A swim champ, thanks to buddy
AS AN autistic eight-year-old back in 2003, Tan Siew Leong could hardly bathe and brush his teeth on his own, and was scared of going into the water.
"He didn't even dare to put his head underwater," said his mother, Ng Poh Kim.
Today, the 19-year-old is a bemedalled swimmer who has been making a splash in the pool, bagging several golds at Special Olympics competitions in Singapore and China.
He has also become more independent, said Ms Ng, taking public transport to school by himself and even helping to do household chores like washing the dishes.
The change in Mr Tan is thanks to his swimming "buddy", who trained him under the Special Olympics' Unified Sports programme, which pairs up athletes with intellectual disabilities and their able-bodied counterparts to train together.
The Special Olympics promotes social inclusion of individuals with intellectual disabilities through training and competition in a variety of sports, including football and basketball.
Over the past 11 years, Mr Tan has been taking weekly lessons in swimming at Delta Swimming Complex and UWC South East Asia (Dover). His partner for the past two years, 18-year-old Rick Kim, coaches him.
The Korean expatriate, who heard about the Unified Sports programme from a friend, joined two years ago and has become more understanding towards the intellectually disabled.
The coaching stint has been meaningful and fulfilling, said Mr Kim, who has lived in Singapore since 2011.
"Working with Siew Leong is more pleasant than being with my friends," said Mr Kim, adding that the intellectually disabled athletes are honest and "don't hide their feelings".
Mr Kim's mother, Yoon Eun Jung , 48, has also seen an improvement in her son's character through his participation in Unified Sports. "He used to be shy, but he is now confident and strong. Some of his friends are actually envious of his change because he's now more bold and humorous," she said.
Currently, Special Olympics Singapore has 1,200 athletes and 100 partners. It offers nine Unified Sports and worked with the Singapore Athletic Association earlier this year to hold a 100m race specially for 16 Special Olympics athletes at the 2014 National Schools Track & Field Championship.
Special Olympics Singapore is in discussions with the Education Ministry's Co-Curricular Activities Branch to let Special Olympics athletes compete alongside able-bodied school athletes, said general manager Rachel Yang. Backing the move were Procter & Gamble and FairPrice, which re-affirmed their support for Special Olympics Unified Sports for the third consecutive year on Friday.
For Mr Tan, it is more his love for the sport, rather than the glory it can bring, that is keeping him in the pool.
"Swimming makes me happy," he said.