I look at her in disbelief, refusing to accept that she doesn’t know her backstroke from her butterfly. “Joseph was really a water baby from the get-go. He had no fear. He would jump into the sea, pools and river; you couldn’t stop him,” she remembers. “So for me, it was like ‘I can’t swim, who’s going to save him? I have to make sure he’s water safe’, and that’s how I made sure he learnt how to swim.”
It’s a curious thing to hear that the woman who was so instrumental in the development of the athlete who would bring home Singapore’s first-ever Olympic gold in 2016, in swimming no less, could barely tread water. “Well, I won’t drown but the most I can do is a doggy paddle,” she admits. “His father [Colin] is the swimmer in this family.”
May is refreshingly open and cheerful about so many aspects of her family. She reveals that she grew up poor, and even after she married Colin in 1983, she feared she would never become a mother. Joseph is her miracle baby, in a way.
When asked if this was the reason she indulged him in his youth, she ponders this awhile before answering. “Initially, I simply humoured him when he told me his dream of going to the Olympics. I never pushed him. I’m not a tiger mum,” she stresses.
“Since young, he’s always wanted to go compete professionally; first it was ‘I want a medal’, then of course after that, ‘I want a gold medal’, so he really just pushes himself. We simply lent him our support.”
That support did not come cheap. May and Colin didn’t just devote hours to running Joseph around, they even mortgaged their home to pay for his training. It’s estimated they have spent over $1 million of their own money paying for their son’s athletic training and education.
This saving streak was instilled in May since her youth, when new clothes were a luxury that was only bestowed upon her family during Chinese New Year. “I learnt not to put so much emphasis on material things, so I didn’t feel like Joseph’s expenses took such a toll on us as a family because we don’t spend much anyway,” she says.
Time is much more precious to may, and she gets very serious when she talks about sending Jospeh away to train. “At first, when he said he wanted to go to The Bolles School in the US to train, I said no. He was only 14 at the time. But he told me ‘Mum, if I want to go to the Olympics, you have to let me go’,” she recalls.
“It was a big sacrifice for us, and it was tough. The first few years were tough; the first year especially. I cried all the time. He did too. He was 14 years old when he left, and not only was he homesick all the time, he also wasn’t used to having to be so independent.”
When he did it in 2016, May and Colin – and the whole of Singapore watched in delight. “I couldn’t believe it. I was watching in the stands and I remember thinking to myself, ‘He’s done it! He’s done it!’ I didn’t even realise there was a three-way tie for second place. In that moment, I didn’t care about anyone but my son,” she says.
How did she do it then? Steering her boy to gold? “Oh, Joseph put in the hard work to get to where he is, not me,” she insists.
“Sometimes, people ask me ‘What’s your secret to raising an Olympic champion?’ and I always say, there is no secret formula. I just brought him up as a happy, normal boy who enjoyed whatever he enjoyed, and I allowed him to enjoy it.”
Not content with this answer, I jostle her for more until she finally relents. Her response is surprisingly simple.
“We played. I found simple ways to play every sport with Joseph, and it fostered healthy competitiveness,” she says, before adding, “He hates to lose more than he loves to win. That’s what makes a champion.”
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