Swimmer Roanne Ho won at SEA Games even after surgery for collapsed lung, shoulder tear.
In a bare conference room, surrounded by silence, she sits, this tall, striking, talented woman, and weeps into her hands. Weeps for a friend who didn’t get a medal at the SEA Games. Weeps at her own bruising journey. Weeps because the vibrant athletic life can turn into a long, lonely struggle where your lung collapses and shoulder tears, and all you dreamed of and woke up for starts to drift out of reach.
On her bad days through the last 20 months, Roanne Ho, 24, the 50m breaststroke champion from the 2015 SEA Games, won’t go to practice “because I couldn’t deal with it” and sits at home and mopes.
On her low days, she contemplates quitting and tells head coach Gary Tan and high performance manager Sonya Porter in December last year that “maybe I don’t want to do it any more. I don’t even know if I want to try for the (2017) SEA Games”.
On her hard days, she reaches for her Bible and reads, looking for calm and clarity even as so many voices ricochet through her brain. Why is this happening to me? Say if I don’t get back to where I was? Am I fast enough? Yes, she will be. But it will take almost everything she has.
Roanne Ho is courage dressed in an easy smile and has a story understood only if we fold back the calendar to January last year when she can’t breathe properly, Googles her symptoms, is scared she has lung cancer and is a bit relieved it’s a collapsed lung. Fine, she thinks: “Surgery on Wednesday. Back in the pool on Monday.” She has no idea that a nightmare is about to unfold.
The doctor tells her no swimming for six weeks and tears come. Tears because she’s going to miss the Rio Olympics qualifying. Tears that will turn into a river and she’ll look back after 20 months and say: “I’m surprised I had so many tears. I’m surprised I haven’t cried myself dry.”
Ho, like most athletes, can’t count. The doctor says six weeks but she’s in the water in a month. How do you tell athletes committed to speed to be patient? How do you convince insecure, restless overachievers to take it easy? So she practises her kicking in the diving pool, careful not to bust her stitches, moving like Superman flies, with a single extended arm.
Sport is unforgiving because it demands months of laps swum and weights lifted and pull-ups done to find 0.25 of a second in speed, and then injury comes and that progress starts to fade. “You lose your strength,” she says, “you lose your fitness, and most importantly your feel for water… When you’re out for about six weeks, it’s like you’re learning how to swim all over again.”
By end-April she’s repairing her form except one day she’s on a pulley machine and over-extends and hears a “click” in her shoulder. A few days later, she can’t raise her arm but she’s an athlete, member of a stubborn tribe, so she shrugs, swallows painkillers, pushes on. But the pain keeps returning and so does this sound every time she rotates her shoulder during a stroke.
Click. Click. Click. Forty strokes per easy lap. Two hundred laps. It’s too many clicks to ignore.
By now it’s late May and she does two MRIs and the doctor has to review them, and it’s this waiting she says that eats into her, this uncertainty, this sitting anxiously at home like a trapped bird and awaiting her sentence even as everyone else is pushing in the pool.
The doctor finds a tear and she has a choice: Rest the shoulder for six months. Or cut it open and be back in three months. It’s June 2016, the SEA Games trials are in March 2017, she can’t afford six months off, so surgery it is. This is the athlete’s life, not measured by caution but by competitive calendars.
Post surgery she can’t even help her mother hang up clothes and sits at home like a reined-in racehorse. Athletes fear being left behind and so just six weeks later, she’s back kicking in the water. She wants to push but she has to back off, for it hurts. She has two good weeks and then the shoulder flares up. It’s frustrating and exhausting, for athletes crave momentum and all she’s got is questions: Should she quit? Will she be as good as she was?
We never see all this. We see only the toned athlete on TV, never the hesitant one in practice who pushes past pain, who leans on coaches and family, whose persistence is rarely documented. They cry but push. They hurt but labour. They doubt but strive. This is their beauty.
In all the endless internal dialogues she has with herself, eventually the best part of Ho wins. “I felt like giving up, yet I didn’t want to give up and look weak.” To retire after two operations is fine, but she refuses to be that person. “I didn’t want to use that as an excuse because we’re supposed to be tough.”
She qualifies for the SEA Games in March with a swollen shoulder and by August, in Kuala Lumpur, she is “70 per cent sure” she will win. Yet she’s tense, emotional, crying softly in her hotel room on the day of her final because she doesn’t want to wake her sleeping roommate. It’s pressure, hope, apprehension, fear. Not fear of rivals, but a poignant, irrational fear that many athletes have about disappointing their families. Families who drive them, feed them, live with their moods. Families they want to win for.
In the ready room before the 50m, she thinks: “Thirty-one seconds and it’s all over. I can do whatever I want after this.” Then she’s in the water.
Am I fast enough, she once wondered. Now she is. Fast enough to beat doubt and lick anxiety and retain her 50m SEA Games title despite a slow start and a half-stroke finish. Fast enough to qualify for the Commonwealth Games and send a message to her rivals which says, “if after two operations I can do this, imagine what I can do if I keep training”. Despite the bad days, low days, hard days of the past 20 months, when it matters this young woman has her best day.
She touches the wall, she turns around, she sees the “1” by her name on the digital scoreboard.
“Yesssss, thank you God.”
And then for the first time in a long time Roanne Ho will not cry.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 03, 2017, with the headline ‘As quick as ever despite two operations’.