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Swimming: One who thrives on a heavy challenge

The Straits Times by LIM SAY HENG

In the six months since Roanne Ho retained her 50m breaststroke title at the Kuala Lumpur SEA Games last year, the 25-year-old has gained 4kg in weight.

"My skinfold (test results, which measure body fat) went down, but my weight went up, so it has to be muscle," said the 1.79m sprinter, who now tips the scales at 75kg.

Under the watchful eyes of National Training Centre (NTC) head coach Gary Tan and his team of coaches, Ho and the NTC squad swam harder and lifted more weights in the gym, with Tan estimating that the gym work was "three times the intensity" compared to the same period last year.

The hard training has paid off so far for the Queensland University of Technology marketing graduate, who clocked national records in the 50m and 100m breast at the short-course Singapore National Swimming Championships in December.

Ho was also 0.03 second off her personal best of 1min 11.36sec in the 100m breast at the January time trials, before making a breakthrough with a 1:10.83 time at the Singapore National Age-Group Swimming Championships (Snag) this month.

She also clocked 31.32sec in the 50m breast at Snag, just off her national record and 2017 SEA Games winning time of 31.29sec.

The times were achieved without the benefits of rest and tapering, where training loads are reduced for the body to recover ahead of a major meet.

"I just have more strength for each stroke; I don't really feel it, but I just see it in my times," she mused.

The affable swimmer hopes the work she has done will allow her to go under 31 seconds and make the final in her pet 50m event at the April 4-15 Commonwealth Games, which will feature world-class swimming nations such as Australia, England and South Africa.

If she achieves that, she would be the first South-east Asian to break the 31-second barrier, and it would move her one step closer to a medal at the Asian Games, which Indonesia will host from Aug 18-Sept 2.

To put things in perspective, among Asian female swimmers, Ho's SEA Games-winning time is behind only Japan's Satomi Suzuki (30.82sec) and China's Suo Ran (31.14sec) in the last year.

Ho said: "I am definitely aiming for a medal (at the Asiad) but, in a 50m race, anything can happen."

Other than her timing goals, Ho is hoping to gain experience in handling herself among a world-class field of swimmers in her maiden outing to the Commonwealth Games, which will stand her in good stead for the Asiad later this year.

Tan believes that Ho has improved physically and mentally since she returned to training in 2013 after her graduation. She did not train for three years when she was studying in Australia.

Tan said: "She is especially focused this year and the Commonwealth Games is only part of the picture this year, and a good stepping stone for what lies ahead.

"She had her difficulties, and the only reasons she was able to push through were her persistence, and understanding what it takes to succeed."

Indeed, Ho revealed that she seriously considered hanging up her goggles for good at least four times in the last three years.

First, when former national coach Sergio Lopez gave her and the rest of the NTC swimmers a tough set to end off a session in early 2015. But she soldiered on as she wanted to win the 50m breast gold at the SEA Games at home that year.

She then seriously contemplated retirement after achieving that goal, only for Lopez to persuade her to stay on for the Fina World Championships in August that year, which she qualified for.

The sprinter then tried qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics, only to be thwarted by surgery for a life-threatening collapsed right lung in January. This was followed by a tear in her right shoulder five months later, which also required surgery.

"I think there's something wrong with me," she said, laughing.

"Whenever I get knocked down, I would go, 'I can be better than I was before'. Half of my national records were done when I was sick, so my team-mates joke that (not being 100 per cent) must be the trick."

Jokes aside, Ho took the tough path down recovery, rehabilitation and insecurity over whether she would fulfil her full potential because she wanted to inspire others.

"If I see someone else with the same story, going through what I went through and managed to come out on top of it, that's quite inspiring," mused Ho, who owns three senior long-and short-course national records.

"If I could inspire just one person, it would be worth it."