no wonder why she has achieved some amazing feats which include representing Malaysia in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2012 London Olympics.
She is also the national record holder for several swimming events and was crowned the Malaysian Olympian of the Year in 2007.
But her successes came with great sacrifices. She had to put on hold her plans — for 12 long years — to correct her spine.
Recently, Cai Lin revealed that she has been living with scoliosis for some time, ever since she was about 8 or 9 years old. Scoliosis is a medical condition where the spine would abnormally twist and curve to the side.
"I was too young to understand what it was back then, so I never thought much about it or let it affect me. But as I grew older I started to become more self-conscious about my back. Especially when I'm in my swimsuit," the 29-year-old Selangor-born said.
Her spine condition puts her in the most challenging circumstances, but to stay on top of her game, Cai Lin kept pushing her limits
"Over the years of training, I've compensated on one side more than the other because my shoulders are imbalanced due to my scoliosis."
But even with her tenacity and perseverance, Cai Lin revealed that scoliosis has taken a toll on her as she has been dealing with serious issues with her shoulders towards the last five years of career.
"First, one side will get injured because I compensated and because it is injured, I'll use the other side more and the other side too will get injured. So, it was a whole big cycle of trying to fix my shoulders properly and what not," Cai Lin explained.
"The most challenging thing is not being able to lift heavy in the gym because I will get really bad back pain after that. Even simple exercises like squats or deadlift would kill my back. So I usually have a more tailor-made programme just to suit my training, which is also effective for my swimming," she added.
Her medical condition has forced her to deal with not only the physical aspect of it, but also the emotional strain it has put on her
There was this one incident when Cai Lin met a girl for the first time in university and that person passed off a rather blatant and perhaps insensitive remark.
"I can't really remember what speech or talk I was supposed to give or who the audience was, but what made me remember that moment the most was when she came up to me and said, 'Oh ya, my cousin swims too and knows you. Her mum mentioned about you before and that you have scoliosis. That's why you can't swim straight.'
Mind you, this was after I've qualified for two Olympics," Cai Lin recalled.
"I was really stunned at that moment."
"One, I didn't know what to say to such 'honesty'. Two, I needed to concentrate on my speech that I was going to give after that. Three, I've never even heard about her daughter as a swimmer before," she said.
Cai Lin definitely knows what it feels like to be made fun of, but these experiences have only made her a stronger person today.
"Most of the time, people will laugh cause my back isn't straight or in their terms, 'normal'. I used to get really upset about this but over the years I just turn a deaf ear to it."
Cai Lin said that most people have come off as very concerned but there'll always be a handful of ignorant individuals.
But as we all know now, Cai Lin has displayed true grit and went on to become one of the best swimmers in Malaysia. How did she do it?
"I ask myself that sometimes too. Haha. But on a serious note, it is a lot of dedication, motivation, goal setting, sacrifice and discipline. I have had to miss a lot of birthdays or gatherings because I had to go to bed early as I have training the next morning," she said.
For Cai Lin, even when these obstacles are not favourable to her, she took the best out of them and realised that she could achieve anything if she sets her mind to it.
"It makes me stronger because I have my mind set on what I want and even if I have to go through a lot of crap to get to my goal, I will."
Cai Lin has finally decided to go for a surgery this May after much delay
After many of discussions and appointments with different doctors and experts, Cai Lin is opting for surgery to prevent her scoliosis from getting worse.
While she prepares herself for the upcoming operation next month, Cai Lin has started writing about her journey with scoliosis on her blog.
"I'm excited about my operation but also scared and nervous about it. I've got friends that joke about me not having a single scar on my body but my first scar (after my operation) will be a really long scar," she said.
"But I'm also taking this positively and hope that a lot more people will be aware of scoliosis and what they can, should, and shouldn't do about it."
Cai Lin's story is one of many others featured on the Malaysian City Life series on SAYS. Do you have a story or experience to share, or have you seen any we should write about?
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