Toh, a Singaporean freestyle and butterfly swimmer, is setting his sights on medaling at the 2024 Paris Summer Paralympic Games.

Singapore National Paralympic Council

The 2024 Paris Games offer Singaporean para-athlete Toh Wei Soong a second chance.

After narrowly missing out on the podium at the 2020 Tokyo Games, Toh is hoping to medal when he competes in the Paralympic Games this summer.

Diagnosed with transverse myelitis at a young age, the inflammation in Toh’s spinal cord affected his lower nervous system and restricted the use of his legs. Toh started swimming regularly for physiotherapy, but it quickly became much more than that.

“Despite my condition, I realized that not only did I enjoy swimming, but I was good at it,” he told CNBC Make It. “It was a source of pride and identity, especially during my teenage years when I represented my school in national competitions.”

As Toh dedicated himself to the sport, he set his sights on the international para stage.

But pursuing those dreams meant Toh spent up to 24 hours a week in rigorous training, which often meant skipping social outings or holidays.

“Water is not a natural environment for us … it’s something we have to learn how to do and naturally the technique doesn’t come to us,” he said. “To maintain that technique takes a lot of effort.”

Overcoming lows

Toh said one of the biggest challenges was juggling his international baccalaureate studies while trying to qualify for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

“When I didn’t meet the standard [to qualify for the Paralympics], I felt very, very burnt out, very jaded with putting so much effort and seeing both catch fire,” he said.

But Toh acknowledged these experiences taught him how to live with disappointment and helped him grow as a person.

“I think it’s commonly said that you have to push past those low moments. You have to not give up to be able to find your success,” he said.

Despite his hardships, Toh explained that the disappointment allowed him to grow as a person and athlete.

Calvin Teoh | Singapore National Paralympic Council

Toh also called out the disparity in media coverage and societal recognition between disabled athletes and their able-bodied peers.

“I think reality speaks for itself. If they wanted to put a full media team behind major parasports games, they would send them. But more often than not, they do not,” he said. “And I think this is a disservice to the athletes who train and the caregivers who put so much effort in.”

He said the underrepresentation is “disheartening and confusing” as they can net just as many medals as able-bodied athletes.

“Many of us train just as hard as able-bodied athletes, undergoing stressors like chronic medical conditions and difficulties in sponsorships and specialized equipment,” he said.

But Toh also said his disability has granted him a unique perspective.

“My disability has made me unique in my way of seeing the world,” he said. “It makes me more sensitive to other ways of seeing the world and for the things that people take for granted.”

Toh, who is setting his sights on Paris 2024, believes that medaling would be a “stepping stone” to his long-term dream of living life fully.

Calvin Teoh | Singapore National Paralympic Council

Toh explained that it’s overall an experience that he is proud to have and is grateful for despite the struggles, given his support network.

“It makes me a more compassionate human being,” he said. “I don’t think it makes me a better human being, but it gives me another side of life.”

Future aspirations

Having already seen success on the international stage at the Asian Para Games and the Commonwealth Games, Toh is targeting a medal on the Paralympic stage under the S7 class.

Speed is not the only metric for determining final rankings. Instead, medals are awarded to athletes with the highest multi-class point scores and times closest to their classification’s world record.

Toh said his goals and accomplishments, however, “are stepping stones in this longer dream I want to create.”

“I want to be living intensely, passionately and getting as much out of life,” he said.

“There are always ways to get it done. And the moment you stop thinking that’s possible is when it becomes impossible,” he said.

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