Openly gay Paralympic medalist Theresa Goh was the first female Singaporean swimmer to qualify for the Paralympics, and holds the world records for the SB4 50 meters and 200 meters breaststroke events. She shares her journey as an athlete, advocate and now as an Athlete Ally Pro Ambassador with us below.
Athlete Ally: How did you get involved in competitive swimming, and what do you love about it?
Theresa Goh: I started swimming for leisure at 5 years old because my parents wanted me to be involved in some sort of physical activity. I started competing when I was about 12. A volunteer from the Singapore Disability Sports Council saw me swimming at the public pool, and told my dad that he thought I had a lot of potential. He suggested I join the local swim meet, so I did. I won a couple of medals and started in their training squad. I didn’t grow to love it till much later on. I’m not a naturally competitive person, so it took some time before I loved or even liked swimming competitively. But I really love being in the water, even just floating around. It’s the one place i’m the most free and uninhibited. I love that once I’m in the pool, I can go wherever I want.
What was it like to win a medal at the Paralympics and be on such a global stage?
Winning a medal at the Paralympics was incredible, but also made me feel a little bit torn. I really find it hard to place an athlete’s worth on their medals, because most people won’t pay attention to you unless you have prestigious achievements. It was still amazing and everything I hoped it would be, but ultimately, it’s about more than the medal for me.
Why was it important to you to come out while competing in sports?
It was important for me to come out because I believe in the power of representation. Being in the rather unique situation of being an Asian, queer, disabled female athlete in the public eye holds such responsibility and power. Also, I feel like we should all be able to be completely who we are while pursuing greatness in something we love. We all deserve it.
What was your experience like coming out as the first out athlete in Singapore?
Personally, nothing really changed for me. I was never in the closet. Sometimes, even if we don’t hide who we are, erasure still happens. So, when given the opportunity to broach a topic that is still relatively taboo in Singapore, and to be authentic and visible, I took it. I’m so grateful for those who had the power to make it happen and did.
What do you see as the obstacles to sport being more inclusive to people of all sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and abilities?
I think our largest obstacle is fear of the conversations that we can and should be having. I personally am still working on being a better communicator about LGBTQ issues and how they affect each of us differently. But I think mostly people are still learning and maybe are too occupied with their own lives to be able to care about other things they deem not as important. Apathy is also such a terrible thing I was once guilty of, because there was a time I would rather sit on the fence than take a visible stance on my own, which seemed scary and unknown.
I will say though that I’m currently more hopeful than I’ve ever been, because I know so many people who are working towards a more inclusive and intersectional world.
What is your hope for the future of sport?
Sports and disability sports in particular in Singapore have come a long way thanks to so many individuals, but I would really love to see it get closer to equality in my lifetime. As for sport in general, I hope for it to be braver and to continue growing.
What advice would you give to young LGBTQ athletes who are wondering if they can be who they are and play the sport they love?
I think my advice in general would be do what feels right, and feels best. It would be unfair for me to tell someone to be brave if they face real danger. Seek out your safe spaces where you can, be who you are and play the sport you love. If you’re already safe and loved and supported, do it and go all the way. The impact you’ll create is more than you’ll realize.
Why are you excited to join Athlete Ally as a Pro Ambassador?
I’m always going to be proud to be a part of something that advocates for and pushes for the right to be who you are and to create a much kinder, braver, and loving world to live in.
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