“Swimming is a cruel sport. She demands perfection. Prepare as you will, but a minor slip-up come race day and she is unforgiving. All the hours in the pool and sacrifices count for nothing; your inadequacies laid bare for all to see. Deliver perfection however, and she rewards you handsomely. An immense sense of self-satisfaction unattainable from anywhere else, and of course, that coveted spot at the top of the podium. 530am sessions, frigid water, 10km days, lactate sets.”
– Russell Ong
Sadly, that is true in the world of swimming, which is why it’s hard to find true friends in the pool. In a race, it’s like fighting for survival, you either win the guy beside you, or get kicked out of the national team. Those months of hard work goes down the drain and that’s the crude reality of swimming.
Back in 2009, I was one of the smallest and shortest swimmer in the pack (gotta blame puberty on that one) and I was also a rookie in the National team. It was really intimidating to see all the older guys who are much more experienced in the sport, and they weren’t really friendly towards rookies like us. To be honest, I was kind of bullied back then when I was a rookie as some seniors just felt like they had the authority to command rookies around, which they did, but some of them just went overboard with it, and I was one of the rookies that got it bad. Of course there were caring seniors as well, but I didn’t dare to mix around much as I feared being bullied more.
I remember one of the meets where I first met Russell was in the 2009 Hong Kong open, whereby SSA assigned us as roommates. He was flying in from Australia at that time as he was studying abroad, so he was scheduled to reach a day later. I had the impression that he was an arrogant guy, so I was really dreading his arrival. I was praying that they would reassign me to another roommate before he arrived as I didn’t wanna get bullied by another senior, but sadly I had no luck with that.
Russell was finally at the door, nervous moments for me as I opened the door for him.
“Hi Russ…” I said with a soft, intimidated voice.
“Hey what’s up roomie? Let’s have fun together in this meet.” he said with a confident smile.
I honestly didn’t know how to react at that point of time but I was surprised that I didn’t feel a slight bit of arrogant vibe coming from him and I was shocked. Even though he was friendly, I still kept my guard up as I was still intimated by him.
But soon after settling down I got a little more comfortable with him around and that was when we started to have really deep conversations to get to know each other better as friends, and from that day onward, he became one of my best friends in swimming as we both clicked really well together.
“Roommates in SEA Games?” Russell asked.
“I would love to!” I was really happy that I bonded so well with a senior of the squad.
Russell and I were roommates for every competition we went to ever since that day, which included the 2009 and 2011 SEA Games.
I remembered how he defended me against the seniors back in the 2009 SEA Games. One of the seniors (who shall not be named) lost his own parka wanted to take mine away from me and I was afraid to do anything about it.
“PSJ, where is your parka?” The senior commanded.
“Uh… It’s right there on my bed.” Being a rookie I didn’t wanna cause any trouble.
“Ok it’s mine now.” The senior took my parka and walked away.
As he was walking away…
“Hey, wtf do you think you are doing?” Russell shouted just as the senior was walking away.
“None of your business.”
“Well it’s obviously my business since it concerns my roommate, how about you return PSJ his parka because it belongs to him, not you.”
The senior glared at Russell but Russell glared back at him without even flinching. Seeing that he didn’t have much of a choice, the senior swallowed his pride, dropped my parka back on my bed and walked away.
“Don’t let people bully you that way, there’s a fine line between senior rookie initiation and that’s definitely not part of it. Gotta man up next time and protect what’s yours ok?” Russell told me.
I was really touched that Russell stood up for me though it didn’t concern him at all. I felt a strong sense of friendship at that point of time as nobody ever stood up for me so much in my life, and I appreciated it a lot.
From that day onward, I promised myself that for future SEA Games, I would want to be a senior like Russell, one that guides and protects rookies instead of one that simply abused their power and authority.
In the 2013 SEA Games, Russell told some of us that if he won the Gold medal in the games, he would retire. The day of his event finally arrived, the Men’s 50m Freestyle. He had a solid start which placed him in front of the field. Everyone of us were screaming our hearts out seeing that he had such a big lead from his competitors. Honestly speaking, as the race went by, I had mixed feelings seeing that he was in the lead, because deep down I wanted him to win, but I didn’t want him to retire so early.
So the race ended and guess what? Russell finished 2nd place in the Men’s 50m Freestyle, a mere 0.02 away from 1st place.
Everyone felt that it was such a waste that he missed the Gold medal by just a little bit, but we all started laughing as we knew that it meant that he wouldn’t call for retirement just yet.
“Russ! Does this mean that we’ll be seeing you in the 2015 SEA Games? No more retirement for you! It’s fate for you to win in Singapore bro.” I told Russell and we all started laughing.
After the SEA Games, we would all chant “0.02” to motivate Russell every time he was tired during training. It worked really well as that fired him to really push to his limits during training. All of us had been training our hearts out in hope of qualifying for SEA Games as it was in Singapore and we all had a strong sense of national pride.
It all came down to our nationals, whereby it was the final qualifying meet for SEA Games. All Russell had to do was a personal best time, which would have easily secured him a spot for the Games.
Many of us stood there nervously to watch his race, hoping that he would qualify. However, there was just a minor slip up during his race. He wasn’t feeling good on race day and couldn’t perform at his best, and just like that, he didn’t make the team.
Our hearts sank when we saw the scoreboard. I really couldn’t believe my eyes when the race ended. We had been roommates for all of my SEA Games career and I just could not accept the fact that he did not make the team. But that’s just the nature of swimming – it demands perfection, and it’s brutal.
… & just like that, he called it an end to his swimming career.
On a positive note, Even though he didn’t make the cut for SEA Games, he is still a role model and inspiration to many of us.
To me, a success of a swimmer is not determined by the amount of achievements he/she has, but it’s about the impact you made in the sport. Russell has definitely changed the sport of swimming to many people including me. He has changed my impression of swimmers in the National team and it has made my swimming career a more enjoyable one as I don’t have to always focus about achievements and results. I focus more on enjoying the whole process of the sport, because I know that even if I don’t do well, I’ve still got friends like him to fall back onto, because we’re like family in the pool. That is what swimming should all be about.
A part of me feels missing ever since he retired, but I know that he’ll be back to the pool someday.
He had a really successful swimming career and I wish him all the best for his different career path ahead, I’m sure that he will be just as successful because swimming has toughen him up a lot for the long road ahead. Keep inspiring others!
Thank you for being a great friend, you are already a champion in our hearts.
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