Courtesy: Laura Atkinson
Swimming was never really my choice. I never liked water splashing on my face so swimming was no fun. Every week I used to end up crying at swim lessons. One day, my dad made a deal with me. He told me that when I learnt to swim better than him, I could stop swim lessons. It was not long after that I had become better than him in swimming. By that time; I was smitten with swimming. When I was 9 years old, I decided I wanted to be world champion. My dad and mum made another deal with me – if I was willing to put in the effort; they would give me all their support and backing.
My “little leagues” club (more like littlest leagues – we were just a sort of a small number of swimmers, neighborhood club when compared with the rest of the competition) enrolled me for my first competition not long after I started training to be a swim racer athlete(“Swim racer athlete” – sounds seriously professional). I remember coming out first in that race and thought I had won. I did! – I came out first in that heat. My parents made me feel I was a winner, all the same. Even though it was the second heat of over 40 heats for my age group at that time.
As time went on, my club signed me up for every competition there was, which was not many – only about half dozen meets a year. I was too young at that time to understand that I was getting better in every competition because I was moving up the heats towards the final heats. In 2012, when I was 11 years old; I asked my coach to prepare me for the 2016 Olympics. I would be 15 by then. Ruta Meilutyte was 15 when she won gold in the 100m Breaststroke event at the 2012 Olympics. She became my Olympic star idol. I was also introduced to the idea of becoming a “state” swimmer. My dad used to tell me that the state swimmers will not take notice of me (because I was just a novice) until I come within range of being a real competitive threat to them. Before long, I was competing in the final three heats of each event. And yes, the state swimmers did take notice of me. I became good friends with most of them. In 2014, at the Selangor (one of the 14 states of Malaysia) State Age group competition; I won 3 gold and a few silver (can’t remember the exact number because only gold counted) as a consideration of becoming a state swimmer. My times were faster than most of the state swimmers. I gained “new found” fame in breaststroke.
I trained almost 365 days per year, sometimes twice a day. There were many “distractions” along the way – things that “normal” kids would do – parties, movies, going to the mall and stuff like that. My parents never forced me into showing up for training sessions. When a party came up, especially one that I really wanted to go to; my dad always said it was up to me if I wanted to skip training to go to the party but then, “Is this what you want? You know your goal is to be world champion”. He knows how to sweet-talk me. I sacrificed all this “fun stuff” to focus on my swim goals. It would have been awesome to do all that fun stuff like parties, but I never really regretted sacrificing those events for my swim. I continued to move up the ranks in the girls age groups until I became amongst the top 3 age group breaststroke swimmers in Malaysia for the 50m and 100m events. Many a time, either I or my rival would take the gold. Besides my parents being “dad” and “mom” to me; they were my support team. They drove me to every practice, they were at all my competitions taking leave from work just to attend my competitions, even to the point of travelling inter-state. At the competitions, my mom would video record all my swim races while my dad would (holler) cheer me with “Go, Laura Go!” It came to the point that whenever my name was displayed on the time board, swimmers as well as other spectators and deck officials all knew what to expect – “Go, Laura, go”, my dad would be cheering on top of his voice usually with the program book rolled up to create a megaphone. And many would join in the “cheer song”, too. This cheering became a part of all the swim competitions in Malaysia.
I started applying to universities in the US during the time I was in the middle of my UK based IGCSE year in school. My plan was to participate in college race swimming and major in Entrepreneurship – that was to be the ideal setup. I researched many articles on college sports, especially swimming (of course) from Swimswam and several other reliable sources – as information online was overwhelming. I spoke with many current and past state and national swimmers – tapping on their experiences on “where do I start” in applications and what the expectations were to be. My coach in Malaysia was ever supportive and kept tabs with me in my application progress. He advised me to apply directly to the university swim coaches. My dad and mum were with me every moment of the way, even to the point of staying up late nights, just to keep me company and give morale support.
During my application process, I learnt the complexity of competitive college sport – in NCAA, there are Divisions 1, 2 & 3, then there is NAIA, NCSA; all those abbreviated words or acronyms – I had to learn them fast. I put in applications to many universities. I finally chose Millikin University (Division 3) because it was the perfect fit. I got Entrepreneurship and I got swim racing, too.
