Malaysia Boleh!: Swimming With An Olympian
Flashing a wide smile, Khoo Cai Lin introduced herself to me. The 27-year-old’s genuine bubbliness melted my nervousness away. No one could blame me for my initial anxiety – it was a natural reaction. I rarely ever get the chance to interview professional athletes, let alone a two-time Olympian. Now, there was one talking to me. We hurriedly exchanged pleasantries and it became apparent very quickly to me that Cai Lin was the classic girl next door. Even with a string of lofty sporting achievements to her name, she had kept her feet firmly on the ground.
‘I didn’t like swimming’, she admitted frankly and openly, her smile catching the light of the intense mid-day sun. Truth be told, that was not the first thing I expected to hear from a national swimmer. ‘It was only because my sister had really bad asthma when she was about three years old. Our family doctor suggested that she start swimming to get over her condition, so our mom made sure we got into the pool’.
‘It really felt forced in the beginning. Then, when I was around 11 years old, I started winning competitions. That really picked up when I was in my Standard 6 and Form 1. I kept on winning interclub meets and also the Majlis Sukan Sekolah Selangor (MSSS) events. When I was in Form 2, I received an offer letter to join the national team, and I’ve been with the team entering my 14th year now’.
Cai Lin’s achievements
200m, 400m and 800m freestyle
Olympic Games participation:
Olympian of the Year (2007) by The Olympic Council of Malaysia
Selangor Sportswoman (2007, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2013)
Grinding out a result
Cai Lin’s main aim in 2016 was to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympics, but it wasn’t meant to be. ‘Unfortunately I didn’t make it. So I’m probably going to take some time off for the rest of the year. I’ll rest and work progressively towards getting my body back in shape, and keep that momentum going until the KL SEA Games next year’, she explained. Her words rang with a generous amount of optimism. It was clear that she wasn’t going to let this setback dampen her spirits.
She added that not making the cut to Rio has actually given her some time off from an otherwise hectic schedule. ‘From now until the team returns from Rio, I have the chance to wake up later, which is usually between 8am to 9am, and have breakfast with my mom. Depending on what day it is, I also get to indulge in some of my new hobbies, including muay thai and rock-climbing. Although this is my downtime, I picked physical hobbies so I have the opportunity to keep my fitness levels high throughout. So I make sure I’m doing some form of training from Monday to Saturday. Sunday is rest day, I shut down completely’.
Cai Lin explained that even the downtime took some getting used to. Among other things, her newfound hobbies are forcing her to remain physically active until after 6pm, which is her usual cut-off point for training. ‘I’m not used to exercising after 7pm,’ she elaborated. ‘The other day I went for indoor cycling and it started at 8.15pm. I actually felt sleepy during the class! It’s been fun trying out new things, but I can’t do most of these things when I’m back in my training routine. It depletes my energy and in some cases these extra activities can lead to injuries’.
Standing on the podium
It wasn’t long before I got to asking Cai Lin about her Olympic experiences. Ever indulging, and always willing to share, she proceeded to paint me a picture of what’s it like to perform at the pinnacle of sporting events.
‘There were a lot of nerves! Beijing 2008 was my first Olympics, so you can imagine the wonder. It didn’t really set in until I got around to actually paying attention to the scale of the Beijing National Aquatics Center, what many people call the Water Cube. It took my breath away. It was the biggest stadium I’ve ever seen in my career. Then there’s the section for the media. It was a part of the stadium closed off to everyone else but the reporters and photographers. But because it was the Olympics, just the media personnel alone outnumbered the crowds you would see at games back home, such as the Malaysian Open. It all felt like it was on a different level completely!’ she divulged, genuinely excited to relive those priceless moments for me.
Upon listening to more of what she had to say, it was clear to me that Cai Lin seems to be able to tap into a seemingly bottomless reservoir of positivity. Even her omission from the Malaysian contingent to Rio didn’t seem to faze her. She credits this to the people around her. ‘From day one, I’ve been blessed with excellent teammates, supportive classmates and a loving family who has stood by me’.
The big game plan
Judging by what she revealed to me thus far, I could safely assume that Cai Lin already has her game plan for next year sorted out. When the Malaysian contingent returns from Rio end of this month, she will reunite with her coach and teammates and set that plan into action.
‘When the team is back from the Olympics, we will start planning what the rest of the year leading up to the SEA Games will be like. Part of our training will include identifying the peak periods, the rest periods, and which competitions should we take part in to qualify for the SEA Games. Although KL is the host nation next year, qualification is not guaranteed to all Malaysian athletes. Taking part in the right events will help us qualify, but we also need to take part in certain competitions to gain the exposure. It’s a trial and error thing to see what’s best for you. You need to get used to the different factors of competing both locally and internationally’.
This girl next door has her eyes set on the world, and is sparing no time to claim her spot under the big lights.