From a Hopeless and Awkward Gymnast to a SEA Games Gold Medalist

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By Carol Low 

30 years ago, I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed teenager who represented the country in major international rhythmic gymnastics competitions around the world.

[Newspaper article on the National Sportsgirl Award]
[Newspaper article on the National Sportsgirl Award]

It was a journey I never expected to be on, given how I started in the sport. But, once I got on board, there was no turning back no matter how difficult the path was.

You see, at the very basic level of the sport, a gymnast needs to show both grace and flexibility in her movements.

When I started out, it was clear to anyone who watched me that I had neither. You could easily spot me from a mile away as the most awkward and stiff one amongst the other girls, many of whom are naturally graceful and flexible.

Why then, did I even join the school gymnastics club? This is how it all began.

Growing up, I was a painfully shy and introverted kid. 

I was good at being inconspicuous by staying in the background and keeping quiet. I was a skinny and petite kid, and I thought this accorded me some form of invisibility.

Ironically, it was my skinny build that caught the attention of the school’s Gym Club coach. She saw that as a very good reason for me to join her club.

[Me hugging coach during 1993 SEA Games]
[Me hugging coach during 1993 SEA Games]

I tried avoiding her whenever I saw her heading in my direction, and when I couldn’t, I would politely decline joining her club whenever she asked.

After much persuasion by her over some time, I finally gave in.

Truth be told, I dreaded staying back for practises after school. I really hated it, simply because I knew I was hopelessly terrible at it.

Many a time, I hid behind the stage in the hall just so that I could skip my turn. Each time I had to get in line with the other girls and do the moves we were taught, I wished my turn would end quickly and I could go back into hiding.

Months passed and soon a selection was coming up to pick the best girls to represent the school at the annual competition.

By then, we had learned a few routines and the selection process was based on these routines. In my category, only 6 girls would make the cut for the school team.

During the time leading up to the selection, I continued to hide behind the stage every now and then to skip my turns.

It was one of those hiding moments that changed my life forever. 

When I was in hiding one day, I overheard a conversation that the coach was having with a fellow gymnast’s mother.

They were talking about the potential girls that would get selected. Names were mentioned and when I heard my name, I held my breath.

The mother was asking the coach if I would make the cut and the coach answered in a one-liner that I would never forget.

She simply said, “She will never make it to the team.”

As much as I knew that I sucked at the sport, it still hurt very much to hear the truth being admitted by the coach to someone else.

In that moment, I froze in anger.

In my mind, I was thinking, “How could you say that? You were the one who wanted me to join, and now you say this about me?”

I don’t know how long I continued to stay hidden in the back of the stage that day. The only thing I remember is that on that very day, I made a resolution.

“I’m going to prove you wrong!”

From that day, I no longer hid behind the stage. 

I was determined to show the coach that I can make it to the team. It was going to be hard work, but I knew it would be worth it.

So, I began to spend more time practising the routines on my own.

I watched and observed the girls who were at the top of their game. I worked through the pain of stretching myself to the maximum that I can go — just to be more flexible.

It was a lot of sweat and tears behind the scenes.

In Winnipeg, Canada for 1-month training stint with coach and national team mates Faiznur, Swee Kim, Farrah Hani.
[In Winnipeg, Canada for 1-month training stint with coach and national team mates Faiznur, Swee Kim, Farrah Hani.]

I never again missed my turn to practise the routines in front of the coach. I had to stand being corrected on my moves.

While waiting for my next turn, I would practise at the side, mirroring the girl who was having her turn with the coach.

I took my corrections seriously no matter how small they were, and worked on them laboriously to get it perfected or close to perfect in the eyes of the coach.

Weeks passed and the selection came.

I made the team. 

The satisfaction was immense. I had proved her wrong.

I quietly gave myself a pat on my back. Then, I realised it was just the beginning.

Now that I got selected to represent the school, I couldn’t take this lightly anymore, and I had to give my best shot at it.

In that first competition of my life, I was just 10 years old. We won as a team and I was pleasantly surprised that I too managed to clinch a few individual medals.

[Me (in high socks) standing beside coach (in dress) and mom with the junior and senior team mates. This was taken in our school, Convent Bukit Nanas, after we won at my first ever competition.]

From the results of that competition, I was then selected along with my teammates to the state level competition, representing our Federal Territory.

A couple of years down the road, I made it to the national team to represent Malaysia at international competitions.

At the height of my gymnastics career, our team bagged one of the SEA Games gold medals for the country and in 1992, I was awarded the national sports girl of the year.

 [Our team winning the gold at 1991 SEA Games in Manila] 
[Our team winning the gold at 1991 SEA Games in Manila]

Here’s what I learnt.

In hindsight, what the coach said about me never being able to make the team was the best thing she had done for me.

Without that, I would never have deserted my hiding spot. For that, I’m deeply grateful.

This turn of events in my life is something I could never have envisioned possible. Back then all I did was to take one step at a time, without knowing what else was coming next.

The focus was always in the immediate outcome that I wanted. And that led to the next thing, one after another.

I have never shared this story publicly. This is the first time. I hope that this sharing will inspire and give hope to those who can relate.

When there’s a will, there will be a way. It only requires determination to work through things one step at a time, never losing sight of what your goals are.

And when your hard work takes you beyond your dreams and beyond what you ever thought you are capable of, revel in the wonderful sense of fulfilment that warms your heart and soul.

[The writer.]
* My gratitude and heartfelt thanks to all my coaches for giving the very best of yourselves to us and the sport. It wasn’t an easy job, pushing us to go beyond our limits, being hard on us to be kind, for supporting and believing in us even when we didn’t believe in ourselves.

For more stories like this, read: A Mother’s Love – How My Great Grandmother Sailed The Seas From China To Malaysia To Give Her Daughter A Better Life and I Was 30K in Debt And Became A Street Beggar — Now I own 5 Massage Parlours

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