My first season in college racing has been nothing short of re-learning the rules, sort of; getting accustomed to yardage length pools and training in short course yard pools. Loads of difference coming from being accustomed to training in mainly 50m pools. It took a bit of getting used to but I adapted quite quickly. I started training with the team at the beginning of the NCAA Division 3 season and got into competition not long after. I am happy with how my first season has turned out.
I think the first season was more a learning curve for me. Training back home in Malaysia was way more intense because of being a state swimmer; competing at state, national and international events. I was used to training throughout the year but in college competition; it is only during September to February season. Off season, generally no one trains. I am getting back into the routine of training daily on my own with land exercises. All the pools are closed due to the unfortunate breakout of the Covid-19 virus. I am training regularly on my own for now (until the college team starts training for the upcoming season) to be competitive enough to represent Selangor when called up. My immediate goal is to represent Millikin by qualifying and competing in the NCAA. I am in the U.S. – the home to where most of the world’s fastest swimmers like Lilly King, Katie Ledecky, Joseph Isaac Schooling and Michael Phelps are/were developed and trained. Most of the top swimmers who compete in the South East Asian (SEA) games are in colleges in the US and thus train with them.
I do not have much of a problem with food and certainly not with language. Even though Bahasa Malaysia is the national language in Malaysia; I have been brought up to speak English as my dad and mum and most of our relatives speak English at home. I am also used to eating most American food like burgers, hotdogs, fries, and others; because it is easily available back home. I do miss the local cuisine like Nasi Lemak (rice that is usually cooked with “pandan” leaves and coconut milk that gives it the nice aroma and sweetish taste) and all the condiments of timun (cucumber), telur rebus (hard boiled egg) and kacang (fried peanuts); Singapore Fried meehoon (noodles); roti canai (flat bread) with fish curry; and the list goes on. I recently cooked up Nasi Lemak, my first time….ever. It turned out simply delicious and amazing. Last weekend, I cooked up “fried kuey teow”. It was divided into four separate portions based on the different levels of spiciness, as Malaysians are well known for their love of very spicy food. This was a success, too. Malaysia is home to an exceptionally wide variety of different food cuisines that we are spoilt for choice, to the point that at times; it becomes difficult to decide on what food to have – a nice problem to have.
My experience in university and college swimming as a freshman has been very exciting. I was interviewed on The Big Blue Podcast by Aric Lee from ESPN Decatur radio last December (2019) – my first of many to come (I hope). Being away from home has taught me to be independent and self-reliant. This has been further amplified by the on-going Covid-19 pandemic which has affected the world over. Thanks to the advent of modern technology; I communicate with my dad & mum almost daily through Whatsapp, Messenger, email and other apps on my phone, computer and other modern-day gizmo technology available to me.
When I move into my new living quarters at the beginning of my sophomore year; I will be adding a new skill to my ever-growing resume – cooking, to get better at what I have already started. I mean I know how to do the basic stuff like preparing ready-to-eat noodles; now, I have to cook – a new first for me. My mum is an awesome cook – I will be getting loads of tips from her. I will have to modify the recipes, sort of and improvise with many of the ingredients that are not readily available in and around Decatur.
I want to encourage aspiring champion swimmers from anywhere the world over, especially those who want to further their dreams and ambitions to be counted amongst world champions or world class swimmers; to make U.S.A. their choice destination for swimming and furthering their tertiary studies. This is the land where the seed of an idea has made billionaires of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Dr Thomas Bose, Elon Musk, an idea has made presidents of people like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; an idea that has created many greats…the list goes on.
When I started on this journey of a new beginning in my life; I envisioned it to be one that would make an everlasting good impact on the lives of people. Steve Jobs said, “We’re here to put a dent in the universe.” Mine has all but just begun.
Laura Atkinson is an 18-year-old Malaysian native who is majoring in entrepreneurship in Millikin University’s class of 2023. She’ll be a sophomore once the 2020-21 season begins.