Hubert Burda Media

Kelvin Yew: Water-borne Passion

The former national swimmer shares the joys of racing down the black line at age 45.

Kelvin Yew heads to the pool or gym four evenings a week after his work day as a senior crude oil trader in an investment bank. The 45-year-old also trains on Saturdays.

Yew represented Singapore in the SEA Games in 1993. His return to the sport began in 2012, when he and a few friends started swimming together once a week to keep fit. Soon, more around their 40s joined them. “When posts of us training together started showing up on Facebook, we got very diverse responses from ‘So cool’ to ‘Siao is it? Make sure you go for your medical check-up’,” he reveals.

In two months, they became serious about competing in the first Singapore Masters initiated by Ang Peng Siong and subsequently took part in the Hong Kong edition. “It was like when we used to travel in our teens for swim meets. Except that we got to bring our families.”

Masters Swimming — age group swimming for adults — has taken off around the world in the last 10 years. Yew likes its key tenet of inclusiveness, where people who learnt to swim a year ago may compete against former Olympians and national swimmers. “The races tend to be time-seeded, so you swim against people close to your standard,” says Yew who also travels to swim for clubs in Australia and Japan (he won gold in both Masters this year), and also enjoys the camaraderie and local food. The breaststroker also holds the distinction of being the oldest competitor at the recent 2016 Fina Swimming World Cup — held at the OCBC Arena at Singapore Sports Hub late last month — and possibly the competition’s world tour.

While his reaction time off the blocks shows that he still has reflexes of an 18-year-old, Yew is realistic that age is not on his side. “Every year that I get to compete at Fina is a bonus,” he says of his second time at this competition.

Swimmers in their mid-teens who meet Yew are respectful but surprised that a former national swimmer, who is likely to be the same age as their parents, has returned to the pool. Him getting back in the swim “sends a signal” to them — and his eight-year-old daughter — that “a lot of activities you do as a child, whether playing the violin or piano, do not necessarily end when you get your grade eight or swim in the SEA Games. You may not be able to perform at the same level, but there is a life beyond that if you choose to make it part of your lifestyle”.

Swimming was once…almost life and death for me. A partial swimming scholarship enabled me to study chemical engineering overseas, where I topped the class as an undergrad.

Being in the water…with goggles strapped on and following the black line is something I’ve seen since I was eight, nine-years-old. A lot of people find it boring, but for me, it’s almost like therapy. When you are behind the desk from nine to five, it’s so nice to jump into the water. It helps me clear the mind.

Someone said…“If your job is so stressful, why do you compete?” To me, competing in the pool is a different kind of stress.

Juggling my time…has to do with time management skills I acquired when training as a kid. When you swim twice a day, it takes five hours out of your day. It enables you to compartmentalise. You’ve got to be disciplined about not overlapping time from one activity to time committed to another. Your threshold for procrastination is lower because you have more of an urgency to do something.

It’s not about winning…it’s about participation. You see pretty amazing swimmers. An old friend, Jeff Julian, an Olympic Trials finalist, was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, despite never having smoked, and was given a few months to live. Not only has he brought his cancer markers down with experimental treatment, he was able to start a job and compete at Masters level. I believe he is where he is because of the character, dedication and discipline built through hours and years in the pool.

Outside the pool, I am passionate about…reading. I grew up being a big Steinbeck fan because I lived in California for eight years. More recently, I read a lot more Orhan Pamuk. Istanbul: Memories and the City is a favourite. I also collect Turkmen carpets and weavings.